By Jeremy Manier
Photo courtesy of Campus Media Initiatives Group

Even if al-Qaeda becomes a thing of the past, that doesn’t mean terrorism will disappear. This field has become a key component of the academic world, and it will continue to contribute to our underst”
—Professor Robert Pape

In the space of an hour or so on the evening of May 1, the question that had driven Jenna Jordan’s academic research for four years suddenly became a topic of urgent interest for much of America.

Jordan, a doctoral candidate in political science, had amassed an extensive database detailing how terrorist organizations fare when their leaders are killed or captured. In fact she had just defended her doctoral thesis on the topic in late April, and was hatching an idea for her next research paper, on what might happen if the United States were to succeed in taking out terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

All of that research assumed fresh importance on May 1 as the world learned that U.S. Navy Seal commandos had killed bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader responsible for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Assessing the motivations and prospects of terrorist groups is the mission of UChicago scholars such as Jordan, her advisor Robert Pape, and Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, an associate professor for whom Jordan works as a post-doc at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies. Their work, always relevant to many citizens’ concerns, is getting renewed attention in the national media as pundits and policymakers try to fathom the implications of bin Laden’s death for the threat of terrorism and America’s relations with other nations.

Jordan and Pape argue that bin Laden’s death offers an opportunity to make additional strides against al-Qaeda by removing American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. Their prescription is based on their research, which suggests that over several decades and in many countries, suicide terrorism as a tactic has been fueled largely by regional hostility toward occupying military forces.

“To strike an even more devastating blow against al-Qaeda’s recruitment,” Jordan and Pape wrote in a May 4 op-ed for The Atlantic, “President Obama should begin major military withdrawals now while the group is reeling from the changes in the Arab world and from the loss of bin Laden.”

Growing Field Strengthens Understanding of Terrorism

Terrorism research wasn’t the specialty that Jordan expected to pursue when she first came to Chicago in 2001, shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks. But the aftermath of those attacks and Pape’s interests in the motives and patterns of terrorist groups convinced her that the field could bring intellectual rewards as well as practical policy applications.

“I knew I wanted to do work with some policy relevance, even if it didn’t actually influence policy,” Jordan said. “It was a natural progression that I got interested in terrorism.”

At the time of the 9/11 attacks, relatively little work in political science focused specifically on terrorism, said Pape, who is director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism at the University. That quickly changed, thanks in part to Pape’s work in creating an exhaustive database with details on more than 2,200 suicide terrorism attacks worldwide, spanning several decades of terrorist activities.

Yet the field still is maturing a decade after bin Laden’s biggest attack. Pape has calculated that through the 1980s and 1990s, all of the leading social science journals published a grand combined total of five articles on the subject of terrorism. Since 2001 alone those journals have published 42 articles on terrorism issues.

“What that means is that social scientists have come to the study of terrorism in a big way, in part because they saw how our strategies were weakened by the absence of good social science on this subject,” Pape said.

Bin Laden’s Death Brings New Challenges

Jordan’s data on the effects of “decapitation” of terrorist organizations suggests that bin Laden’s death alone may not significantly weaken al-Qaeda. She has found that the chances of disrupting a terrorist group by taking out its leader depend on three main factors: The terrorist group’s age, its size, and whether it is religious in nature. Al-Qaeda fits the profile of a group that is likely to survive decapitation intact; it is well-established, most likely has more than 500 members, and is grounded in an extreme interpretation of Islam.

“In the case of al-Qaeda, these patterns suggest that while bin Laden's death may destabilize the group in the short term, decapitation alone is not likely to be effective in causing its decline,” Jordan wrote in a May 3 op-ed for the Chicago Tribune.

Following bin Laden’s death, Jordan spread the word about her findings through op-eds and media appearances, in addition to a May 5 campus symposium where she spoke along with an anti-terrorism expert from West Point and Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, whose research focuses on applied game theory and political violence. Bueno de Mesquita said via email that the fallout from bin Laden’s death is different now than it would have been in 2001.

“Al-Qaeda has become increasingly transnational and decentralized,” Bueno de Mesquita noted. “This fact means that the counterterrorism mission of 2011 is quite different from the counterterrorism mission of 2001… The assassination of bin Laden provides a valuable opportunity to revisit our strategic counterterrorism objectives in light of a transformed and transforming enemy.”

Pape said he hopes the counterterrorism follow-up to bin Laden’s death eventually will help bring an end to the “war on terror.” But even if that happens, he believes the resurgence of academic interest in terrorism that began in 2001 will continue.

“Even if al-Qaeda becomes a thing of the past, that doesn’t mean terrorism will disappear,” Pape said. “This field has become a key component of the academic world, and it will continue to contribute to our understanding of world events in the future.”

Originally published on May 9, 2011.