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Research and Innovation

Study: There Is Almost No Research on What Distinguishes Potential Terrorists

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For Immediate Release

A recent analysis of the existing research on factors associated with an individual’s risk for engaging in terrorist activity highlights how little we know about these factors and the need for additional research in this area.

“It’s important to have a better understanding of what distinguishes potential terrorists from individuals who pose little or no risk of becoming terrorists, whether we’re talking about Middle Eastern terrorist organizations or domestic terrorists in the United States,” says Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and lead author of a paper on the work. “When we looked into this area, we found that there is surprisingly little research in the field – and that needs to be addressed.”

The researchers conducted a systematic review of research literature, dating back to 1990, related to factors associated with an individual’s joining a terrorist organization or perpetrating terrorist attacks.

The in-depth review found 205 articles relevant to the subject matter, of which only 50 reported on findings related to empirical data. Of those 50, only 24 articles included any statistical analysis. And of those 24, only six articles compared the characteristics of terrorists to the characteristics of non-terrorists – which is essential if the work is going to offer any insight into what factors are associated with terrorist behavior.

“Basically, over the past quarter century, there have been six research articles that are useful in identifying someone who is likely to engage in terrorism,” Desmarais says. “And the quality of those six studies is variable.

“There may be classified research I’m not aware of, but this highlights the need for more research in this area,” Desmarais says. “It is, literally, an issue that can affect national security.”

The paper, “The State of Scientific Knowledge Regarding Factors Associated With Terrorism,” is published in the Journal of Threat Assessment and Management. The paper was co-authored by Joseph Simons-Rudolph, a teaching assistant professor of psychology at NC State; Christine Brugh and Eileen Schilling, graduate students at NC State; and Chad Hoggan, an assistant professor of educational leadership, policy and human development at NC State. The work was done with funding from the Laboratory for Analytic Sciences, a research partnership between NC State and the National Security Agency.


Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“The State of Scientific Knowledge Regarding Factors Associated With Terrorism”

Authors: Sarah L. Desmarais, Joseph Simons-Rudolph, Christine Brugh, Eileen Schilling and Chad Hoggan, North Carolina State University

Published: Sept. 14, Journal of Threat Assessment and Management

DOI: 10.1037/tam0000090

Abstract: We conducted a systematic review of the contemporary scientific literature to (a) identify consensus, where it exists, regarding factors associated with membership in terrorist organizations and/or perpetration of terrorist attacks; b) drive future research directions; and c) inform evidence-based counterterrorism strategies. Systematic searches of 6 databases identified 205 articles that met inclusion criteria. Of these, 50 articles reported on findings of empirical research, 24 reported inferential statistics, and 6 of these compared characteristics of known terrorists to nonterrorists. Across various aspects of terrorism and terrorists (e.g., type of terrorist, attack type), articles rarely specified their focus. When examined factors typically focused on characteristics of the individual. Review of the empirical findings suggest 9 variables with at least some support for their association with terrorism: age, socioeconomic status, prior arrest, education, employment, relationship status, having a grievance, geographic locale, and type of geographic area. However, given the limitations of the research, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that any of these variables are empirically supported risk factors. Findings identified additional characteristics of an individual (i.e., country of birth, Islamic faith, military experience, foreign travel history, family or friend in a terrorist or extremist organization) and their environment (i.e., income inequality, media and government influences) that merit further evaluation. Findings also emphasized the importance of a triggering event. Finally, findings indicate that some widely accepted “risk” factors have limited empirical support for their association with terrorism. A focus on these factors might contribute to discrimination and reduce the effectiveness of counterterrorism strategies.