Dawson, Lorne and Amarnath Amarasingam. 2016. “Trying to Talk to Terrorists: Ethical and Methodological Challenges in Canada” TSAS Working Paper 16-13. Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society. http://tsas.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/TSASWP16-13_Dawson-Amarasingam.pdf
Scholars have long shied away from talking to terrorists. This is because there are significant methodological and ethical problems posed by such research. How can we manage those challenges and facilitate such research?
Terrorism scholars face a unique challenge: accessing “primary data.” Most social sciences use interviews with those they are studying as an essential source of information. Terrorists, however, normally wish to keep their identity and activities secret. They are extraordinarily hard to access, and all interactions with them entail a range of physical, legal, and social risks, for both the interviewers and the interviewees. Consequently, research based on such data is very rare. This study documents how these challenges were negotiated in a study involving 130 interviews with jihadist foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq (40), the family members and friends of such fighters (60), and other kinds of supporters of jihadism online (30).