Collaborative research on countering extremist violence
Over the past two years, the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) has conducted three inter-related collaborative research projects on countering extremist violence, funded by the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP), led by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC). The projects—designed to address gaps in policy knowledge and to address high-priority areas, as identified in Canada’s national counter-terrorism strategy—focused on:
- The empirical study of Canadian foreign fighters;
- The emergence and evolution of violent narratives in online forum networks; and
- The future(s) of terrorism, 2015-2025.
Each project, accordingly, contributes vital knowledge for Canada’s national security, with direct applications to government policies and practices. This knowledge is presented in two working papers per project, the key findings of which constitute the present report’s subsequent chapters.
The first project, led by Dr. Lorne Dawson (Sociology, University of Waterloo) in collaboration with Dr. Amarnath Amarasingam (SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow, Dalhousie University) and government partners at Public Safety, collected primary biographical data with respect to radicalization processes in the foreign fighter context, via detailed interviews with fighters themselves; their family, friends and associates; as well as aspiring fighters and other online supporters of jihad. Their findings are considered in light of current theories of radicalization in the project’s first working paper. The second working paper chronicles the process of interviewing terrorists and related methodological issues.
The second project, led by Dr. Martin Bouchard (Criminology, Simon Fraser University) along with government partners in the RCMP, examined the emergence and evolution of violent extremism in online forum networks. The project collected posts and network data from online forums using a web-crawling tool designed and used in prior research. The first working paper (with Evan Thomas) analyzes these data to provide insight into the social structure of online forums: which actors and events stimulate forum activity, and how opinions and sentiment evolve as a result. In particular, the paper examines whether opinion leaders affect the impact of ISIS-related events on user activity online. The second working paper (with Philippa Levey) draws from a mixed method approach to examine more narrowly how individual forum users’ trajectories develop online, particularly with respect to the influence of minors’ transition into adulthood (age 19) on their expressions of violent or negative sentiment online.
The third project, led by Dr. Jez Littlewood (International Affairs, Carleton University) along with a government partner at CSIS, focused on emerging technology areas exploited by terrorist groups, and considered what factors would be most likely to generate the next “wave” of overarching terrorist motivation. The first working paper analyses terrorists’ changing use of three technologies—chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons; unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); and the Internet—offering projections for the next decade. The second working paper forecasts the next “wave” of terrorism (assuming that the current, fourth, wave is associated with religious ideologies), mapping possible variables and factors of potential significance in the near future.
In addition to generating new evidence to inform policy (described in this report’s subsequent chapters), the projects’ collaborative research design helped build a culture of policy-research partnership and facilitated two-way knowledge transfer between academia and relevant government stakeholders. Each of the three project teams comprised a lead academic researcher, a policy official with research experience, and graduate students. Government officials were involved at all stages of the research, from project design to dissemination. Accordingly, the collaborative process simultaneously ensured that researchers would be more aware of knowledge gaps in policy formation, and enabled policy officials to structure their issues into viable research questions that would attract the attention of scholars. Graduate student involvement helped further TSAS’s additional aim of cultivating a new generation of young scholars interested in terrorism, security, and the impact of both on society.
On their face, these three projects address different components or stages of countering extremist violence: one examines the emergence of violent narratives in an assumedly pre-violent online space (section 2); another narrows in on the processes that actually led individuals to cross into terrorist violence, in foreign theatres of conflict (section 1); and the third examines the use of weapons technologies by those who have already radicalized to violence (section 3). Taken together, however, these projects’ findings yield a number of common themes, painting an increasingly complete—although deeply nuanced—picture of radicalization to violence and terrorist activity.
In all three projects, a central component is the primary motivators for radicalization and subsequent terrorist activity. The foreign fighter interviews (section 1.1) highlight religiosity as a primary motivator, shaping individuals’ worldview and subsequent activities: a finding that is consistent with the discussion of the religious “wave” of terrorism in which we find ourselves and are likely to remain until at least 2020 or 2025 (section 3.2). The online forum analysis highlights how life-course trajectories and turning points, namely the transition from youth into adulthood, influence the expression of negative and sometimes violent sentiment online (section 2.2); extrapolating to the question of radicalization and “real-world” activities suggests that major lifecycle milestones may motivate (or have a moderating effect on) extremist violence. Underlying motivations are also central to the technology adoption question (section 3.1), as motivation is an influencing factor in groups’ and individuals’ weapon choice decisions and ultimate ability to implement new weapons technologies.
The three projects also trace the role of the Internet throughout the terrorist lifecycle, highlighting that terrorists rely on the Internet in similar ways as non-radicalized individuals. The foreign fighter project (section 1.1) introduces the notion of a thriving online community—known as the Baqiya (or “enduring”) Community—that represents a meaningful and complete social world for those who use it. The online forums project is predicated upon this same notion of online activity as a social place that exists independently from on-the-ground terrorist activity (section 2.1), but which can also foster radical violent ideologies offline. While the futures project (section 3.1) acknowledges that the Internet is used by terrorists to conduct a wide range of functions, in the operational (i.e. training and attack) sphere it is not a perfect substitute or replacement for real-world activity, as it may be in the motivational sphere described in sections 1.1 and 2.2.
Whether interactions among radicalized individuals occur online or offline, a central tenet is that the radicalization process is a social one. This social dynamic is evident in the distinct clusters of Canadian foreign fighters leaving for Iraq and Syria, which reflects a pattern of mutual or collective radicalization (section 1.1), and in the homogenizing effect of “opinion leaders” on sentiment expressed in online forums (section 2.1). This social component is even implicit in the wave theory of terrorism discussed in section 3.2: the approximate 40-year lifespan of each terrorism “wave” reflects the length of a human generation—individuals radicalize together, and their mutually-developed violent ideologies do not transcend generational divides. The good news is, thankfully, that extremely negative or violent individuals are rare, and online communities appear remarkably resilient toward them (section 2.2).
A final common thread is the importance of data, and the significant challenges with which data relating to terrorism is plagued. The foreign fighter interview project sought to fill a massive void with respect to primary data chronicling radicalized individuals’ backgrounds, experiences, perceptions, thoughts, and explanations. Although the researchers faced significant deterrents and hurdles to collecting such data (described in section 1.2), their efforts have set an important Canadian precedent to increase the likelihood of such data collection efforts in the future; if their findings (section 1.1) are any indication, such data is invaluable for elucidating the radicalization process. The online forum project (section 2) also refined a web-crawling tool that can be applied to collect data and identify social networks of violent extremists in any online forums; their tool has wide applicability beyond jihadism for understanding networked relationships and how violent sentiment is expressed within them. With an eye to the future, however, the third project highlights the challenges of forecasting terrorist activity—both with respect to technology uses (section 3.1) and ideological zeitgeist (section 3.2)—based on past trends, and the problems inherent with cherry-picked data used to propagate hyperbole and specific issues. It is essential to consider terrorist activity systematically, and in the broader social and technological context in which it is embedded. As a collective, these projects overcome many significant data challenges in the study of extremist violence, providing important evidence-based analysis and advice for policy.
While the points of dialogue across projects discussed above are by no means an exhaustive review of the projects’ central findings, they are intended to highlight the importance of collaborative research design. Tackling the complex problem of extremist violence requires not only collaboration between policy officials and academic researchers, but also horizontal coordination across government departments and disciplinary silos (the academic researchers involved represent a wide range of academic traditions, from computer science, to sociology, criminology, geography, and international affairs). Components of terrorist violence and the processes of radicalization leading to its use are interrelated, and must be examined as a collective for a coherent picture to emerge. Interdisciplinary engagement and the collaboration of stakeholders and end-users in projects like these are integral to such an undertaking.
 As a means of attack, this project predicts that the next five years will see the Internet used for only very low-level nuisances, although new technological developments and generational shifts in attitudes and capabilities may lead to the Internet’s exploitation as a viable terrorist weapon in the post-2025 world (section 3.1).
This component of TSAS’ research activities was funded by the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP), led by Defence R&D Canada.