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Inside the Mind of a Terrorist

CEHC’s Gary Ackerman Introduces a New Definition for Terrorist Ideology

Gary Ackerman’s research focuses on understanding how terrorists and other adversaries make tactical, operational and strategic decisions.

ALBANY, N.Y. (June 18, 2019) – Two months ago, nine Sri Lankan suicide bombers orchestrated one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in modern history, targeting churches and hotels in the country’s capital on Easter Sunday. About 250 people were killed and another 500 were injured. Most of the bombers were educated and from middle- to upper-class families.

Following the attack, many of us, including College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity Associate Professor Gary Ackerman, were left with the same question – what drives a terrorist?

“As a terrorism scholar, one thing that has always frustrated me is the inconsistencies among experts in our field on what motivates terrorism behavior,” said Ackerman.

“Ideology has long been cast as a shaper of human behavior, so conventional wisdom tells us that it would fuel the behavior of terrorists in some way. But, the relationship between terrorist ideology and behavior continues to be hotly debated among scholars.”

Ackerman, along Michael Burnham, a data scientist and national security consultant for Deloitte, decided it was time to take matters their own hands. The two published a paper in Terrorism and Political Violence that constructs a new definition for terrorist ideology.

The definition is influenced by nearly 300 English-language articles and books that discuss or research ideology. Through their analysis, Ackerman and Burnham captured a total of 46 distinct descriptions for the term, including 21 definitions that were applied directly to terrorism, 19 to the broader concept of ideology and six to general types of violence or extremism. Research was supported by the Science and Technology Directorate of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Ackerman said he’s hopeful the paper will become a new framework for researchers, and help to divulge which aspects of a terrorist organization’s ideology are most relevant to its violent behavior.

“This paper can be used to analyze terrorist behavior in a more systematic and scientific way,” Ackerman said. “We acknowledge that not all terrorism scholars will unequivocally accept the definition offered here, but our hope is that this contribution to the discussion will at the very least spark a renewed and more precise consideration of the topic.”

Ackerman, who grew up in South Africa, joined CEHC in 2018. In addition to his faculty position, he’s also the founding director of the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), to which he remains a senior advisor.

At UAlbany, Ackerman’s research focuses on understanding how terrorists and other adversaries make tactical, operational and strategic decisions. You can learn more by visiting his University expert page.

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