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Intern team authors peer-reviewed journal article on Hamas

A new START study published in the Journal of Strategic Security examines the complexity of Hamas’ vast tunneling network – more than 30 tunnels from Gaza into Israeli territory -- through the lens of understanding what motivated and enabled the group to construct the network. The work is part of a series of related case studies exploring violent non-state actors’ use of complex engineering.

The researchers, Alena James and Nicole Watkins Johnson, determined that though the tunnel network saw only limited success as an offensive tool by Hamas against the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the very construction of the tunnels helped inflict damage on and promote fear within its enemies, and proved Hamas successful at completing complex engineering tasks.

The idea for the article emerged when Dr. Gary Ackerman, Director of START’s Unconventional Weapons and Technology division, invited a team of START Advanced Research Interns to collaborate on a project investigating violent non-state actors and technology. The team created a laundry list of groups and cases, then narrowed the search based on the availability of literature and potential interest.

Still students, James and Johnson worked closely with their START mentor to take their literature review and turn it into an academic journal article. While on its face it seemed similar to a standard research paper, the two experienced students quickly came to appreciate the difference peer review makes.

 “If we had been writing this paper for an academic course, we would have submitted the paper, received a grade for it, and then ended up with feedback that would not have helped us improve our paper one way or another,” James said. “Instead, we got extremely helpful feedback throughout the process that helped us improve our work: work that I hope some decision-makers or intelligence analysts find useful.”

Johnson said that in writing this paper for a scholarly audience, she felt more pressure to show a “very nuanced understanding of the material, and to be careful, yet confident in our propositions.”

The article, “Digging Into Israel: The Sophisticated Tunneling Network of Hamas,” is the first peer-reviewed publication for both James and Johnson. While that would be enough of a take-away from most internship experiences, the scholars said they benefited from so much more during their time at START.

“The learning opportunities at START are amazing, both through the formal lectures and sessions offered to interns, but also through interactions with the staff,” Johnson said. “The people are very passionate about what they do, and the work and mission is not only interesting, but hugely important. I think the work I was able to take part in fostered a sense of pride in my own capabilities, and in the contribution I was able to make to START's mission.”

Johnson is a researcher in the Center for Justice, Safety and Resilience at RTI International, and plans to pursue a doctoral program in Criminology.

“Working at START was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had,” James said. “From the get go, my mentor was incredibly encouraging. Often times it seemed like there were 30-40 different projects we were working on at once; which I enjoyed because I like to stay busy and the work seemed to really matter.”

James works as the laboratory manager in the science department at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, where she is also teaching Microbiology. With a background in biology, political science and biodefense, she is seeking to use her research skills in the intelligence community – specifically in a weapons of mass destruction analytics unit – and pursuing a doctorate in political science or microbiology.

James also credits her positive experience at START to the people she worked with –specifically Ackerman, Johnson and Benjamin Ash for being tremendously talented individuals who taught her and guided her to become a better researcher.