Is Flawed Terrorism Research Driving Flawed Counterterrorism Policies?

More than thirteen years after the U.S. intelligence community named the prevention of terrorism its number one goal, it seems to have little understanding of what drives terrorism, or how to counter it. And, if the recently increasing criticism is correct, the government’s investment in academic terrorism research isn’t helping. It may be because the government is continuing to fund research supporting discredited theories of terrorist radicalization, rather than objective empirical analyses.

After the September 11th attacks, President George Bush described our counterterrorism efforts as a “new” and “different type of war.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel likewisecalled the threat from the Islamic State “beyond anything we’ve seen.” Framing the problem as “new” prevents the application of lessons learned from previous conflicts. But there is nothing new about terrorism. It is a tactic the weak and politically powerless have been using since antiquity, and government reactions to terrorism have often proved counterproductive. Today, our government’s continuing refusal to learn from the history of its misuse of radicalization theory only ensures a repetition of previous mistakes.

During and after World War I, an FBI hunt for German spies and anarchist bombers devolved into wide ranging investigations of thousands of people based on their ancestry, associations, and political views. The Bureau targeted so-called “radicals” — which included peace activists, draft resisters, socialists, civil rights activists, journalists, academics, clergy, and labor organizers — because it equated opposition to war as support for the enemy, and advocacy for economic and social justice as a threat to the existing political establishment. J. Edgar Hoover, then the director of the FBI’s Radical Division, categorized all leftist political ideologies as “Bolshevism” in order to imply a foreign origin, alien and invasive to the United States.

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