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Intern’s opportunities to study conflict abroad lead to interest in terrorism research


Julia Marra, PIRUS Intern

When I applied to the Government and Politics program at the University of Maryland, I did not know which of the paths within the major I would follow. My interest in terrorism, however, emerged early in my college career after participating in a program called Destination London.

The study abroad program, offered only to incoming freshman, greatly expanded my perspective on the world. While abroad I attended a student Peace Conference in Northern Ireland, and for the first time, I experienced a region torn by terrorism. I realized how interested I was in conflict after witnessing the long-term effects terrorism can have on cultures and lifestyles.

My second direct experience with terrorism came during my semester abroad last spring in San Sebastian, a metropolitan city in the Basque Country of Northern Spain. Again, similar to my time in Northern Ireland, I was in a region torn from a history of nationalist terrorism. During the semester I took a class on terrorism and studied the ideologies and tactics of terrorist organizations.

When I returned to UMD , I learned about START and its global terrorism minor, but opted to enroll in the International Development and Conflict Management minor (MIDCM) instead. While my time in Northern Ireland assured me that I was interested in conflict, I was not sure I wanted to only focus on terrorism. The MIDCM program offered an opportunity to study conflict more broadly and I sought out other opportunities to become involved with START, ultimately learning about the lectures offered through the START internship program.

Through these experiences, I have adopted a big-picture approach at understanding terrorism. My experiences in both Northern Ireland and San Sebastian focused on the organizational aspects of terrorist groups rather than individuals. I have also taken regional and cultural focused courses to equip myself with an understanding of the environment in which terrorist groups are formed.

My international experiences and courses guided me toward an internship at START. After an interview and two-day orientation, I began working on the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) project and learning about individual cases of radicalization and violent extremism.

PIRUS aims to understand why and how some individuals radicalize to the point of violence, while others follow nonviolent tactics for voicing their political opinions. The project uses both quantitative and qualitative analyses of open source information on individuals that were either killed in a radical act, indicted, arrested, or were affiliated with a violent terrorist group.

Currently in the final phase of the project, our team is working to clean the PIRUS dataset by reviewing and adding select variables that serve as labels. For example, specifying an individual’s ideology within the radical left, right or Islamist framework.

We have also taken the first steps in preparing a qualitative analysis for the project. Our project is the first radicalization study of its kind to employ a method called qualitative comparative analysis (QCA) using a program called MAXQDA on a large scale.

Pioneering this kind of methodology has required me to identify and address issues that were not anticipated in project planning, but surfaced during the practice coding. I have been working to review the codebook and propose revisions to the variables before beginning to code individuals. Focusing on any implications our coding might have is imperative to assure that our analysis captures the theoretical concepts of radicalization as accurately and objectively as possible.

Participating in this phase of the project has helped me to pay attention to the details of the research and data. I have become trained to review case studies for ambiguous language and potential subjectivity in the text. In familiarizing myself with the codebook, I have evaluated the scope and limitations of the variable in terms of what situations may or may not be applicable.

I am learning that the language of the codebook is extremely important in this aspect. I have enjoyed working with my team and project staff to focus on the language and ensure it says exactly what it means to say.

Seemingly small aspects of our research can be critical in project analysis, and I enjoy contributing to the foundation for which the rest of the project will be built around.

I am open to pursing opportunities to conduct my own research in the future. I hope that being a part of this codebook-refining process will be a great experience to fall back on when I am establishing my own codebook.


In furtherance of its educational and professional development mission, START invites its students to write about their research experiences with the Consortium. 

This blog represents the opinions of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of START or any office or agency of the United States Government.