How, What, and to Whom to Teach Terrorism Studies
Terrorism studies constitute one of the areas of academic work that have grown the most in the last two decades. The attacks of 11 September 2001 prompted the exponential growth of a line of research that, until that point, had been hesitantly developed with a mostly retrospective perspective, centred on the historical and socio-biographical analysis of the different waves of modern terrorism. The dramatic emergence of Al-Qaeda as a new global enemy changed all that, calling for the field to immediately provide answers to the many questions posed about the motivations, objectives, organisational structures, and modus operandi of these violent groups with global aspirations. This newfound sense of urgency meant that studies on terrorism were reoriented towards two main objectives: a) to systematise and make sense of the scarce information available on jihadist terrorism, and b) to carry out prospective analyses in the short-term of how this threat would evolve.
The attacks in Washington and New York also provoked an unprecedented international response, which resulted in an enormous mobilisation of all kinds of resources against terrorism. In a short time, a colossal demand for specialised training was generated, not only among the new promotions that were quickly incorporated into the bodies that had traditionally been dedicated to counterterrorism, but also among other public and private sectors that, until now, had not exercised any functions in the field of preventing and combating terrorist violence. This task is no longer perceived as an exclusively repressive matter entrusted to police, military, and intelligence agencies. A much more sophisticated view of the multiple causes that fed the terrorist problem and the complexity of its treatment began to take root in society. Consequently, those who joined this demand for training and knowledge came from fields as diverse as social work, diplomacy, journalism, finance, prison work, and more.
In the years since, with the formative offerings in the form of postgraduate courses, diplomas, summer courses, and conferences—sponsored by public bodies, universities, think-tanks, foundations, companies and civil associations—the field of terrorism studies has not stopped growing. The common denominator among these heterogeneous offerings is that the expectations of students have rarely been met. There are several reasons for this.
In the first place, the heterogeneity of the profiles of the students in these programmes has incentivised a generic perspective. In the same classroom it is common to find people who have very different, sometimes conflicting, professional interests. All of them expect knowledge that has a direct and specifically applicable for the improvement of their work skills, and this is very difficult to achieve when the same content is addressed at the same time, for example, to a guard who works in the control of passengers at an airport, and to a social worker in an internment centre for minors.
Secondly, many of those interested in these programmes have unrealistic expectations about the nature of the knowledge they hope to gain. Studies on terrorism have been contaminated by the same popular clichés through which the world of espionage is perceived. On the one hand, there is an enormous interest in knowing a whole series of operational procedures from the field of intelligence services and police agencies. However, due to its sensitive nature, not only can this type of knowledge not be disclosed in this type of open programme, but even when it forms part of internal training programmes for the staff of these agencies, such programmes are also implemented in a selective and compartmentalised manner.
On the other hand, many students hope to obtain in these studies a series of strong statements about the phenomenon of terrorism. Many of them are frustrated when what is offered to them—as with any complex phenomenon—is approximate knowledge, imperfect and subject to continuous review. Unfortunately, there are people who have seen in these unrealistic expectations a business opportunity, or a way to fuel their egos and desires for popularity. These opportunists have nurtured an essentially fraudulent formative offer, which promises to teach (among other things) to recognize a terrorist hidden in a crowd at first sight, anticipate his movements, or decode his mind. The damage generated by these pseudo-experts is increased when their ‘credentials’ as trainers grant them access to the media.
Despite what has been said, studies on terrorism continue to be relevant. On the one hand, they constitute one of the areas of academic research, the products of which are more easily transferable to the area of public security and defence policy formulation. On the other hand, studies on terrorism as part of the training curriculum contribute decisively to improving the analytical capacities of any professional whose work is related in some way to this phenomenon.
Terrorism studies contribute to framing the political violence of the present in a broader historical context. One of the main errors in reacting to jihadist terrorism has been precisely to interpret it as a phenomenon absolutely different from any previous terrorist violence. The tendency to over-interpret everything that is new and ignore the elements of continuity ends up generating bad public policies. Studies on terrorism contribute to systematising and converting into useful knowledge the lessons obtained over several decades of the fight against groups with different motivations, and in all types of geographical and cultural contexts.
Perhaps the most relevant contribution of terrorism studies is the fact that they compensate for the analytical limitations of counterterrorism agencies. These actors have a clear interest in being able to carry out a strategic analysis of the terrorist phenomenon, which allows them to identify trends and plan for the long term. However, the reality is that, like other public bureaucracies, their agenda is dragged by the most urgent and immediate needs. The identification and neutralization of terrorists, especially if the country has suffered a recent attack, becomes a priority that ends up consuming all human resources, to the detriment of its ability to generate more ambitious analytical products. As a result, much of the data generated in the context of anti-terrorist investigations remains untapped, since it has no direct bearing on locating and prosecuting new terrorists. Researchers and academics involved in terrorism studies are not affected by this need to act in the short term. This allows them to approach the phenomenon from a broader and calmer perspective, generating explanatory frameworks and alternative theories that help to complement and enrich the analytical work carried out by security agencies.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.