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Conclusion from 3,442 terrorism studies: the research is improving

Academic research on terrorism is getting better all the time. This is the conclusion of university lecturer Bart Schuurman after studying 3,442 articles. He published his study in Terrorism and Political Violence.

It was becoming an obsession, admits terrorism researcher Bart Schuurman. In the past two and a half years he studied 3,442 academic publications on terrorism. In a Microsoft Access database, he carefully noted down how authors obtained their information, whether they worked alone or in groups, and how often they published on terrorism. He was helped by interns and student assistants, but also invested many hours of his own time in the project. Schuurman: ‘I analysed the data in the train, on the weekend, any moment I had.’

More primary sources

The results are impressive. In his article Schuurman analyses all articles on terrorism published between 2007 and 2016 in the nine most important academic journals in the field of terrorism studies. His conclusion: over the past decade terrorism studies has grown into a full-fledged academic research field. These days, terrorism researchers deliver much more precise work than ten years ago.

‘I analysed the data in the train, on the weekend, any moment I had’

Schuurman noticed for instance that over time researchers used more and more primary sources. Whereas in the early days researchers would get their information almost exclusively from the media or other academic sources, a growing portion of the information now comes directly from the source. Think of interviews with radicalised terrorists, access to police files, participating observation in Salafist organisations, or conversations with intelligence services staff.

Interviews with ex-detainees

‘This usually leads to more detailed and reliable information,’ says Schuurman. ‘Secondary sources such as newspaper articles are often very short and difficult to verify. A journalist may have consulted primary sources, but has to interpret them before using them. This distorts the original information. That’s why it’s dangerous to base your research too much, or worse still, completely, on these kinds of sources. You have to get closer to the terrorist.’

'It’s dangerous to only base yourself on secondary sources.’

A good example is the research by Leiden researcher Daan Weggemans on recidivism and integration among Jihadist ex-prisoners, says Schuurman. ‘He didn’t just base it on literature, but also interviewed security professionals and ex-prisoners. This creates a more reliable perspective.’

Room for improvement

This good news does not mean that there’s no room for improvement. For example, Schuurman discovered that only two out of 3,500 articles on the psychology of terrorists were based on psychological research. ‘This is not really surprising. It’s hard to interview terrorists, let alone subject them to psychological testing. But it’s still worrisome. How seriously can you take the results of studies on the terrorist psyche if they’re not based on first-hand information?’

‘You need committed researchers, not one-day wonders’ '

Schuurman also noticed that many terrorism researchers focus on qualitative research, often write only one article on terrorism, and conduct their research alone. The last two points in particular have a negative impact on the quality of the research, says Schuurman. ‘You need researchers who are prepared to commit to the topic, not one-day wonders. This is the only way to produce ground-breaking research that will help the field move forward.’

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