U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs; National Institute of Justice The Research, Development, and Evaluation Agency of the U.S. Department of Justice U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice ProgramsNational Institute of JusticeThe Research, Development, and Evaluation Agency of the U.S. Department of Justice

How Terrorists Learn

2009 NIJ Conference 2009
Michael Kenney, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Political Science and Fellow
International Center for the Study of Terrorism, Pennsylvania State University

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I would say that based on my field research in Britain and Spain — home to two of the most devastating post-9/11 attacks that we've seen — that yes, although the Islamist militants do learn, their ability to do so is quite limited; they're not very good at it. And we need to be careful of these depictions that we see in the media of the "superterrorist." When you start unpacking actual terrorist operations, including the Madrid bombings on 3/11, the London tube and bus bombings on 7/7 a year later, what you see, time after time, are basic mistakes in operational trade craft and just sheer sloppiness by the terrorists.

The good news is that this gives law enforcers — alert law enforcers — and citizens an opportunity in our ongoing struggle to protect the United States and our allies in Western Europe. This sort of insight can be uncovered through the sort of qualitative ethnographic field work that the NIJ is sponsoring. We need to get on the ground, dig deep — deeper than the news reports — we need to unpack operations through carefully, systematically designed case studies to find out what's really going on. That will help us get beyond the hyperbole and closer to the truth.

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NIJ Conference
Interview
June 2009
Michael Kenney, Assistant Professor, Pennsylvania State University

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Date modified: April 15, 2011