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