What is it like to research terrorism in a post-9/11 world?


21 Mar 2018916 Views

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Dr Orla Lynch, head of criminology at UCC. Image: Stephen Stack

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Dr Orla Lynch, head of criminology at UCC, describes the challenges of researching terrorism in a post-9/11 world charged with political tension and misinformation.

The 21st century has been dominated by the spectre of terrorism, be it the significant rise in mass-shooting incidents in the US, or through suicide bombings in countries such as Iraq.

Behind the political spin and ‘fake news’, our efforts to understand terrorism in its base form remains a monumental challenge.

That is what Dr Orla Lynch, head of criminology at University College Cork (UCC), is aiming to overcome in her work by applying basic psychology to the study of terrorism.

With a background in international security studies and applied psychology, Lynch was the director of teaching and a lecturer in terrorism studies at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews in Scotland until 2015.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I have always wondered about the capacity of individuals to carry out violence and, more specifically, I have always had a particular interest in terrorism and political violence.

I remember, as a teenager, my father knew only too well about my interest in political violence and, when I got my driving licence, the only rule that came with access to the family car was that I didn’t drive to Northern Ireland and cross the border to see the conflict for myself!

My father has a love of history and I grew up on stories of the Irish Civil War and the activities of the IRA in north Cork, so, combined with my interest in individual and social psychology – I think that was it really!

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

In terms of my specific academic interest, it all boils down to the very basic premise that we should use the vast body of existing scientific research to inform our knowledge on the current manifestations of terrorism.

A key issue in academia, as well as in policy, is the presumption that terrorism since 9/11 (or since the rise of ISIS) is fundamentally different than before.

After this, our efforts to understand the terrorist were based not as they should have been – on empirically sound frameworks from psychology and criminology – but on reactionary hypothesis driven by a sense of urgency to do something in response to the actions of Al-Qaeda, ISIS and affiliated groups in Europe and the US.

Things have thankfully moved on from this ‘do something’ reactionary phase, and some excellent research has been carried out.

In an effort to contribute to this movement over the past two years, I have been working with Dr Carmel Joyce on a book that examines how we can apply psychology to the study of terrorism.

In effect, this book deals with how ‘normal psychology’ should be used to understand individuals who become involved in terrorism, and it is through this lens of normality that we can best understand terrorism as a social, group and community phenomenon.

Another project I am working on with 11 teams across Europe as part of a Globsec project is an examination of the link between crime and terrorism.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

This work is important because radicalisation is a loosely defined, liberally applied term that is empirically vague but has very real consequences for those accused of it.

There is a cottage industry around Europe of private, NGO and statutory agencies who claim to offer ‘deradicalisation’ programmes with little or no empirical evidence for the appropriateness of their interventions nor any way to evaluate the intervention itself.

In effect, the danger seems to be that we are allowing interventions with no empirical backing and expecting that this will somehow reduce the instances of terrorism amongst the so-called radical population.

This becomes even more complex when we consider the role of the internet, particularly social networking and communication apps, in the process of radicalisation.

Understanding the relationship between the online and the offline world in the case of radicalisation and, more importantly, understanding the relationship – if any – between holding extreme ideas and actually carrying out an extreme and violent act is key here.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

A significant issue is access to data – not necessarily because many of my subjects would have been members of proscribed paramilitary organisations, but access to relevant data.

Terrorism research is very much influenced by political events and so, there is often a drive to focus on the next hot topic, whether this is returning foreign fighters from Syria, child soldiers of ISIS or right-wing extremists.

An issue I have is how such research can become detached from other relevant research topics – eg the broader child soldier literature – and so, develop in conceptual and empirical isolation.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research? How would you address them?

Yes. There are misconceptions, generally, around presumptions relating to the existence of a ‘terrorist profile’.

The public narrative on terrorism usually involves notions of evil, psychopathology, vulnerability, brainwashing etc.

Unfortunately, one of the things I have learned while carrying out data collection with individuals who have been or are members of terrorist groups is that they are defined by their ordinariness.

Except in one instance, of the more than 100 ‘terrorists’ I have interviewed, they were generally unremarkable individuals.

This is something that is difficult for people to accept, as it would be easier for us to understand terrorism if the perpetrators were somehow different and if we could attribute their violence to this difference. Things are, unfortunately, not that simple.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I would like to see a greater focus on issues of reciprocity and terrorism.

What I mean by this is an examination of how ideologically divergent movements exist in an action-and-reaction cycle of political violence, eg the right-wing in the US versus the so-called Antifa movement.

Included in this line of research could also be an examination of how counterterrorism – eg the actions of the state and state agencies – measures are relevant in understanding instances of terrorism and terrorist campaigns more generally.

Terrorism and political violence cannot be studied in a vacuum, and the context to the violence – including antecedent activities, the action of counterterrorism agencies and oppositional groups – is highly relevant.