In Their Own Words? Methodological Considerations in the Analysis of Terrorist Autobiographies

Mary Beth Altier, John Horgan, Christian Thoroughgood
2012 Journal of Strategic Security  
Despite the growth of terrorism literature in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, there remain several methodological challenges to studying certain aspects of terrorism. This is perhaps most evident in attempts to uncover the attitudes, motivations, and intentions of individuals engaged in violent extremism and how they are sometimes expressed in problematic behavior. Such challenges invariably stem from the fact that terrorists and the organizations to which they belong represent clandestine
more » ... esent clandestine populations engaged in illegal activity. Unsurprisingly, these qualities make it difficult for the researcher to identify and locate willing subjects of study-let alone a representative sample. In this research note, we suggest the systematic analysis of terrorist autobiographies offers a promising means of investigating difficult-to-study areas of terrorism-related phenomena. Investigation of autobiographical accounts not only offers additional data points for the study of individual psychological issues, but also provides valuable perspectives on the internal structures, processes, and dynamics of terrorist organizations more broadly. Moreover, given most autobiographies cover critical events and personal experiences across the life course, they provide a unique lens into how terrorists perceive their world and insight into their decision-making processes. We support our advocacy of this approach by highlighting its methodological strengths and shortcomings. Abstract Despite the growth of terrorism literature in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, there remain several methodological challenges to studying certain aspects of terrorism. This is perhaps most evident in attempts to uncover the attitudes, motivations, and intentions of individuals engaged in violent extremism and how they are sometimes expressed in problematic behavior. Such challenges invariably stem from the fact that terrorists and the organizations to which they belong represent clandestine populations engaged in illegal activity. Unsurprisingly, these qualities make it difficult for the researcher to identify and locate willing subjects of study-let alone a representative sample. In this research note, we suggest the systematic analysis of terrorist autobiographies offers a promising means of investigating difficult-to-study areas of terrorism-related phenomena. Investigation of autobiographical accounts not only offers additional data points for the study of individual psychological issues, but also provides valuable perspectives on the internal structures, processes, and dynamics of terrorist organizations more broadly. Moreover, given most autobiographies cover critical events and personal experiences across the life course, they provide a unique lens into how terrorists perceive their world and insight into their decision-making processes. We support our advocacy of this approach by highlighting its methodological strengths and shortcomings.
doi:10.5038/1944-0472.5.4.6 fatcat:flslkfu3mfgxvkvjgojo3popki