Terrorist Attacks Highlight New Research Needs


On 22 July this year Norway was hit by two horrific acts of terrorism, carried out by a single individual. A total of 77 people died as a result of the bombing at the Government buildings in Oslo and the subsequent massacre of participants at a national Labour Party youth camp on nearby Utøya island.

“These acts of terrorism raise new questions related to societal security, risk and emergency preparedness,” says Director General of the Research Council of Norway Arvid Hallén.

Research Council fully involved

“Although more knowledge cannot make us entirely secure or give us a complete understanding, we need to look at how research can provide us with better answers to the questions we ask ourselves in situations like these,” states Mr Hallén.

“This follow-up work will involve a wide range of actors, but the Research Council has a particular responsibility to identify knowledge needs, compile existing knowledge and help to ensure that knowledge is utilised. This must be done through close dialogue with the research communities and the government authorities,” he emphasises.

Changing focus

Since 22 July the Research Council has received questions about the kinds of security research that have been funded to date.

“We have been particularly concerned with prevention, preparedness and crisis management within a number of thematic areas. The focus of the research has shifted from terrorists themselves to acts of terrorism and the issue of security,” explains Mr Hallén.

These issues were of key focus under the Research Council’s recently concluded five-year Research Programme on Societal Security and Risk (SAMRISK).

“The topics covered by the many excellent projects carried out under the SAMRISK programme have proven to be more in tune with reality than most of us would have wished,” says Mr Hallén.

Changing threat picture

According to the final report of the SAMRISK programme, which was published this summer, the overall threat situation is not necessarily more frightening than before, but it is different.

The report emphasises the fact that new challenges give rise to new demands for societal security and preparedness. Globalisation, terrorism and climate change are only a few key issues, the report states. The report also draws attention to how unpredictable the threat situation can be.

22 July will affect the research agenda

“Acute crises and dramatic events such as the terrorist attacks on 22 July reveal a need for new research that can create a knowledge base for preventing and dealing with events of this kind in the future,” states Professor Tore Bjørgo, a terrorism expert at the Norwegian Police University College in Oslo. He is certain that the 22 July attacks will have an impact on the agenda for security research in the future.

“Should the Research Council, in cooperation with relevant ministries, decide to establish a new research programme, its focus should be on developing new knowledge about extremism and the response of society,” he says.

“The new right-wing extremism and the anti-Jihad movement are obvious topics, as are militant islamism and other forms of violent extremism. The ideological backdrop to terrorist violence should also be studied more closely and more knowledge is needed about radicalisation processes that lead individuals and groups to support or participate in extreme acts of violence. The events of 22 July have also made the issues of solo terrorism and militant activism on the Internet more pressing.”

Stronger focus on tactical and operational aspects

According to Professor Bjørgo not enough attention has been devoted to the tactical and operational aspects of terrorist activity.

“This applies both to the terrorists’ planning and choice of target, as well as their attempts to remain undetected. Crisis management and preparedness are relevant research topics that can shed light on society’s response. Analysis of the crisis communication of political leaders, the police, the media and other relevant actors also offers an opportunity for constructive learning,” he says.

“A number of aspects of the work of the police in preventing and dealing with terrorist acts and other crises warrant closer examination,” states Professor Bjørgo, singling out the monitoring of militant activism on the Internet, intelligence and the potential for preventing attacks as other important research topics.

What does security really mean?

“In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Norway on 22 July many people have come to view security research as synonymous with terrorism research. But terrorism is just one of many challenging areas of security research,” states Peter Burgess, Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

There are many questions to be answered. Can security be measured objectively using proven social science methods? Or is security something we feel and experience? Is security an individual or collective phenomenon? Is it to do with technology or psychology? Should security be safeguarded by implementing physical measures or should we concentrate on emotional and social measures? Should the focus be on preparedness or protection?

“Views on these issues will most likely differ substantially among experts, public bodies and citizens,” states Professor Burgess.

“We need to acquire extensive, interdisciplinary knowledge about the various aspects of societal security,” he says, pointing out the importance of solid empirical and interdisciplinary social science research as a tool for examining the needs and expectations of the various sectors of society with regard to security issues.

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