A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Researcher Spotlight: Nil Satana

Researcher Spotlight: Nil Satana

October 26, 2012Catherine Llamido

Nil Satana This month's Researcher Spotlight features Nil Satana, a START researcher and visiting scholar born and raised in Turkey. She is currently living in the metropolitan D.C. area for her one-year sabbatical funded by Bilkent University and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.

She has received several grants such as the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) award and scholarship to attend methods courses at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Satana is currently writing a book on the security sector reform in Turkey and also collecting data to merge START's Global Terrorism Database (GTD) and CIDCM's Minorities at Risk projects.

Can you tell me what was it like learning English as your second language? Since Turkish is my native language, I started learning English when I was 12 in secondary school and then my parents sent me to a language summer school in Cambridge, UK when I was only 13. So I became fluent in English the hard way, which was in a foreign environment with teenagers from all over the world trying to teach each other English.

I had classes taught in English during high school and later when at Bogazici University in Istanbul. A bulk of my classes was taught in English, which helped me build my vocabulary. So, I am probably more fluent discussing the latest developments in Syria in English than I am in Turkish. Fluent with an accent, that is.

Describe how your educational background drew you to studying political science and international relations. After my undergraduate years studying Political Science and International Relations at Bogazici University, I worked a few years in the private sector until I realized that I really wanted to attend graduate school. I first worked in an import company and traveled to places like Hong Kong and interacted with different cultures. Although I enjoyed it a lot, I felt like I was meant to do something else with my life. I just did not know what it was.

However, I knew I was going to apply for grad schools in the U.S. and I started studying for the GRE and TOEFL tests. My game theory professor from Bogazici University mentioned Professor Frank Zagarea to me, a renowned game theorist at the State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo. That was when I decided that I wanted to work with him and learn how to apply game theory to conflict situations. At the time, I was particularly interested in civil conflicts since my home country, Turkey, has dealt with Kurdish separatism for a very long time and terrorist attacks from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) were just coming to a halt in 1999. Also since I was born in Mardin, which is in the area where the Kurdish insurgency started, I was especially interested in how political and cultural rights (or there lack of) led to conflict situations.

What was it like doing field work in Iraq? Were there any particular challenges and encounters? I ended up building a game theoretical model on this particular issue and tested the model using qualitative and quantitative methods after carrying out field research in Turkey and Iraq. Field work in Iraq was not easy since I was there in 2005 just before the first "democratic" election and the second one in 2009. The Kurdish areas that I was traveling in 2005 were safe, but Baghdad in 2009 was a whole different story.

You think you know a conflict or a situation too well until you actually go to a city and see how it is ruined under fire. It is especially disturbing to see how the things we want to preserve for the next generation -- all the palaces, monuments and the history -- are destroyed as a result of war. In 2009, I was in Baghdad together with United Nations Election Observers and I can say that trying to establish democracy in a foreign country with no such culture is trickier than first meets the eye. You also learn not to believe everything that you read in the newspapers!

What was your favorite course that you taught at Bilkent?
I've taught conflict related courses as well as graduate level research methods. I think I like teaching my Causes and Prevention of War course the most. It's an upper level course that investigates the causes of inter-state and intra-state conflict in the world by taking a few factors every week and searching through case studies to find commonalities and differences. I also have taught the International System, which is a course put together by professors at SUNY Buffalo years ago and I updated it to trace how technological and economic events have changed how conflicts arise and how wars are fought in the world. I guess I really like to understand the inner-dynamics of why people do not get along!

What was your experience coming to America, especially with the clash of different cultures? By the end of 1999, I decided to travel in the United States for a month and see what grad schools and life in the States was like. It's been a blast being in the D.C. area. I have already been to Baltimore, Alexandria and D.C. restaurants, museums and theaters. I went to a Chicago Bears football game in Chicago and ate fantastic deep dish pizza. I took up golfing. I've been to many other cities in the U.S. and San Francisco is one of my favorites, so I'm especially glad to be going there in April for the annual International Studies Association meeting.

I think I had more of a cultural clash when I went back to Turkey in 2006 after grad school than when I first started living in the U.S. Living in the U.S. is perhaps easier since American culture is not all that foreign to the world. And Turkey has been particularly exposed to the American culture over the years as the two countries have been close allies since the 1950s.

Can you tell me a little on what you are currently working on at START? What are some challenges in working with improving the GTD and MAROB database? I plan to finish a book project that I had started a while ago on security sector reform in Turkey and whether/how it could be implemented by Arab Spring countries. As a conflict studies scholar I have been interested in democratization in developing countries for a long time and that brought me to the civil-military relations subfield. The book is supposed to be a very comprehensive overview of civil-military relations in Turkey.

During my time here in the START office, I am also working on collecting data to merge START's Global Terrorism Database (GTD) and Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM) Minorities at Risk projects. Both databases are huge and it takes a very long time to complete data collection of each country/group. Also our knowledge of perpetrators of terrorist attacks is rather limited. Nevertheless, the overall work is very rewarding because the data illustrates how a particular religion is not necessarily conducive to violence; it really is extremism that increases the likelihood of violence in general and terrorism in particular.

Our project "One God For All? Fundamentalism and Group Radicalization" with Johanna Birnir is an important empirical step in supporting that theoretical notion.

Everyone has a favorite superhero they look up to. Is there any colleague you see as a "superhero"? You saved the toughest question for the last! I think I have been very much influenced by the rigorous work that my former professor and current co-author Johanna Birnir undertakes. I am very lucky to have worked with her as a graduate student first and coauthor next. She's the one who introduced me to ethnic politics, religious radicalization and terrorism. I think that the idea of superheroes can also be applied to my area of study. Just as the intelligent physicist Dr. Banner becomes the Hulk -- turning into a green and deadly monster out of rage --many people and societies that look rather sophisticated lose control and become violent when they let rage take the driver's seat.

The Researcher Spotlight is a monthly Q&A series designed to profile START researchers and staff for their accomplishments and personal journey to the field of terrorism studies. To nominate consortium researchers or staff members for consideration, email infostart@start.umd.edu with Researcher Spotlight Suggestion in the subject line.