Martin Bouchard – Extracting the Social Structure of Extremism

MartinB_SFU“Trying to model the most obvious and extreme form of terrorist activity, to label it properly – carries both a danger, and a great potential.”

Martin Bouchard is a busy man. While he is currently on paternity leave, he simultaneously arranges conferences, teaches classes and is actively participating in the start-up of TSAS. But this doesn’t faze Martin Bouchard. He is passionate about his work and states that: ‘Even when I’m working, I’m not working’.

Martin Bouchard’s research is specialized in examining the role of social networks in a variety of criminal phenomena, including terrorism. He is an assistant professor in the School of Criminology, at Simon Fraser University, and serves as the Associate Director for Research for TSAS, along with Directors Lorne Dawson and Dan Hiebert. As Associate Director, Martin will be responsible for much of TSAS’ research agenda. While his interests are wide ranging, several of his projects tie neatly into the agenda of TSAS, both in ways of research topics (such as counter terrorism, analyses of terrorism networks), and also by way of collaboration with up-and-coming scholar

Being a Student and Being There for the Students

Recounting his eager days at the University of Montreal, he expresses gratitude that as an undergrad he was able to get an early start in research, and had a generous and talented supervisor in Dr. Pierre Tremblay. During his post doc studies at University of Maryland’s top ranked criminology department, Martin wrote about the social organization of the cannabis cultivation industry under the supervision of Dr. Peter Reuter.

Lured in by the topic of supply and demand of the drug market, Martin found his stimulus. The hook was the consensual drive of drug markets and their social interactions. The subjects within these illicit drug markets are often hidden from view. There are no victims here who call the police and few file reports. It sparked Martin’s interest in developing innovative methods to some of the simple yet unanswered questions in the field, including the size of those markets, and the nature of the law enforcement response to them. Understanding populations and the networks within which they operate, be it in relation to drugs or terrorism, is essential in order to identify the measures and policies that will have the most positive on Canadian society.

High productivity in teaching and publishing hasn’t benefitted Martin solely. Out of his 25 most recent publications, 19 have been co-authored with graduate students. “I make a point of mentoring grad students. I think it is important and a great way to learn — for me as well as for them”.

Mentoring is an important component of TSAS too, and this importance is manifest in the Junior Researchers and the upcoming TSAS Summer Academy 2013, which takes place in Vancouver from July 21-26th, 2013. Martin hopes to continue this practice within the frames of TSAS. Many of the graduate students he supervises are already busy on TSAS-related projects, from mapping the networks of extremist websites, to examining the role of social networks in processes of radicalization.

Another Ball in the Air – Joining TSAS

When asked what his contribution to TSAS will be, Martin responds with demonstrative questions: One of the first things we ask ourselves when trying to assess the situation in Canada, is ‘What is the size of the terrorist threat?’ and ‘How many people are involved and affected?’

This is tied to his wish to affect policy, and shares commonalities with the work he undertook in the past. ’To aptly direct society’s resources towards crime prevention, we need to understand the size of the activity that is going on’. He points out the important notion of matching the response to the threat, and how this is essential for good policy making.

Martin has several simultaneous projects on the go. Among other things, he has co-authored a recent paper, ”Introducing the Terrorism and Extremism Network Extractor” (in press), which was presented at the 4th Annual ‘Illicit Networks’ Workshop at Simon Fraser University in early October (which he also organized and hosted). In collaboration with students Richard Frank and Kila Joffres, Martin has conducted an analysis of the content and pattern of four websites to detect extremist tendencies based on the occurrence of specific keywords and the context in which they are used. Inspired by concepts and methods used by the Dark Web Project at the University of Arizona, Martin and his co-authors are developing a web crawler, the Terrorism and Extremism Network Extractor( TENE) designed to conduct quick analysis and detect the potential extreme content in online communities. While enthusiastic about the analytical possibilities of the TENE software, Martin mentions that it is still an exploratory design — a software that places the researchers in a position where they are wary of making assumptions.

Automatic analysis has its strengths, he explains, but the manual component in his research is included to prevent conflation of values and assumptions based on mathematical logic, but not necessarily in a cultural sense. When asked about the methodological challenges of attributing the occurrences of words with codified values in software, Martin replies thoughtfully that: ’we are going to a place with this research where any grey area needs to be designated as grey area in the software’. ’Trying to model the most obvious and extreme form of terrorist activity, to label it properly – carries both a danger, and a great potential.’

All Martin’s research efforts tie into a desire to affect Canadian security policy. He hopes to reach conclusions that will provide solutions and recommendations for the legal system that counters and monitors terrorism in Canada. Martin hopes TSAS can find a Canadian approach to security that is reasonable and proportionate to our wide ranging and diverse society.

by Sarah M Przedpelska, November, 21, 2012