Terrorism studies research has been termed by its own practitioners as ‘weak’ (Silke 2003, p.11), ‘subject to fads’ (Silke 2003, p.59) and ‘with no focus on the construction and systematic testing of empirically based theory’ (Weinberg & Eubank 2008, p.185). A possible although not exhaustive explanation for this is Sinai’s observation that terrorism is a phenomenon that is not bounded by one academic discipline, and has not been studied in a systematic manner using an interdisciplinary approach (Sinai 2006, p.).
A persistent criticism of terrorism research is that it is based on a ‘terrorism industry’ (Weinberg & Eubank 2008, p.188). This term refers to a system of scholars and researchers linked to government funded programs or institutes who work primarily on behalf of governments and their affiliated agencies or what Ranstrop refers to as the ‘invisible colleges of terrorism researchers’ (Ranstrop 2006, p.6; Reid & Chen 2006, pp.43-44). While this is not necessarily negative, many, if not, most scholars also receive some funding directly or indirectly through governmental agencies or sources. Terrorism studies is left open to the accusation that it is being investigated for the benefits of governments and their agents as opposed to being a subject of legitimate enquiry; what Ranstop describes as a ‘closed circular research system’ (Ranstrop 2006).
The observation that the field has an ‘invisible college’ of researchers is not unique to terrorism studies. The social movement theory domain in sociology has a number of dominant figures; Tarrow, McAdam, Tilly, and Snow. Anthropology is also similar with key figures like Malinowski or Levi-Strauss making paradigm defining contributions. Later researchers built on this, through agreement and disagreement, refining the research fields’ paradigm and pushing against the established order as much as remaining within it.
A linked issue is the criticism that terrorism is studied from a ‘problem solving perspective’ (Weinberg & Eubank 2008, p.188), the approach of academics being to investigate terrorism in order to find solutions. While this is not necessarily problematic; research, particularly social research, is often used in an applied manner to suggest solutions to issues identified as problematic or undesirable, in criminology and criminologists produce significant amounts of research that is of benefit to governments in addressing crime. However, when a discipline is not investing as much, if not, more time in resolving issues of concept and theory around which to build a coherent paradigm for ‘problem solving research’, the criticism is indeed merited.
This ‘closed circle’ and the ‘problem solving’ methodology explain in part why terrorism studies is driven by fads and fashion created by the last incidents. An example being the rise in studies of home-grown terrorists and the drive to understand radicalisation processes in order to stop or disrupt the pathways of individuals into terrorist activity.
An example from the ‘foreign fighter’ literature can been seen in the reporting via press sources citing classified CIA reporting of Iraq-based ‘foreign fighters’ as a potential terrorist problem were they to leave Iraq (Washington Post, 14 January 2005, Seattle Times, 05 July 2005). This reporting lead to a number of academic studies into the potential problem of returnees from Iraq or ‘bleedout’ as the CIA termed it (Tonnessen 2008; Hafez 2009). The worst fears of the CIA report have in fact not manifested. If the definition and understanding developed by Hegghammer is examined, it would be understood that, in fact, the majority of ‘foreign fighters’ are unlikely to involve themselves in international terrorist activity (Hegghammer 2010).
A third issue in the practice of research in relation to terrorism, is the criticism that it is a-historical and that few historical studies have been carried out (Duyvesteyn 2006). This objection is that the discipline is not grounded in an understanding of the context from which terrorist campaigns and terrorist activity arise and sustain themselves. An example is the ‘new terrorism’ discourse which posited a new terrorism driven by religion as an ideology, non-negotiable agendas, and an embrace of deadly violence that ran counter to much of the received wisdom based on studies drawing on events in the 1960s through to the late 1980s (Copeland 2001; Crenshaw 2007; Spencer 2006; Tucker 2001). The criticism while valid in relation to the advocates of a ‘new terrorism’, did not necessarily apply to all scholars at work in the field. Rapoport looked at and developed a historical lens to analyse terrorist events and actors, using what he termed, ‘waves of terrorism’. (Rapoport 1984, 2001, 2002)
The emerging foreign fighter literature has attempted to address the issue of a-historicity, Malet’s thesis being in part a historical review of both the term ‘foreign fighter’ and their presence across history (Malet 2009). Hegghammer addresses the Islamist ‘foreign fighter’ using historical context to situate and understand the phenomenon. Moore & Tumelty examined the presence of ‘foreign fighters’ in Chechnya across time to determine both the level and type of involvement in the Chechen conflict (Hegghammer 2010b; Moore & Tumelty 2008).
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Duyvesteyn, I. (2007). The Role of History and Continuity in Terrorism Research. In Ranstrop, M. (Ed). Mapping terrorism research: state of the art, gaps, and future directions. London: Routledge. (p. 51).
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