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

Researcher Spotlight: Risa Brooks

Risa Brooks is a tenured professor of political science at Marquette University in Wisconsin with an interest in civil-military relations and militant and terrorist groups. Her research has taken her across the globe, most recently to the United Kingdom and the Middle East. She was awarded a grant from START, and she recently completed a series of case studies on the Palestinian Hamas, Provisional IRA (PIRA) and Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) for her project, “How Community Ties Influence Terrorist Targeting of Civilians.” The project traces the effects of societal tolerances on terrorist groups’ decisions to use tactics that target civilians.

How did you get started in your field?

When I entered college I expected to be a biologist. I had not considered a career in academia, let alone one in international affairs. But then I started taking classes in the subject matter and was intrigued. I also had a mentor who encouraged my studies and also a burgeoning interest in the Middle East. I then became interested in studying “civil-military relations” in graduate school. One aspect of that research concerns how societal factors influence relations between state militaries and political leaders and therefore shape state strategy. More recently, I have been interested in understanding how relations between militant groups and local communities affect those non-state groups’ strategies and tactics.   

How did your mentor impact the trajectory of your career?

My undergraduate mentor helped me recognize how important the guidance, support and help of a mentor is for someone who doesn’t already have a background in a particular area. If we are going to have people from diverse walks of life entering academia, an individual who can play a pivotal mentorship role is critical. Now I see mentoring as one of the most important parts of my job. In particular, I often find that I guide many young women as they consider majors and careers in security related fields. This may be in part because, as they see a female working in this area, they are encouraged to pursue their interests in the area.

How would you describe your research interests?

I have two main areas of interest—state militaries and non-state militant groups—which are related analytically in my emphasis on societal influences on strategy and tactics. In addition to the project on societies, communities and civilian targeting supported by START, I also have a project on militaries during the Arab uprisings of 2011. This project explores how several factors, including the nature and magnitude of the social uprisings, affected military leaders’ calculations in the rebellions, and in particular decisions to use force or not against protesters in defense of political leaders.

You’re also interested in non-state militant groups. What kind of work are you doing on this topic?

I was in Jerusalem this summer doing work for my START project, “How Community Ties Influence Terrorist Targeting of Civilians.” It was part of my larger research focus of trying to understand how socially embedded militant groups—like the Palestinian Hamas and Provisional IRA (PIRA) in Northern Ireland— use or refrain from violence according to reactions from the local community. It is fascinating to study the social bases of these groups, which are expressed in social networks and locally embedded organizations. Unlike other groups who lack those social bases, those social influences can have a major impact on their tactics. Pressures from local communities have at times constrained (and facilitated) the groups’ targeting of civilians. Therefore, despite the fact that these groups employ horrific violence, they nonetheless are bound and operate within social-political boundaries. This is important because it provides a critical clue as to when societal influences are more and less likely to actually affect a group’s targeting choices, and therefore when efforts to influence those societal preferences will be most fruitful. That’s a central insight I take away from the project.

Where do you hope your research will lead you in the future?

I am planning to publish a larger study on communities and terrorist violence that discusses how community support and reactions affects targeting of civilians. Ultimately, I see this work as offering vital lessons for practical, policy oriented debates.

What advice do you have for students pursuing studies in security or terrorism?

First and foremost, find a topic that you find deeply compelling. Doing research is demanding, both intellectually and, at times, emotionally, and positive reinforcement for one’s efforts can be a long time coming. Without a deep interest in what one is studying, it’s hard to push through the hard bits. It also makes it all the more exciting when the project eventually comes together. So, rather than simply following trends or listening to others’ advice, try and pursue a topic in which you have a deep and abiding interest.