Book Review: A Practitioner's Way Forward: Terrorism Analysis by David Brannan, Kristin Darken, and Anders Strindberg (Salinas, CA: Agile Press, 2014)

By Dahl, Erik J. | Homeland Security Affairs, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Book Review: A Practitioner's Way Forward: Terrorism Analysis by David Brannan, Kristin Darken, and Anders Strindberg (Salinas, CA: Agile Press, 2014)


Dahl, Erik J., Homeland Security Affairs


This short (141 pages) and very readable book is a good introduction to some of the most useful concepts and best practices for terrorism analysis. As the title suggests, it is written primarily for practitioners, such as working professionals from law enforcement, fire services, or emergency management who find themselves serving as intelligence and homeland security analysts. The focus is on terrorism analysis, but many of the principles discussed in the book would be useful for anyone--whether practitioner or student--who is working to understand and analyze homeland and national security threats.

The authors attempt to provide a structure to the terrorism analytical process, which is a very useful effort because much of the focus of reform efforts within the American intelligence community since the 9/11 attacks has been aimed at improving the work of analysis. The book is partly a work about terrorism, and partly about the business of intelligence analysis, and thus it fits somewhere between the vast terrorism studies literature and the smaller set of works on intelligence analysis. Other more comprehensive books are available on intelligence analysis in general,1 and on homeland security intelligence in particular,2 but this book offers a different approach, primarily because it emphasizes the use of Social Identity Theory (SIT) as an overall framework for terrorism analysis.

The first chapter is an overview of some of most important challenges facing all intelligence and terrorism analysts, such as the cognitive biases from which we all suffer. The authors explain that a primary goal of the book is to help the reader apply structured thinking to overcome these biases; as an example, they encourage analysts to seek out primary source material on potential problems or threats, rather than relying on second hand accounts. This may be obvious to most intelligence professionals (or to most graduate students), but it is worth emphasizing, especially in a book aimed at those without extensive experience or training in analysis.

Chapter 2 reviews and critiques much of the current academic and popular work on terrorism, arguing that "much of terrorism literature lacks the theoretical frameworks that are needed to support or produce accurate analysis" (p. 24). They criticize some popular publications on terrorism for lacking any theoretical framework, and this is a valuable point. A good model of high-quality, practically focused terrorism analysis might be that done by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, especially in their journal the CTC Sentinel.3

The authors of this book appear to be on shakier ground, however, in arguing that many academic students of terrorism have persisted in believing that most terrorists are mentally ill or suffer from some psychological disturbance (pp. 28-29). Most mainstream terrorism scholars have for some time moved on from these earlier theories which attributed much terrorism violence to psychological deviance, so this criticism comes across as a bit of a straw man. Nonetheless, there is an ongoing debate among terrorism scholars over the appropriate methodology to be used in terrorism research today, so this book's fresh approach is worthwhile.4 The authors argue that no single theory can explain all the different types and varieties of terrorism, and they offer Social Identity Theory as an overall framework for analysis.

Chapters 3 and 4 introduce Social Identity Theory (SIT), which involves attempting to understand how individuals--such as terrorists--are part of groups that are driven fundamentally by the same types of mechanisms, wants, and needs as other groups (p. 56). They note that analysts must be able to look at terrorist groups objectively, and even with empathy. This can be difficult, especially for law enforcement professionals whose job it is to arrest such individuals, not necessarily to understand them. In chapter 5 the authors argue that the principles of SIT can be used to analyze a wide variety of groups, including rightwing Christian fundamentalist groups, and not just the radical Islamist groups that receive most of the attention. …

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