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Terrorism & Counterterrorism

Faculty, students and research associates in the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies examine a broad range of research questions, from terrorist group decision-making to radicalization to strategies that encourage disengagement from violence.

Subject Matter Expert BIOS

Research Projects

Title: Bio-Markers and Counter-Messages: Measuring Individual Differences in the Influence of Extremist Propaganda and Counter-Messages 
Funding Agency: Department of Defense
Description: The recent surge of trans-regional threats coupled with global interconnectivity have made the current operational environment increasingly dynamic and complex for the Department of Defense (DoD). Many contemporary battles are now fought off the battlefield; a campaign for the hearts and minds of people around the world, both allies and adversaries, hangs in the balance. Ensuring that the United States can adeptly and efficiently counter violent extremism messaging is critical to sustaining the United States’ global security interests. However, to meet this challenge, researchers must understand and measure how messaging campaigns can shift the emotions, attitudes, motivations and behaviors of a variety of target audiences.
            Specifically, using experimental methods we have found useful in the past, we propose 6 innovations surrounding these issues that will be both theoretically, and pragmatically useful to DoD and associated personnel;
1. Addressing the gaps in the existing research surrounding the psychological interaction of individual, extremist message and counter-message.
2. Apply a new theoretical framework to the role of extremist propaganda in the radicalization process (namely Behavioral Activation and Behavioral Inhibition; BAS/BIS).
3. Integrate psychometric, neurobiological and physiological measures of BAS/BIS as predictors of responses to exposure to extremist propaganda.
4. Empirically evaluate individual differences in BIS/BAS activation and behavior in response to exposure to extremist propaganda.
5. Measure short-term extremist-related cognitions and medium-term behavioral measures of interaction with extremist messages and counter-messages.
6. Empirically evaluate CVE messaging strategies on changes in BIS/BAS activation and behavior (as well as individual differences).

Title: Using Narrative Analysis to Detect Level of Threat in Online Expressions of Malicious Intent 
Funding Agency: University of Massachusetts Lowell
Description: Researchers at the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies (CTSS) and the Department of Psychology seek to develop an inter-disciplinary collaboration that develops new data and expertise in a currently unstudied aspect of counter-terrorism. Specifically this proposal seeks to apply a novel form of narrative and discourse analysis to explore whether online expression of intent and ideology can be used to diagnose an individuals’ intent to engage in extremist behavior. Researchers in the field of security studies have thus far been unable to make informed judgments about the risks posed by an individual based on the nature of their online activity and expressions of ideology. Furthermore, as a field we sorely lack any experimental methods to begin to explore this issue and develop theories and “markers” that could, with further research, be operationalized in the security domain. Therefore, this project will study the utility of exploring the syntax and discourse structure of an individual’s online narrative in order to determine the risks that an individual might commit an act of terrorism. If meaningful patterns in the data can be found, this research will have implications for the prioritization and investigation of terrorist suspects. This proposal will leverage the CTSS internship (a immersive, student driven applied learning experience) alongside paid RA positions in order to build, and analyze, a large-n dataset of terrorist online narratives. These narratives will then be subjected to discourse analysis by trained undergraduate RAs.

Title: Hearts, minds and counter-messages: An experimental test of personality on reactions to extremist propaganda and counter-extremist messages. 
Funding Agency: TSAS: The Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security, and Society
Description: Practitioners, academics and society are turning their attention to the problem of “online radicalization.” While the availability of terroristic material online is a significant security concern we have little insight into the effects of being exposure to such material. Instead we all too often, and without evidence, hold that exposure to terrorist propaganda online “causes” radicalization resulting in terrorist behavior. Linked to this is the view that “counter-messages” aimed at challenging extremist voices are central to an effective counter violent extremism (CVE) strategy. However, while counter-messages show significant promise for discouraging support for terrorism, there are few attempts to offer theory-based guidelines to construct them and no measures of their effectiveness (Braddock & Horgan, 2015). Currently counter-messages are not developed based on sound scientific principles, nor tested using empirical metrics of effectiveness. Thus, while some counter-messages have been well received and viewed as “effective” (e.g., Extreme Dialogues), others have been met with skepticism and viewed as unsuccessful (e.g., “Think Now Turn Away”). Efforts to develop credible and effective counter-messages currently lack data-driven support for their development, or evaluation. The fact that scientific research on deterrent messaging has shown that poorly developed counter-messages can cause a “boomerang” effect increasing negative outcomes rather than preventing them emphasizes the need for social science support in the development and evaluation of counter-messages aimed at countering the voices of extremists online. The goal of this research then, and building upon experimental work currently being undertaken by the PI, is to experimentally test the effectiveness of several difference types of counter-messaging campaigns. 
Specifically this research seeks to investigate:
R1: Under what circumstances do CVE counter-messages mitigate the effects of extremist propaganda
R2: Under what circumstances do CVE counter-messages inoculate against the effects of extremist propaganda
R3: What combination of factors improves the effectiveness of some types of CVE counter-messages over others, and why?


Perspectives on Terrorism

This peer-reviewed scholarly journal is published 6 times per year, and is the most widely read publication of its kind worldwide. Browse the archives of the journal. All articles and issues are available to download for free. Recent special issues of the journal have cover topics such as The Islamic State, Terrorist Group Decision Making, Terrorism Finance, and Terrorism in Africa. For more information on the journal, please contact Co-Editor, James Forest [ ]

Faculty in the CTSS have published dozens of books and journal articles. Please see their bio pages for more information.

Faculty members of the Center are also on the Editorial Board for scholarly journals such as the "Journal of Transportation Security," the "Journal of Strategic Security," and "Terrorism and Political Violence."

Free to Download

  • Idler, Annette I. and Forest, James J.F. “Behavioral Patterns among (Violent) Non-State Actors: A Study of Complementary Governance.” Stability: International Journal of Security and Development 4(1): 2 (January). 
  • Forest, James. J.F. U.S. Military Deployments to Africa: Lessons from the Hunt for Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Tampa, FL: JSOU Press. 86 pages. ISBN: 9781933749891.
  • Forest, James J.F. “A Framework for Analyzing the Future Threat of WMD Terrorism,” Journal of Strategic Security 5(4), pp. 51-68.
  • Meservey, Joshua James J.F. Forest and Graham Turbiville. Countering the al-Shabaab Insurgency in Somalia: Lessons for U.S. Special Operations Forces. Tampa, FL: JSOU Press. 145 pages. ISBN: 9781933749853.
  • Forest, James. J.F. Countering the Terrorism Threat of Boko Haram in Nigeria. Tampa, FL: JSOU Press. 176 pages. ISBN: 9781933749709.

Selected Books

  • Essentials of Counterterrorism. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2015. 476 pages. ISBN: 9781440832833.
  • The Terrorism Lectures (Second Edition). Los Angeles, CA: Nortia Press, 2015. 390 pages. ISBN: 9781940503066.
  • Intersections of Crime and Terror. London: Routledge, 2013. ISBN: 9780415639613.
  • Homeland Security and Terrorism: Readings and Interpretations (2nd Edition). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013. ISBN: 9780078026294.