John Horgan argues that the potential of social scientific analyses of terrorist behaviour will not be realised without an open and honest discussion of what such approaches entail in practice. Unfortunately the fascination which the idea of interviewing terrorists holds for many people has inculcated a tendency to overly dramatise the process. 

The study of terrorism continues to suffer its detractors. And, if truth be told, this has not always been without merit. The “terrorism industry” does exist, though those who bemoan its alleged influence seem forever doomed to conflate those who take its study seriously with those who never cease, as the old saying goes, to try to make a quick buck.

But healthy skepticism and conspiracy theorists aside, nobody can deny how terrorism studies has flourished in recent years. One of many positive consequences of this is how much more adept the research community has become at distinguishing evidence-based research on terrorism from what might otherwise comprise opinion or conjecture. We’ve seen a welcome ‘data creep’ in terrorism research that is likely here to stay. We have a long way to go, but nobody can deny it – we are walking the empirical pathway to generating more and more useful knowledge about terrorism and terrorists.

I wrote this article after some thought about one particular issue in terrorism studies – the method and process of interviewing terrorists. I strongly feel that we have yet to explore in sufficient detail the methodological challenges, opportunities and limitations associated with this mode of scientific enquiry.

I’ve written about this topic for some time now (first, back in 1997), but felt it needed a serious re-visit a couple of years ago after I read a piece written by a fellow terrorism researcher. That author’s account began with a story of that researcher’s journey to meet a group of terrorists. As someone who has interviewed members of various terrorist groups in the same region of the world, I was very keen to see if my experiences matched those of the author.

The experience I saw in the other author’s account, however, proved anything but similar. It made mention of extreme danger, blindfolds, speeding cars, machine guns – the stuff of a Jason Bourne movie. Wow! This was far more adventurous than anything I encountered. In fact, my own experiences tended to be far more mundane in hindsight. Why, I wondered? Was it me? Was I just boring? Was my approach somehow too “low-risk?” I have very vivid memories of sitting for hours on end in hotel lobbies, cafes and even the odd ‘safe-house’ waiting for interviewees to turn up. Was I unlucky enough to have terrorist interviewees that nobody else felt were important enough? Maybe. Who knows?

But the more I read this thrilling account, the more uncomfortable I felt. The more I thought about what I was reading, the more the account seemed to tell me far more about the author than it did about how their research: in particular, how their interviews were obtained, what happened during the enquiry, and how the challenges of rigorous data collection were considered? What’s more, I thought, if others read that author’s account, they might come away with a sense that this is ‘how it’s done’. Yikes.

Back to crushing reality, I decided to act. On reflection, my 1997 article now seemed woefully under-ambitious if anything, and my own experiences had changed significantly since then. I decided it was time to do it again, and to try to do it better.

Studies that involve first hand interviews with terrorists are increasing in number, and this is to be warmly welcomed. From my own perspective as a psychologist, I value this particularly in the context of seeking first-hand accounts of terrorist involvement, engagement and disengagement (the other I.E.D.) . Yet a worrying development is the apparent obscurity surrounding the entire process of interviewing in this context, and the lack of discussion about the limitations of interviews with terrorists or former terrorists. Even in some well known and highly respected studies that employ such methods, next to nothing is known about how such interviews are actually gained, let alone what actually happens before, during and after this kind of enquiry.

In this article I explore a whole series of both big and little issues surrounding terrorist interviews. The central purpose of my article is simple. It is a call to researchers to begin a discussion, to begin to share experiences of interviews so that together we can promote greater methodological transparency in our efforts. There is some tentative evidence that this has begun to happen, but we have a long way yet to go if we’re going to take it seriously.

Unsurprisingly, as above, the very idea of interviewing terrorists holds a real curiosity for the onlooker. At the same time, it holds (in my experiences anyway) a vastly unmerited mysticism and unwarranted glamor that is probably more dangerous than simply misleading and, in some cases, self-serving. But the overall context to the arguments I present is to suggest that the extraordinary potential of social and behavioral scientific analyses of terrorist behavior will unlikely be achieved unless we are far more explicit about the origins, use and limitations of interviews as a method of data collection. At the very least, a good starting point is to simply compare experiences, and in a much more open way. We’ll have to do it at some point, so why not now?

This was originally posted at the Extremis Project

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

About the Author

John Horgan is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Penn State University where he is also Director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism (icst.psu.edu). He has published numerous books, articles and reports on terrorism and political violence. His latest book, “Divided We Stand: The Strategy and Psychology of Ireland’s Dissident Terrorists” was published by Oxford University Press (USA) in January.

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