De-Radicalization Programs Offer Hope in Countering Terrorism

My op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, 14 Feb 2015

The director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Nicholas J. Rasmussen, told the House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday that the number of men and women joining Islamic State is on the rise. Of the 20,000 foreign fighters, he said, at least 3,400 have come from Western countries, including approximately 150 Americans who have either gone or tried to go to Syria.

Most of those will die fighting someone else's battle. Some will survive, and possibly become more dangerous. But there also will be those who — broken, disillusioned and traumatized by what they have done or seen — will want to come home. What is to be done with them?

...Read the rest of this article here

The Rise of the Child Terrorist

Mia Bloom and John Horgan, Foreign Affairs, 9 Feb 2015

On January 15, a video surfaced on the Internet that depicted a 10-year-old Kazakh boy using a gun to execute two Russian members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) who had been accused of being spies. ISIS claimed ownership of the video, although it has not yet been authenticated. Only a few days earlier, twin suicide bombings rocked northern Nigeria, involving three girls, who appeared to have been only 10 years old, all wearing explosives that may have been remotely detonated by members of Boko Haram. A year before, a nine-year-old girl named Spozhmai, who is the sibling of an Afghan Taliban commander, was detained at a border checkpoint in Kandahar. Rather than go through with her mission, she confessed to the authorities that she had been forced to wear a suicide belt.

...To read more, visit here


What makes a terrorist stop being a terrorist?

Published in 'The Conversation', 18 November, 2014

By John Horgan


“Feet first”. That’s how one terrorist leader told recruits was the only way out. It makes sense. Allowing members to just walk away wouldn’t be good for the group’s image.

And yet - at the same time as Islamic State parades its European jihadis in shocking beheading videos and continues to recruit aggressively around the world - terrorists do disengage all the time. Some quietly disappear. Others go public, telling their stories on TV or in autobiographies. They embrace their new identity as an “ex-“ or “former” to warn others of the dangers of involvement.

Read on

Review of my "The Psychology of Terrorism" (2nd Edition)

Jeff Victoroff reviews the latest edition of my book, The Psychology of Terrorism. 

"The bottom line: no one knows how to do counterterrorism better because (a) the right research has not been done and (b) even if unbiased scholars figured out what seems to work, practitioners—disabled by cognitive bias and personal agendas—may not listen. Horgan admits that this might seem depressing, but his candor is uplifting. It's high time to expose and overcome the structural, political, and psychological underpinnings of our continued homeland insecurity. Ultimately, the conclusion of this excellent book is a dignified call for new thinking on terrorism and how to counter it with increasing sophistication and success."

You can read the full review here:

Explaining Radicalization, Terrorism and the Dangers of Explanatory Fictions

As a pre-cursor to a big piece I am writing on assessing and evaluating theories of terrorist radicalization, I'm re-upping here a short blog entry I posted with my colleague Max Taylor while I was at ICST (also, a hat tip and reference to a post by Prof. Ben O'Loughlin who actually made the connection between (online) radicalization and explanatory fictions here - he may have been the first to make this link altogether).

Though my forthcoming paper will examine these issues in exhaustive detail (to include a response to this piece, as well as explore the online issues in particular), a quicker and more accessible (i.e. non-technical) view is presented in my recent 2nd edition of The Psychology of Terrorism

But for those really interested in Skinner's characterization of cognitive theories as explanatory fictions, here's a link to a now classic paper from 1981 by Michael Wessels. 

New paper: Trauma and Openness to Legal and Illegal Activism Among Somali Refugees

With my colleagues at the Boston Children's Hospital, we have written a paper soon to be published in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence. The paper presents some of the first evidence to emerge from our collaborative projects (more on those here) on risk factors for sympathy and support for violent extremism among Somali refugee communities resettled in the United States. The paper represents a careful empirical identification and analysis of what we believe to be necessary to understand if we are to realistically control the extent of radicalization and violent extremism.

The article is only available to subscribers to the journal, but I have pasted the article's Abstract below:

This article examines key setting events and personal factors that are associated with support for either non-violent activism or violent activism among Somali refugee young adults in the United States. Specifically, this article examines the associations of trauma, stress, symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), posttraumatic growth (PTG), strength of social bonds, and attitudes towards legal and non-violent vs. illegal and violent activism. Structured interviews were conducted with a sample of Somali refugee males ages 18–25 living in the northeastern United States (N = 79). Data were analyzed using multiple linear regressions and path analysis. Greater exposure to personal trauma was associated with greater openness to illegal and violent activism. PTSD symptoms mediated this association. Strong social bonds to both community and society moderated this association, with trauma being more strongly associated with openness to illegal and violent activism among those who reported weaker social bonds. Greater exposure to trauma, PTG, and stronger social bonds were all associated with greater openness to legal non-violent activism.

The authors: B. Heidi Ellis, Saida M. Abdi, John Horgan, Alisa B. Miller, Glenn N. Saxe, and Emily Blood.

Author notes

  • B. Heidi Ellis is the Director of the Refugee Trauma and Resilience Center at Boston Children's Hospital.
  • Saida M. Abdi is the Associate Director for Community Relations at the Refugee Trauma and Resilience Center at Boston Children's Hospital.

  • John Horgan is a Professor in the School of Criminology and Justice Studies at University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he is also Director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies.

  • Alisa B. Miller is a Research Associate at the Refugee Trauma and Resilience Center at Boston Children's Hospital.

  • Glenn N. Saxe is the Arnold Simon Professor and Chair of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Director of the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center.

  • Emily Blood is affiliated with the Clinical Research Program, Boston Children's Hospital.


For more information on the research projects, see here




Minerva Initiative 2014

We recently learned that the Minerva Initiative has selected two proposals from our Center for over $2m in research funding for the period 2014-2017. Needless to say we are thrilled, excited and very grateful to Minerva and its reviewers for selecting us for awards - these research projects will see us team with some of the brightest and most creative researchers around. I will publish more details about both projects in August/September here, and on our (also launching in September) brand new CTSS website, but until then, a press release issued today by UMass Lowell has some more info here.

Preface - The Psychology of Terrorism 2nd Edition (2014).

On 19 June 2014, Routledge will publish the 2nd edition of my The Psychology of Terrorism book, first published in 2005. I posted the Table of Contents in an earlier blog entry. Here you will find the Preface.



The Psychology of Terrorism 2nd Edition

(forthcoming June 19 2014; Routledge)




In 2005, at the end of the first edition of this book, I concluded on a depressing note. The psychology of terrorism, I argued, was at best under-developed, and at worst doomed to the mercy of unrealistic expectations of those who seek quick and simple solutions to the terrorism problem. Asking counterterrorism practitioners to consider contributions from the academic literature on terrorism was, at best, a half-hearted recommendation. Yes, there was a lot of quality research out there, but the unending torrent of drivel made it ever more impossible to keep oneself afloat. This might have sounded harsh (or academically worse, as sour grapes) but it was in my view a reflection of the situation at the time. Terrorism research was largely driven by the crisis du jour, recommendations continued to appear in print far too quickly to even reflect what could realistically be called ‘analysis’, and it always struck me as suspicious how terrorism experts would be so quick to give analogy-based solutions to problems that were far more complex in reality than they seemed to realize.


If I painted a depressing picture, it was because I felt it was an accurate and honest one. So what has changed? In the intervening 8 years, there is much to commend. For a start, the field is no longer dominated by the small handful of researchers who traditionally characterized what is now commonly known as 'terrorism studies' (just don't call it a discipline). Fortunately, the increase in interest from the social and behavioral sciences has also mirrored an increase in solid, quality research output. In fact the creep of systematic, interdisciplinary research on terrorist behavior has meant that it is certainly getting easier to distinguish opinion from analysis, and snake-oil conjecture from analysis that is informed by empirical evidence.


We have also seen, perhaps most obviously through the increasing level of federal funding for social science research on terrorism, the beginning of efforts to effectively ‘translate’ academic research into guidance for operational counter-terrorism or policy. No longer do academic researchers on terrorism conclude their 10,000-word articles with the customary “policy makers would do well to recognize the implications of my paper, which are as follows…” Now, those same practitioners (and not just policy makers, either) will actually sit across a table from academics and work with them to help bring research findings into the real world of decision-making. Academics no longer have to wonder what precisely are the day-to-day concerns of counter-terrorism responders. In as much as they can given their obvious limitations, they now will actually tell us. And far more promising, they are not shy to ask for help in devising meaningful solutions. The one-way street has finally opened up to traffic from both directions. 


For some, however, this change has not been without its challenges. There is, of course, that prevailing view in academia that engagement with potential research sponsors that include the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Defense equates to some kind of professional compromise. That is, if we academics accept funding or sponsorship for research from those agencies that we are automatically yielding our independence, autonomy and academic freedoms in the name of ‘counter-terrorism research’ – essentially serving state-defined agendas while we blissfully accept funding for research that appears to only focus on non-state terrorism (as opposed to terrorism ‘from above’).


In reality, nothing could be further from the truth, and it is those same sponsors who tend to be inquisitive and critical about theories, methodologies, and data of those from whom they solicit research. After all, their internal funding streams depend on good quality output, so why wouldn't they closely inspect the claims of academics? In my own experience, I usually hear assumptions about compromise and alleged failures of integrity (and read these words) from academics who tend to shy away from seriously considering even having such conversations with official bodies. In fact, such is the animosity towards even the broader endeavor of ‘terrorism research’ that in the UK, a movement for ‘critical’ terrorism studies (ironically, its proponents will still freely use the dreaded 't' word to help identify themselves) has sprung up in several Universities to foster what they feel is their responsibility to monitor the work of ‘orthodox’ terrorism scholars (presumably those who don't fit the ‘critical’ mould). It is truly ironic that the welcome increase in terrorism research since the terrible events of 11 September 2001 have not just involved academics studying terrorist behavior, but some academics now make a point of studying other academics who study terrorism. 


Or perhaps all of this is to be expected. After all, ‘terrorism studies’ remains in its relative infancy despite several exciting and creative advances in our knowledge of this most complex and difficult of contemporary social phenomena. And there have been some really superb studies that have contributed to a far more vibrant field today than we previously enjoyed. The most ambitious and valuable studies have embraced the complexity of terrorism rather than shy away from it. I have no doubt that some will read books like this one and expect the magical checklist - the bullet points that list the terrorist profile, or the ‘at-risk’ community from where the dangerous radicals apparently lurk in some ever-shifting shadows.


To those expecting simple answers, you still won't find them. At least you won't find them here. The overarching objective of The Psychology of Terrorism 2nd Edition, as with the previous volume, is to encourage more and more thinking about terrorist behavior. In particular, my core objective is to encourage thinking about the development of the terrorist. There are still no silver bullet solutions, and in fact the basic problem may be more complex than ever. Certainly today’s threat environment is overwhelmingly typified by its complexity and diversity. A 2012 report by Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute pointed to such complexity. Watts noted that while “foreign fighters to Afghanistan, Iraq and other jihadi battlefields appear to be declining while in contrast analysts have pointed to an uptick in United States (U.S.) based “homegrown extremism” - terrorism advocated or committed by U.S. residents or citizens.” (p.1). But I have always maintained that we shouldn't shy away from recognizing this complexity and diversity of the terrorist threat. On the contrary, we should embrace it with every theoretical, conceptual and methodological tool at our disposal.


This new edition became far easier to write once I realized the futility of attempting to produce a truly comprehensive account of all the psychological research on terrorism since 2005. Instead I decided to maintain the focus on those three core phases of involvement, engagement, and disengagement that each and every terrorist faces. In this new edition, I won't promise any easy solutions, but with some heavily revised and expanded chapters from the first edition, it remains my hope this book contributes in some modest way to how we think about terrorist behavior, and ultimately what we might effectively do about it.


John Horgan

Boston, MA

 To order The Psychology of Terrorism 2nd Edition click here

Building Resilience to Violent Extremism: One Community's Perspective

by Stevan Weine and John Horgan

FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, April 2014.

In August 2011 the White House released a brief document titled “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States,” which was the United States’ first attempt at a strategy to build community resilience to counter violent extremism. READ IN FULL