Julian Fehlman


Beyond Security Studies: How Academia Can Inform the United Nation’s Counterterrorism Strategy. A Short Literature Review




The decade between 2006 and 2016 witnessed a global emphasis on security-based means for combatting terrorism, which have produced an extremely costly mixed-bag. As a result, The United Nations and the Swiss government co-hosted a two days conference in Geneva in April 2016 to devise guidelines regarding the prevention of violent extremism, in anticipation to the release, in June the same year, of the United Nations’ Secretary General Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism. The present study overviews the academic literature on terrorism with an aim to identify areas of research and resources worth considering to develop further the United Nations’ strategy to prevent violent extremism. This research uncovered a consensus in academia regarding the failure of military-based counterterrorism strategies since September 11, 2001, and dismisses biological explanations for terrorism. While it stresses that attempts at discovering a typical psychological profile of terrorists have failed, recent avenues in psychological research are worth considering. Above all, however, the necessarily multidisciplinary nature of research related to terrorism ought to be complemented with insights from the development sector. The experience and up-to-date knowledge of development scholars and institutions working on the field represent an asset that has been so far vastly ignored.

Keywords: Security Studies; United Nations; Extremism; Terrorism; Psychology Research

The United Nations’ (UN) counterterrorism strategy follows four main axes, which aim to prevent and fight terrorism, reinforce state capacities, and ensure the respect of human rights law (UN 2006, 2016). As the 2015 report of the UN Secretary-General (UN 2015) made clear, the decade between 2006 and 2016 witnessed a global emphasis on security-based means for combatting terrorism, and those measures now need to be supplemented with a greater attention to the contextual conditions conducive to terrorism, and an increased respect of human rights. Consequently, the UN supports counterterrorism strategies that focus on prevention (UN 2015) and (de)radicalisation in particular, in response to the recent trend in terror acts committed on religious grounds (Shughart, 2006; Lutz, and Lutz, 2016; Hough, 2018). As a result, the terminology within the UN system centres around concepts such as ‘preventing violent extremism’ (PVE). Interestingly, however, the UN defers the definitions of ‘terrorism’ and ‘violent extremism’ to its Member States (UN n.d.), whilst reminding them of their obligations under international law (GCPVE, 2016). Definitions of terrorism, therefore, remain both innumerable (Richards, 2014; Hough, 2018) and formulated in terms of self-interest (Cox, 1981). 

As no consensus exists at the international level (Frazer, et al., 2015), the present paper will focus on the purpose of terrorism as the use of violence to generate a “psychological impact beyond the immediate victims or object of attack,” (Richards, 2014: 146) because only the aim of achieving longer-term psychological impact over direct damage has achieved consensus among scholars (ibid.: 147). 

PVE centres on uncovering what elicits people to resort to violent behaviour, a conundrum that touches upon a vast array of academic disciplines. This review will argue that (a) some approaches are both inappropriate and potentially dangerous, that (b) because the nature of terrorism is as varied as humankind, a multidisciplinary approach using insights from experts with experience in conflict zones is beneficial for a sound understanding of terrorism, and that (c) research in psychology is to be further (re)considered, as its potential seems vastly untapped. 

Some theoretical approaches, despite ‘scientific’ endeavours, seem to bring more harm than good. Among those, life sciences (Thayer, and Hudson, 2010), and especially evolutionary theories (Thayer 2009), should be met with the greatest scepticism, for they strip human beings of their capacity to learn or adapt. They tend to homogenise highly diverse populations and reify stereotypes in potentially dangerous ways. Those claims echo other works bearing essentialist overtones (Huntington, 1996; Kaplan, 2000), which oversimplify complex issues into harmful stereotypes, ultimately treating entire populations as unified bodies (Said, 2001: 273). Such perspectives, likely to create further resentment, do not provide adequate insights into tackling terrorism. Unfortunately, those arguments still seem to attract support in many spheres, political or otherwise.

No more pertinent for a counterterrorism strategy similar to that of the UN are the works of some military historians (Kilcullen, 2008), whose excessively conservative and military-centred answers to terrorism tend to obscure the fact that fighting fire with fire has so far achieved but a history of failure (Williams, and McDonald, 2018: 407). In the words of another military historian, time has come to understand that lasting peace is not that which is enforced upon the enemy, but one that is willingly accepted (Heuser, 2010: 505).

An analysis of the link between economic conditions and conflict can inform terrorism studies. 

In the broader context of war, Collier’s seminal argument stressed the preeminence of greed over grievances as the leading cause of civil war (Collier, 2000). More recently, studies centred on economic incentives to terrorism conclude that economic issues, whether real (Enders, et al., 2016) or perceived (Choi, 2019), matter. However, as Keen rightly points out, if economics is a necessary piece of the violence puzzle, it is not a sufficient one (2008). 

Political, ideological, and social influence cannot be left unconsidered. Similarly, other prominent terrorism scholars point to the multitude of causes that create a fertile ground for violence (Crenshaw, 2011; Frazer, et al., 2015; Williams, and McDonald, 2018). The very diversity in the causality of terrorism should encourage current scholarship to incorporate even more knowledge from other disciplines. For example, Keen argues that rather than looking at what goes wrong in conflict, a lot is learnt by looking at what actually goes well: who benefits from violence and what are the functions served (Keen, 2008) beyond the obvious stated goals of terrorist groups? Development studies scholars and other professionals from the aid sector who have direct experience of conflict, and hence, terrorism-prone areas, are important voices to listen to. They represent a source of knowledge that security studies have too often ignored. Together with other academic disciplines, they may, for example, contribute to the understanding of how grievances feed into violence, and hence, terrorism, too.

If the debate between greed and grievances has fostered the disentanglement of what contexts constitute fertile grounds for violence, the field of (social) psychology has a lot to offer in terms of individual and group behaviour. One could say, however, that early psychological studies on terrorism were lured into one of their main concepts, the fundamental attribution error (Hogg, and Vaughan, 2011: 92). 

Indeed, initial attempts at establishing a terrorist profile led to a dead end (Monahan, 2012): as Crenshaw and others point out, such endeavours bore the risks of “stereotyping [and] . . . oversimplifying the sources of terrorist actions” (2011: 44). Contesting another unhelpful axis of research in psychology, that of assumed mental illness among (suicide) terrorists (Victoroff, 2015), she argues that “the outstanding common characteristic of terrorists is their normality” (Crenshaw, 2011: 44). As a result, the focus of psychological studies has shifted from individual to situational aspects of terrorism.

If psychological research has experienced a difficult start, it nonetheless entails numerous prospects. First, there is a lot to be learnt in the unpacking of the ‘terrorist organisation’ as a homogenous entity: in that regard, recent publications in organisational or workplace psychology (Thoroughgood, et al., 2011; Ligon, et al. 2013) are promising for the design of future counterterrorism strategies. Another important area of research related to grievances concerns humiliation. McCauley’s research (2017) is a welcome addition to a well-established driver of violent behaviour (Keen, 2008). Further, this far from exhaustive review shall not leave aside radicalisation processes, so visible in Western media and counterterrorism policies. Sarma’s study (2017) sheds light on the risks and possibilities linked to risk assessment of suspected individuals. It both outlines potential pitfalls as well as viable procedures in an ethically sensitive process. Lastly, McCauley and Moskalenko pertinently demonstrate that radicalisation actually flows both ways. Indeed, in responding to terror attacks, states often launch exceptional measures and policies (McCauley, and Moskalenko: 223).

The UN’s position regarding counterterrorism urges states to concentrate on prevention and (de)radicalisation. To further this perspective, this review demonstrated that multidisciplinary approaches were desirable, but that some perspectives, however, appeared less appropriate than others to sustain the prevention of violent extremism. The most encouraging avenues were found in development studies and research in (social) psychology, which may attractively advance the authoritative work of such experienced scholars as, for example, Martha Crenshaw.



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