Blog by Omar Al-Ubaydli, Researcher in Derasat, Bahrain.

Omar Al-Ubaydli




We Need More South-South Cooperation on the Study of Counterterrorism

In 2016, the top ten countries that experienced terrorist attacks were (in descending order): Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Philippines, Nigeria, Turkey, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia. Evidently, despite the high levels of media coverage for terrorist acts committed in western countries, it is the developing world that suffers most greatly at the hands of terrorists.

Much of the globe’s counterterrorism effort is spearheaded by western countries, including armed interventions in the developing world, such as the broad military alliance that has been combating Daesh. Sometimes, it falls under the umbrella of the United Nations; while on other occasions, it reflects cooperation exclusively between western countries. Much less frequent are cases of “south-south” cooperation in the counterterrorism arena. How can developing countries increase their joint counterterrorism activities?

One key area is individual-level data on convicted terrorists. Psychologists and criminologists have been studying the actions of social deviants for decades, with a primary source of information being interviews and individual-level surveys with criminals. Sitting down with criminals face-to-face and exposing them to a battery of scientifically-selected questions yields incredibly valuable insights regarding their motivations and propensities, which in turn opens the door to crafting effective prevention and individual rehabilitation policies, complementing various socio-economic policies to prevent violent conflict.

This process is augmented by affording the scholars who study deviant behavior the opportunity to disseminate their findings in the scientific literature, so that they can solicit feedback from their colleagues; systematic peer-review is a critical link in the chain of producing valuable and reliable knowledge.

Unfortunately, when scholars study terrorism—specifically its genesis—they are rarely provided the opportunity to deploy the same techniques that conventional psychologists and criminologists use. This can be attributed to two causes.

First: security concerns. When governments apprehend terrorists, given the unconventional threat that they and their parent organizations pose to natural safety, the authorities are keen to limit the number of people who can communicate with the terrorists. Moreover, terrorist attacks tend to happen in developing countries, while the world’s leading scholars of terrorism are typically from western countries; granting these researchers access to terrorists within developing countries is even more precarious from a national security perspective. In-house researchers may get access, but they will not be allowed to reap the benefits of peer review that conventional scholars have, severely limiting the insights that they can derive.

This introduces the second cause, which is that academic scholars from developing countries have thus far exhibited limited interest in approaching authorities to study terrorism via direct interviews of terrorists. For example, in the Gulf countries, which have experienced a considerable number of terrorist attacks during the last 20 years, the process of drafting counterterrorism policy does not involve local scholars, with the possible exception of religious scholars, because Gulf citizens do not study terrorism as an intellectual discipline. Authorities would surely exhibit a greater appetite for engaging local scholars than foreign ones, but for the most part, there are no local scholars.

What does this have to do with south-south cooperation? Transnational terrorism—which tends to attract more media attention than domestic terrorism—represents less than 50% of global terrorist attacks. However, when it does arise, it often involves terrorists from one developing country carrying out attacks in another developing country, most notably in the Iraqi and Syrian theaters of late. Despite the suffering such acts cause to the affected populations, they do offer an opportunity for greater south-south cooperation in the academic counterterrorism domain.

In particular, developing countries should consider the following two-step process. First, they should announce domestically an interest in introducing academic discourse into their security-based counterterrorism efforts; thus, there should be a call for citizens to seize the baton of studying terrorist psychology. This should include a directive for the security apparatus in charge of apprehending and interrogating terrorists to open the doors to interested scholars, based on a genuine belief that they can contribute meaningfully to the drafting of counterterrorism policies.

Second, in the case of transnational terrorism, there should be a call to create research consortia featuring the local terrorism scholars, with the goal of pooling insights garnered from local studies of terrorists. Ideally, authorities would permit these multinational teams of terrorism researchers to interview terrorists together, so that they can share knowledge of best practices gained from their own locales. In principle, since these teams will feature citizens of the countries affected by terrorism, authorities may be more sympathetic to their requests for access, as compared to scholars from western countries where the damage caused by terrorism—while substantial—falls significantly short of the suffering experienced by people in the developing world.

Finally, beyond the direct, counterterrorism benefits that would result from such efforts, it is worth noting that they would also contribute to assisting developing countries in their transition to knowledge economies. This is especially true in the case of the Gulf countries, which are in need of upgrading their investment in research and development. A successful project in the counterterrorism domain could hopefully offer a blueprint that can be deployed in other sectors.

Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain.