A Very Short List of Influential Terrorism Readings (or ‘What I did last summer…’)

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by John Horgan

Little wonder summer seems like a distant memory. I spent June and July chained to my desk for 4 hours (almost) every morning between 7 and 11am. My goal? Finish the heavily revised second edition of my Psychology of Terrorism. One of many lessons I learned from that painful experience is that providing “updates” to a book can be a crushingly dull exercise and in some cases (mine) that process should give way to entire re-writes.

We’ll see in March if that strategy pays off – the “Radicalization” chapter was nothing if not an adventure.

Anyway, I’m taking a break today from re-writing the final chapter of that book to simultaneously mark the start of a series of blog posts from me for CTSS.

In case you are interested, we are a new center at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and we officially launched about two weeks ago. Amid the important work, we are pushing out a lot of fun stuff too. Stay tuned.

For now, I wanted to belatedly (only 4 months!) respond to a Tweet by @zivjeli after I said I had a stack of some 90+ PDFs of terrorism-related articles and reports to sift through back in the early days of summer. She asked me if I’d post a list of them, so here is a kind of response.

In one way or another, I drew on about 60-70% of that material in updating the book (amid ongoing research projects that have benefited from that process), but I’ve found myself returning to several pieces in particular, from which I’ve learned a lot.

These should not be considered a ‘top’ or ‘best of…’ (though I’ll admit two top ten lists are on the way) – these all just made an impression on me and my thinking about the area.

Some are new, some not so new, and others I’ve revisited from a long time ago but dug out to help navigate the current landscape.

Inevitably, some of the journal articles listed are ‘gated’ – i.e. you’ll need a journal subscription (or at least your institution will) to access them. Unsurprisingly, a list of only open-access pieces would look different.

In no particular order…

1. Bartlett, J. and Miller, C. (2012). ‘The Edge of Violence: Towards Telling the Difference Between Violent and Non-Violent Radicalization.’ Terrorism and Political Violence, 24 (1) 1-21.

A serious attempt both to conceptually figure out “radicalization” in its own right as well as to understand its relationship with terrorism.

2. Hegghammer, T. (2012). ‘The recruiter’s dilemma: Signalling and rebel recruitment tactics’. Journal of Peace Research, 50 (1) 3-16.

Hegghammer reminds us of our tendency to study the recruits, not the recruiters. He explains why we should turn to the latter to enhance our understanding the process of involvement.

3. Leistedt, S.J. (2013). ‘Behavioural Aspects of Terrorism’. Forensic Science International, 228, 21-27.

New to terrorism research? Drowning in the sea of journal articles, books, book chapters, reports? Then look no further. A terrific starting point, especially if rigor and systematic thinking is your thing (hint: it should be).

4. Randy Borum, Robert Fein, Bryan Vossekuil, Michael Gelles, and Scott Shumate (2004). “The Role of Operational Research in Counterterrorism” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. 
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/randy_borum/8

This deserves a little elaboration. If anything has informed the ‘vision’ of many of my recent research projects (if not broader initiatives, both at Penn State and now at UMass Lowell), it’s probably best captured by some of the sentiments expressed in this thought-provoking paper. I read it when it came out in 2004, revisited it in July through a very different mindset and will likely return to it in the future yet again. As research ‘translation’ becomes the long-overdue new normal for anyone who works in this area, this article captures the essence of its importance. And it’s freely available via the link above so no excuses.

5. Thomas Hegghammer. (2013). ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting.’ American Political Science Review, February, 1-15.

A second entry from Hegghammer and I can safely assume this will have been a very widely read piece. Important for many reasons, including a convincing argument for abandoning the term “homegrown terrorism’. However, this paper is far more significant than that. Hegghammer explores what is commonly accepted in studies of terrorists – they are not all alike – but goes far beyond that in asserting the significance of how and why we should differentiate terrorists. My interest in this piece comes from the perspective of a psychologist interested in understanding how terrorist behavior develops. This is not ‘profiling’ revisited. On the contrary, the arguments Hegghammer makes about the need to differentiate both motivation and behavior goes far beyond that. The folk psychology that characterizes a big chunk of thinking about terrorist motivation would do well to anchor itself in better starting points. Hegghammer provides one, and undoubtedly, many more will follow from this.

6. George Orwell (1938; 2010) Homage to Catalonia (Benediction Classics, Oxford).

The first of about a dozen great books I read this year, revisited in light of heightened concerns about the foreign fighter influx into Syria. You can easily find Orwell’s entire text online these days. If you don’t know what this is – it’s Orwell’s autobiographical account of what happened to him as a ‘foreign fighter’ during the Spanish civil war. I first read this, accidentally, as a student in the 1990s, but it has never been more relevant. Read in conjunction with (5) above.

7. Ziad Munson. (2008). The Making of Pro-Life Activists: How Social Mobilization Works (University of Chicago Press).

You probably won’t find this on terrorism courses or syllabi yet it is one of the most important books on the nature of mobilization, activism and radicalism. As a terrorism researcher, in exploring the nature of the relationship between radicalization and violent extremism, this book will help you no end. Completely coincidentally, my 2013 book ‘Divided We Stand’ explores several of the same themes not just addressed in Munson’s book as a whole, but especially in Munson’s chapter 6 “United We Stand?” (!).

8. Porter, L.E. and Kebbell, M.R. (2011). ‘Radicalization in Australia: Examining Australia’s Convicted Terrorists.’ Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 18(2), 212-231.

The title is self-explanatory and you’d be unwise to allow it to serve as a factor in your reading list inclusion/exclusion criteria – everyone who studies terrorist behavior should read this. Their results are important and interesting, but read it through till the very end. Only towards the very end of this piece do the authors introduce how individuals in their sample use “neutralization” techniques to legitimize their activities. Despite its profound importance for understanding terrorist psychology, the work of Sykes and Matza from the 1950s rarely creeps into the literature – Porter and Kebbell rectify this and whether intentional or not, open up an entire range of research questions. In search of a PhD topic? Read this article and think about it.

9. Critcher, C. R., & Ferguson, M. J. (2013, June 24). The Cost of Keeping It Hidden: Decomposing Concealment Reveals What Makes It Depleting. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0033468

One of many non-terrorism focused pieces that, upon reading, sets in motion many connections. Put bluntly – if you want to get creative in your thinking about terrorism – you need to read far more broadly. I was sent this piece by a fellow psychologist and have for the past 3 months explored accounts of involvement in terrorism that touch on similar issues. A fascinating article of immense relevance to exploring the (hypothesized) psychological cost of involvement in terrorism and its implications.

Having started my own adventures in terrorism research back in 1995, I’ve seen this field of study mature beyond my hopes. The worst aspects of the ‘terrorism industry’ still thrive, but I’m not talking about that here.

The work presented above is scholarship of the highest order. Not all of it would be easily found via a narrower lens of terrorism studies, but those that do (the majority) are hardly a testament to a field in supposed stagnation.

There are many additional works that have recently emerged and herein lies the limitation of any attempt to provide a list. This is far more an exercise in recalling pieces that have recently influenced and expanded my thinking about terrorism – nothing more.

What articles, books or reports have expanded your thinking about terrorism?

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