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Report of the Jury on the TRI Award Competition for “Best Ph.D. Dissertation on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism completed in 2013”

Over the course of the preceding academic year, the Directors of the Terrorism Research Initiative received and reviewed 29 valid entries (academic theses in the field of Terrorism Studies either completed or defended in 2013) for this annual competition. The final deadline to submit entries for this year’s competition was 31 March 2014.

While the gender distribution was practically even - 14 of the 29 dissertations were written by female scholars -  the country distribution was more uneven. The scholars submitting their theses to the competition came from eleven countries - Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Pakistan, Poland, Switzerland, United States, and United Kingdom. This less than global spread can partly be explained by the fact that one of the requirements was that the thesis had to be submitted in (or translated into) English. Except in one case where a Ph.D. supervisor submitted a doctoral thesis, all other dissertations were submitted by the authors themselves.

The jury used six criteria for the evaluation, the most important being these:

  • Is it the product of in-depth research?
  • Does it show originality in terms of introducing new data, theory or methodology?
  • Does it show novelty/uniqueness in its findings?  

The topics ranged from State Sponsored Terrorism to Socio-psychological Profiles of Terrorist Leaders in Israeli Prisons, and from The Potential Terrorist Threat of European Converts to Islam to Terrorised into Compliance: Why Countries Submit to Financial Counterterrorism. Many of the dissertations were of almost equal quality, which made it difficult for the jury to rank them. Notably, the five top-ranking dissertations were all written by female scholars. After several rounds of evaluations, three finalists were selected by the jury, and from these the winner.

The winner of the TRI Best Thesis Award 2013 is Dr. Tricia Bacon. She is currently a Professorial Lecturer at American University in Washington D.C. Her thesis, which was defended with distinction at Georgetown University, is titled Strange Bedfellows or Brothers-in-Arms: Why Terrorist Groups Ally. An article based on parts of her dissertation has been included in this issue of Perspectives on Terrorism. A book-length volume based on her nearly 800-pages long  text will be published by Pennsylvania University Press later this year. The Jury noted with appreciation the wide range of primary sources utilized by the author (including archival information, declassified documents from the Harmony database on Al-Qaeda, groups’ statements, interviews and trial transcripts) and the amount of field research  conducted in North Africa, the Near East and South Asia. The combination of quantitative methods resulting in the testing of hypotheses with a series of historical case studies led Dr. Bacon to reach findings that contradict the widely held assumption that terrorist groups easily form alliances. On the contrary, she found that - for lack of trust and other reasons (which she details in her article in this issue) -  alliances are rare, with less than one percent of terrorist attacks over a period of more than a quarter century being conducted by more than one terrorist group. Only very few armed groups manage to become what she terms “alliance hubs” like al-Qaeda. As readers of Perspectives on Terrorism will recognise, there is a considerable need for excellent research on the organisational behaviour and decision-making of terrorist groups. The winner in our competition has significantly expanded our knowledge in this area. The jury was impressed by Dr. Bacon’s command of the materials studied, the elegant style in which the thesis was written and the convincingly argued chief finding that contradicts conventional wisdom. For her ground-breaking work the Jury gave her the 1st Annual TRI Thesis Award of U.S. $1,000.-

A close second in the competition for the TRI Thesis Award 2013 was the dissertation submitted by Dr. Virginie Andre from Monash University, Australia. Based on many months of field work, her dissertation Framing Separatist Terrorism in Southern Thailand: Collision, Collusion and Convergence, utilises interviews with insurgents and non-insurgents alike while also making excellent use of locally collected leaflets and online materials. Digging deep into the history of the conflict (which has its roots in Siam’s conquest of the region in 1906) and using quasi-anthropological methods of investigation, she explains how an originally ethno-nationalist movement without a charismatic leader transformed into what she terms a ‘glocal neojihadist struggle’. The rapid expansion of jihadist ideologies from Middle Eastern terrorist groups to other regions of the world becomes more understandable in the light of her penetrating analysis. Dr. Andre has already received several awards for her sophisticated dissertation and we hope that an academic publisher will soon make her work more widely known.

The third finalist in the TRI Thesis Award competition is Dr. Donna G. Starr-Deelen, a lawyer by training and now an Attorney practicing in Kensington, Maryland. She received a Ph.D. degree in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford (UK) for her thesis on United States Use of Force against Terrorism and the Threat of Terrorism. While also utilising interviews to gather information (though far fewer than the other two finalists), the author draws mainly on a careful analysis of open source materials on the administrations of U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. She uses as an ‘explanatory lens’ a pattern of foreign policy making first noted by Harold Koh in his book The National Security Constitution – a pattern in which presidential actions in foreign affairs are characterised by ‘executive initiative, congressional acquiescence, and judicial tolerance’. The post-9/11 ‘power grab’ by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney is attributed to the combination of three factors: (i) the special dynamic of terrorism in which a frightened public demands action after a major attack while accepting high levels of government secrecy; (ii) a lack of congressional incentives and political will to practice effective oversight of the executive when it uses force against international terrorism; and (iii) the tendency of American courts to defer to the executive branch when it comes to national security decisions. A monograph titled Presidential Policies on Terrorism, based on Donna Starr-Deelen’s dissertation, has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan (New York, May 2014).

The Jury wishes to congratulate the finalists and offer our thanks to all participants who submitted their thesis for the TRI thesis award competition. Given the positive response of the research community to our first call to participate in this 2013 competition, the Terrorism Research Initiative has decided to make the TRI Thesis Award an annual feature of its portfolio of activities. In the next round, the award competition deadline for submitting a thesis completed or submitted in 2014 is 31 March 2015. We look forward to reviewing another great collection of entries.

The Jury: Alex P. Schmid (Chair), Robert Wesley, James J.F. Forest

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Perspectives on Terrorism is  a journal of the Terrorism Research Initiative and the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies

ISSN  2334-3745 (Online)

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