Readings

Readings: Marc Sageman on Stagnation in Terrorism Research

By Kenneth Anderson
Sunday, September 28, 2014, 10:17 PM

Marc Sageman probably needs no introduction to most Lawfare readers. Author of two of the past decade's most influential books on the conceptualization of transnational terrorists and terrorist groups, Understanding Terrorist Networks (2004) and Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (2008), he has been a leading participant--both inside and outside of government--in efforts to understand the etiologies of terrorism and terrorists.  His brief biography (from the Foreign Policy Research Institute website where he is a senior fellow):

Sageman obtained an M.D. and a Ph.D. in sociology from New York University. After a tour as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Navy, he joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1984. He spent a year on the Afghan Task Force then went to Islamabad from 1987 to 1989, where he ran the U.S. unilateral programs with the Afghan Mujahedin, and New Delhi from 1989–91. In 1991, he resigned from the agency to return to medicine. Since 1994, he has been in the private practice of forensic and clinical psychiatry.  As an expert on Al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations, he has consulted with various branches of the U.S. government and has lectured at many [US] universities ... He has also consulted with foreign government (France, Australia, Spain, Canada, Germany, and Britain) and lectured extensively at foreign universities.

Sageman is also a long-time member of the editorial board of the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence,  and TPV's current issue leads off with a new essay by him, "The Stagnation in Terrorism Research."  (Vol. 26, Issue 4, Sep-Oct 2014; open access, online and pdf versions.)  It's provocative, even polemical, and it's accompanied by responses from five leading terrorism experts, all of whom express themselves vigorously, in plain, non-jargon-ridden language (and unfortunately not open access). The respondents are: Max Taylor (Penn State), Alex P. Schmid (Terrorism Research Initiative, Austria), David H. Schanzer (Duke University), Clark McCauley (Bryn Mawr) and Sophia Moskalenko (U Maryland), and Friend-of-Lawfare Jessica Stern (Harvard).  Additionally, an open access podcast interview with Sageman by TPV editor Max Taylor is available at the journal home page, in which Taylor raises some of the respondents' objections to Sageman's essay (there's also a helpful pdf transcript).

Sageman's essay is well worth reading (even without the benefit of his respondents; and for that matter, I have a number of points of difference). He raises timely questions about our understanding, or rather mostly non-understanding, of how and why individuals take up political violence, terrorism, and jihad--more exactly, he raises timely questions about the methodologies by which we study, research, and prioritize those questions.  The article was written before the public breakout of The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq this past summer, but if anything those events have made the methodological and framing questions about terrorists, terrorism, and etiology rather more pressing than less. Abstract below the fold.

Abstract: Despite over a decade of government funding and thousands of newcomers to the field of terrorist research, we are no closer to answering the simple question of “What leads a person to turn to political violence?” The state of stagnation with respect to this issue is partly due to the government strategy of funding research without sharing the necessary primary source information with academia, which has created an unbridgeable gap between academia and the intelligence community. This has led to an explosion of speculations with little empirical grounding in academia, which has the methodological skills but lacks data for a major breakthrough. Most of the advances in the field have come from historical archival research and analysis of a few field interviews. Nor has the intelligence community been able to achieve any breakthrough because of the structure and dynamic of this community and its lack of methodological rigor. This prevents creative analysis of terrorism protected from political concerns. The solution to this stagnation is to make non-sensitive data available to academia and to structure more effective discourse between the academic and intelligence communities in order to benefit from the complementary strengths in these two communities.

(TPV, let me add, has long ranked among the two or three leading specialist scholarly journals on terrorism (full disclosure, I've been an editorial board member since TPV's founding in the 1980s). Highly regarded--although it's unfortunate TPV doesn't seem to have the public policy impact I think it might have, hidden away behind the Taylor & Francis (Routledge) paywall, where many journalists, government staff, and other policy players without institutional or academic subscriptions can't easily obtain its content.)

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