Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Probing the roots of terror

The attacks of 9/11 galvanized a phalanx of scholars to dissect terrorism from every angle. What they've learned so far may surprise you.

(Page 2 of 3)

Krueger and his co-researcher, Jitka Maleckova, found similar results among Hizbullah's militant wing during the 1980s and '90s. In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the pair wrote that their research and Berrebi's findings "provide no support for the view that those who live in poverty or have a low level of education are disproportionately drawn to participate in terrorist activities."

Skip to next paragraph
Institutional hurdles

Such quick footwork among researchers is hardly the rule.

Academia is coming late to the terrorism issue - if it's really coming at all, says James Kirkhope, research director of the for-profit Terrorism Research Center in Arlington, Va.

In recent years, most of the intellectual heavy lifting on terrorism has occurred at private think tanks, he says. Until Sept. 11, universities had a spotty record, at best, for devoting money and resources to dissecting terrorism. He wonders whether the dribble of new research showing up now in peer-reviewed academic journals will expand - or simply dry up in a few years.

One problem, he and others say, is that terrorism as a research subject cuts across disciplines, meaning it doesn't fit into the typical US approach to academic research.

"If you take it to a political scientist, he'll say it involves too much psychology, law enforcement, and criminal justice," Mr. Kirkhope says. "So it gets deflected into philosophy and moral issues and becomes too wishy-squishy to be of much use."

Others agree that academia presents some serious hurdles to the would-be researcher into terrorism.

"It's still a bad choice if you are aiming to get tenure," says Jessica Stern, a Harvard expert on terrorism. "It's considered a very foolish move, and senior people in the field have said that directly to the more junior scholars. The problem is that it is inherently interdisciplinary and academe is inherently disciplinary."

Still, hypotheses and ideas about terrorism are now bubbling from a pot of academic research that had been almost empty. Indeed, a Monitor database search of scores of social-science research journals across 15 disciplines found a rise in scholarly articles with titles or references to terrorism. Between August 1999 and August 2001, there were 34 references to terrorism either in the text or title of the articles. In the two years since 9/11, however, there were 223.

"It's an area of very new research intensity, using everything from interviews with terrorists to mathematical game theory," writes sociologist Jack Goldstone, at the University of California at Davis, in an e-mail. "The long process of checking ... initial results is not yet done."

The political scientists

Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, was at his typewriter writing a book on great power politics - the broader causes of war and peace - when he got a call about what had happened in New York.

"It stopped my book cold at 8:48 a.m., and two years later it still isn't done," he says. "I've turned my entire attention, all of my research, toward the causes of suicide terrorism."

Most intriguing to him was the suicide component, but Dr. Pape soon learned there was no single repository of information on all prior suicide attacks. So he created one. He scavenged bits of data from researchers and organizations around the world, building a database from scratch for 1980 through 2001. When it was finished, it revealed 188 suicide attacks.

The pattern of rising suicide attacks, he says, was more pronounced than anybody had realized - an oversight that may help explain why few people saw the Sept. 11 attacks coming. Indeed, the total number of terrorist attacks of all kinds had been falling - from more than 660 attacks in 1988 to about 250 in 1998, he says. But suicide attacks, by contrast, were proliferating.

Pape's research revealed that suicide attacks were three per year in 1980, building to 10 per year on average in the 1990s. They came first in Lebanon, then Sri Lanka, then fanned out. Since 2000, there have been about 25 attacks per year, according to his new work, "The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism."

During that time, the number of people killed per incident has grown, because of the methods of suicide. Though suicide terrorism is 3 percent of terrorist acts, it accounts for half the deaths. "We didn't have the big picture, so we simply missed the fact that suicide terrorism has been climbing like a rocket at the same time" that terrorism incidents overall were declining.

Pape is bothered when pundits call acts of suicide terrorism "random," given that his research shows 95 percent of suicide attacks over two decades came in clusters - and were carried out by groups that announced them in advance and then claimed credit. Moreover, when the target nation changes its behavior or makes concessions, the attacks stop, he notes.