The epistemologies of terrorism and counterterrorism research

Authored by: Quassim Cassam

The Routledge International Handbook of Universities, Security and Intelligence Studies

Print publication date:  October  2019
Online publication date:  October  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138572416
eBook ISBN: 9780203702086
Adobe ISBN:


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What leads a person to turn to terrorism or political violence? 1 This question, posed by Marc Sageman (2017b), has preoccupied the intelligence community, policy makers, and terrorism scholars. Three epistemological perspectives on Sageman’s question can be distinguished: scepticism, particularism, and generalism. In this context, scepticism is the view that while the question is legitimate, it is not one to which we now know or ever will know the answer. One reason is that the identification and evaluation, by means of large-scale observational studies, of the causes or risk factors of involvement in terrorism is not feasible. In the absence of such testing, theories that purport to answer Sageman’s question are unverified hypotheses rather than expressions of genuine knowledge. Some sceptics have gone further and questioned the idea that terrorism is, even in principle, an object of knowledge. On this view, as Stampnitzky (2013) characterises it, ‘if terrorists are evil and irrational, then one cannot – and indeed should not – know them’ (p. 189).

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