Terrorism expert Martha Crenshaw receives honorary doctorate

Memorial plate remembering the victims of 9/11 (large view)

Memorial plate remembering the victims of 9/11

(14-09-2016) On 15 September Ghent University awards an honorary doctorate to professor Martha Crenshaw, pionier in terrorism studies.

Martha Crenshaw is a pioneer in the field of terrorism studies. Her research started over 40 years ago, when it was still a marginal subject in the social sciences.

In her crucial article ‘The Causes of Terrorism’ (1981), she states that context is essential to understand what terrorism is and what motivates individuals and groups to resort to violence. Martha Crenshaw is now professor of Political Science at Stanford University.

We had the opportunity to ask her a few questions.

Interview with Martha Crenshaw

First of all, a very general question: what is terrorism exactly?

A form of politically motivated, organized violence that depends on shock and surprise. It requires small numbers of perpetrators to commit an act that leverages emotions to produce political effect.

In ‘The Causes of Terrorism” you explain how context and the terrorist’s perception are essential to understanding terrorism. Do you feel this is now more generally accepted or are there still too many misconceptions? 

Scholars accept these points, but politicians may not.  Many still tend to stereotype and over-simplify.  

You also stated that terrorist are often impatient. Does this mean that there may be more and more terrorist attacks, as you also say that a sense of urgency may develop when similar attacks are successful and create a momentum? Is this something we need to keep in mind, or do you think this strategy has changed? 

I think that ISIS and its supporters think in the long term and are willing to tolerate setbacks in the short term because they believe they will triumph in the long term.  I do think that contagion effects operate, and that rivalries among like-minded groups can also lead to escalation.  At the same time it appears important to ISIS to stand out from other jihadists by its ruthlessness, including ruthlessness toward fellow Musims.  I also call attention to the importance of organizations. 

You think that the deradicalization programmes are not very successful. Do you believe there is a way out for a terrorist, that his or her perception can change?

The answer is really very dependent on the individual.  Some studies have found that imprisoned terrorists do mellow over time; they age, and they have time to reflect. But in the short run there are very few objective evaluations of the success of radicalization programs, and from what we do know of success it is time-consuming and costly on an individual basis.  

Vengeance on behalf of comrades is important in terrorism. What I understand from this, is that bombing the terrorists only motivates them more to react with violence. However, you end the article with saying that terrorism may endure until the terrorist group is physically destroyed. Do you still believe this now? Or is there another solution? 

There are groups that have abandoned terrorism e.g. in Egypt.  But vengeance and retribution are still strong motivations, e.g. AQ or ISIS vs. Western countries considered 'crusaders."  There is much ongoing debate over whether forceful responses are provocative or effective.  It does appear to deprive groups that control territory of their sanctuary. 

Do you think the reaction of our governments on terrorist attacks is right? Or are too many decisions made in the heat of the moment? In addition, is there a rational way to cope with terrorism? 

Big questions. Many different government reactions. Yes, probably too many crisis decisions when reflection would be better.  Policy has to be realistic and accept limitations to what government can do, but democracies are under extreme pressure to protect the public.  

With the attacks of the ‘lone wolves’ in these last few months, are they the ones we should be more worried about? 

Individuals acting out of inspiration for ISIS are a problem, certainly, but are they really alone?  They are responding to an explicit call from a central organization.  But is is very hard to predict or say in advance who is likely to be susceptible to the appeal. 

Are you looking forward to coming to Ghent and receiving your honorary doctorate with Rik Coolsaet as your promotor?

Yes, indeed, and I want to congratulate my distinguished colleague and friend on his retirement as well as express my gratitude to the university for this immense honor.