Monash SPS Symposium Presentation on Islamic State

Yesterday, I gave a presentation on in-progress thesis research about Islamic State to the annual SPS Symposium at Australia’s Monash University. For the past several years I have used the SPS Symposium to gain feedback on thesis chapters as I am drafting them. This year, I had about 25 minutes of great questions from fellow Monash graduate students and researchers. Thanks to the SPS Symposium committee for a great event.

PhD Mid-Candidature Review Panel Presentation Slides

On 26th October 2015, I will present my in-progress PhD research on strategic subcultures in terrorist organisations to a Mid-Candidature Review Panel at Australia’s Monash University. The MCR presentation slides are here.


My thanks to MCR Review Panel members Professor Jude McCulloch (coauthor of Pre-Crime: Pre-emption, Precaution and the Future), Associate Professor Pete Lentini (author of Neojihadism: Towards a New Understanding of Terrorism and Extremism?), and Dr Narelle Miragliotta (coeditor of Contemporary Australian Political Party Organisations).

PhD Mid-Candidature Review Talk on Islamic State

As part of my PhD mid-candidature review I’m giving the following talk at Monash University in October (date TBC):


Islamic State: Insights from Strategic Subcultures Theory and Combatting Terrorist Propaganda

Strategic subcultures theory examines why and how certain terrorist groups persist over time and grow despite counterterrorism measures. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State has gained control of parts of northern Iraq and Syria. Islamic State also poses a current national security threat to Australia in terms of terrorist propaganda (including social media campaigns) and the possible radicalisation of Australian recruits. This presentation evaluates Islamic State as a potential strategic subculture and considers Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley’s guidance in How Propaganda Works (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015) about how to strengthen democratic nation-states like Australia – and countering violent extremism – through combatting terrorist propaganda.

FY2014-15 Report on Personal Research Program

Reflections and ‘lessons learned’ in FY2014-15 on my personal research program:


1. I spent much of FY2014-15 dealing with a rapidly changing higher education sector and university environment. The classical strategy of stable environments based on scale advantages no longer exists outside of Group of 8 universities. Two new operational models have instead emerged: a private equity-influenced emphasis on productivity, and a venture capital-influenced approach to revenue generation that uses a J-curve structure. As part of these shifts I learned more about business development, how to negotiate research contracts, and intellectual property.


2. I focused my personal research program on a core research area: the study of hedge funds and terrorist organisations as strategic subcultures. My personal research program has two projects: an on-going PhD at Australia’s Monash University, and the black box development of a quantitative trading system to self-finance future research. The PhD builds on the scholarship of Jack Snyder, Alastair Iain Johnston, Colin S. Gray, Ken Booth, David Haglund, Jeffrey Lantis, and others. I found new links with the work of Max Abrahms, David Aronson, Boaz Ganor, Timothy Masters, Lasse Heje Pedersen, and Nate Silver.


3. I deepened my approach to research design and methodology. An important part of this was reading books from the Cambridge University Press series Strategies for Social Inquiry; the Columbia University Press series Columbia Studies in Terrorism and Irregular Warfare; the Princeton University Press series Princeton Studies in International History and Politics; the Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology; and the German publisher Springer. I shifted from past work on critical theory to empirical methods.


4. I invested in specific resources to understand agent based models, computational social science, machine learning, and stream processing. These areas will enable my personal research program to grow in the future. They have also expanded my academic, industry, and social media networks.


5. I had one research publication for the year: a coauthored book chapter with Deakin University’s Ben Eltham in the Jeffrey S. Lantis edited book Strategic Cultures and Security Policies in the Asia-Pacific (Routledge, 2015), which was a reprint of a 2014 article for Contemporary Security Policy journal. I am publishing more slowly yet in higher quality outlets.


Some goals for my personal research program in FY2015-16:


1. Successfully complete Monash University’s mid-candidature review for my on-going PhD and continue with write-up.


2. Engage with causal analysis and process tracing as research methodologies. Continue to do related background reading for post-PhD research on Bayesian statistical inference and computational social science applications in counterterrorism.


3. Successfully backtest the following trading strategies: event arbitrage and mean reversion.

Human Terrain System: New Book

Today’s PhD writing time focused on the Human Terrain System (HTS): the controversial United States military program to embed anthropologists and sociologists with counterinsurgency specialists in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s been a clear evolution of the sub-literature on HTS from initial advocacy of so-called cultural intelligence to critical post-mortems of the HTS program’s impact, results, and effectiveness.


Amongst the recent and new books on HTS is Montgomery McFate and Janice H. Laurence’s edited collection Social Science Goes to War: The Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan (London: Hurst & Company, 2015). I’ll be adding it to my PhD reading list – as HTS can be understood as one possible politico-military application of area studies and anthropological knowledge that also underpins the strategic culture framework I am using to examine terrorist organisations.

PhD Structure Template



● Research question and immediate debate.

● How the PhD addresses and resolves the debate.

● The new theory that the PhD develops.

● New causal and/or explanatory variables that are introduced.

● The essential argument that the PhD makes.

● The specific contributions of each PhD chapter.

● The PhD’s overall structure and plan.


Chapter 1: New Theory


● The chapter’s goal.

● The literature gap and what it reveals for the research question.

● The basic reorientation that the chapter achieves.

● The critical assumptions of existing theories.

● What the chapter will achieve: its original contribution.


Overview of the Existing Literature


● The major paradigms and causal claims of the major theories.

● Theory Strand 1 and subsequent developments.

● Major theoreticians and contributions for Theory Strand 1.

● The theory-building structure of Theory Strand 1.

● Critics of Theory Strand 1.

● Similar structure for Theory Strand 2, 3 . . . n.


Analysis of the Major Theories


● The theory-building gap / puzzle in the Theory Strands and what the New Theory resolves.

● Past work that is suggestive of the puzzle that the New Theory resolves.

● Why the theoretical arguments remain underdeveloped.

● Competing theories that fail in explanatory power compared with the New Theory, and why.


New Theory


● What the New Theory introduces as a new causal and/or explanatory variable.

● The foundations and key assumptions of the New Theory.

● The causal logics of the New Theory.

● Theory-building tensions between the New Theory and existing theories.


Theoretical Foundations


● The concept at the heart of the New Theory.

● Incomplete notions that the New Theory addresses.

● Deductive or inductive logics of the New Theory.

● The New Theory’s different set of priorities.

● Exogenous conditions that shape the New Theory.

● Primary factors that shape the New Theory.


Summary of the Argument and Competing Hypotheses


● Summary of the chapter’s original contribution to theory-building and theory-testing.

● Diagrammatic summary of the New Theory’s causal logic.

● Expectations and implications of the New Theory.

● What the case studies will demonstrate about the New Theory.

● What Chapter 2 on methodologies will discuss about the case studies.

● What the case studies will demonstrate about the New Theory versus its alternatives.

● Closing argument on the value of considering the New Theory.


Chapter 2: Methodology


● What methodology has been used in the major studies to-date in the problem domain.

● What recent studies have demonstrated in terms of methodology selection.

● What the case studies will contribute to a new understanding of methodology.

● Summary of the chapter’s planned contribution to methodology.


Contribution of Past Studies


● The key variables that the problem domain and major studies revolved around.

● The major studies in the problem domain and the debate around them.

● What new studies in the problem domain have revealed.

● What new possible variables are needed to answer the past debates.

● The major studies that suggest the need for new possible variables.

● What is incomplete about the major studies’ explanations of new possible variables.

● How the major studies have tried to deal with this incompleteness.

● What the New Theory would suggest in dealing with this incompleteness.

● Recent studies which anticipate the New Theory in terms of methodology.

● Findings from recent studies that cause a rethink of prevailing assumptions.

● Conjectures that are partial explanations of the New Theory.

● What has been put forward separately that suggests the New Theory.

● How to interpret the findings of these studies.

● Summary of the main findings of past and recent studies.


A New Approach and a Summary of Findings


● The limitations of past and recent studies that the new approach will address.

● Causal methods and process tracing of the new approach.

● How selection bias and generalizability will be dealt with.


A New Approach to the Study’s Dependent Variable


● The deductive logic of the study’s dependent variable.

● Limitations of existing deductive logic to deal with the study’s dependent variable.

● Additional problems that are faced in understanding the study’s dependent variable.

● Defining the study’s factors.

● Explanatory reasons for the study’s factors.

● Endogenous nature of the study’s factors.

● Justification of the study’s chosen method.

● Scoping of the study’s chosen method and required data collection.

● How to evaluate the evidence from the required data collection.

● The larger causal picture that the data collection fits into.

● Summary of the study’s key research questions that the case studies will answer.


A Summary of the Findings


● Structure of the summary.

● Structure of each selected case study.

● Criterion for case study selection.

● Summary of across-case comparison.

● How the case studies answer the study’s key research questions.

● What the required data collection revealed to answer the study’s key research questions.

● What was novel and / or surprising about the study’s findings.

● How the findings support the New Theory versus existing alternative explanations.

● How the data collection evidence deals with potential criticism of the New Theory.

● Discussion of the case studies and the data collection evidence.

● What the case studies reveal about systematic variables.

● Summary of case study interpretation and New Theory framework.


Chapters 3 and 4: Case Studies


● What the chapter’s case study is on.

● How the New Theory provides an explanation that existing alternatives do not do.

● Potential complications of the case study.

● How existing alternatives may answer some aspects of the case study versus the New Theory.


Origins of the Case Study


● The scholarly consensus on the case study.

● The key causal factors that the case study will address.

● What is critical and not so critical in the case study.

● The knowledge gaps that the New Theory will fill in the case study versus existing alternatives.


Background of the Case Study


● Deep roots of the case study.

● Major events in the causality of the case study.

● Major decisions in the causality of the case study.

● Major strategies of the strategic actors of the case study.

● Re-evaluation of historical periods of the case study.

● Popularity of existing explanations of the case study.

● Limitations in the existing explanations of the case study that the New Theory addresses.

● Reasons for the changes in policy of the strategic actors of the case study.

● Summary of the historical chronology of the case study.


Case Study Pivotal Decision and / or Historical Period


● Background to the pivotal decision and / or historical period.

● Major pivotal decisions and / or events of the historical period.

● The decisions and reactions of different strategic actors.

● Summary of the key dynamics in the pivotal decision and / or historical period.


Thematic Analysis


● The main categories that the case study explanations can be grouped into.

● The level of analysis that the different case study explanations function in.

● Key aspects of the original argument that the case study makes.

● What evidence the original argument draws on.

Key events that the original argument uses.

● Key decisions, expectations and priorities that advance the original argument.

● What the above analysis demonstrates.

● Implications of the above analysis.

● How views and aims of the strategic actors evolved over the key events.

● Summary of what the case study explains versus existing alternatives.


Analysis of Case Study Strategic Actor and Temporal Period


● Existing consensus in the scholarly literature.

● Problems with the existing consensus.

● Weakness of the existing consensus that opens the way for the New Theory.

● Basic facts of the case study milieu.

● Strategic actor priorities and obsessions in their decision calculus.

● Chronology of key events and decisions.

● Systematic causes versus unit-level causes.

● How the above analysis supports the New Theory and challenges existing alternatives.




● This chapter’s original contribution.

● What the case studies illuminate about the knowledge gap.

● The causal chronology and the case study results.


Chapter 5: Implications of the Argument


● What the project and the case studies have shown.

● What existing alternatives state about the key research questions.

● How the New Theory addresses the key research questions.

● What new dimensions must be incorporated into the New Theory for explanations.

● What the New Theory builds on in terms of paradigmatic logic.

● How the major strategic actors might reason using awareness of the New Theory.

● Comparative logics of the major strategic actors using awareness of the New Theory.

● The empirical outcomes of the New Theory and the case studies.

● What the rest of the chapter will achieve.


Broader Implications of the Theory


● What the case study chapters have shown about the New Theory.

● What the methodology chapters have shown about the New Theory.

● Insights of the New Theory about the strategic actors in the case studies.

● How the New Theory helps to understand knowledge gaps in existing alternatives.

● What the case studies have revealed about the study’s dependent variable.

● Implications of the New Theory for unit-level variables.

● Practical implications of the New Theory.

● Further methodological advances that the New Theory might underpin.




● Explanatory and predictive value of the New Theory and case studies.

● New research that can be undertaken using the New Theory.

● Further theoretical studies that are needed to understand the New Theory.

● Dilemmas and puzzles that can be explored using the study’s findings.

● Final implications for the development of sound theories.

Personal Goals for 2015

Some personal goals for 2015:


1. Complete a full PhD draft (two chapters plus rewrites). Model the rewrites on the chapter / structure / paragraph format used for the Princeton Studies in International History and Politics and using the methodology insights of the Cambridge Series in Political Science Research Methods. Submit PhD-related presentation proposals to International Studies Association for possible inclusion in the 2016 annual convention.


2. Develop an Academic Moneyball framework (one page) for business development / contract management / research management activities. Draw on asset management, hedge fund, private equity, and value creation domains – for active management – in order to develop the Academic Moneyball framework. Note relevant insights in one paragraph (the Aramchek model) from Russia’s Putin regime on leadership and value appropriation in bureaucracies that also face volatility from international capital markets (some potential background reading: Putin vs. Putin; Putin’s KleptocracyHow Russia Really WorksThe Social Construction of Russia’s Resurgence; The Man Without A Face, and Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible). Distill into a rolling 100-day action plan (one page) and work breakdown structure (Work Breakdown Structures: The Foundation for Project Management Excellence).


3. Continue to keep a reflective diary on trading systems development. Develop one-page algorithm pseudo-code for momentum, trend-following, and value-based strategies – decomposed from the relevant academic research and practitioner literature – with awareness of stream-based processing methods (Fundamentals of Stream Processing).


4. Complete a personal program of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and attend a Mindfulness meditation group.

Monash SPS Symposium: Aum Shinrikyo’s Failed Strategic Subculture

Each year I do a 20-minute presentation to the SPS Symposium in Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry on my in-progress PhD research. Below is the outline for this year’s proposed presentation due to occur in October:


Aum Shinrikyo’s Failed Strategic Subculture

Alex Burns (


Key Words: Aum Shinrikyo; strategic culture; terrorist groups


In 1977, RAND’s Jack Snyder proposed strategic subcultures as a unit of analysis to understand distinct beliefs, analytical traditions, institutions, and socialisation norms in a strategic community. Recently, the so-called fourth generation of strategic culture scholarship has – via Alan Bloomfield, David Haglund, Jeffrey Lantis, and others – applied Snyder’s unit of analysis to examine new foreign policy actors. This presentation applies Snyder’s strategic subcultures to advance a new understanding of the militant Japanese religious sect Aum Shinrikyo, and its 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subway system. I use narrative analysis and qualitative thematic coding to re-examine two theory-building explanations about Aum Shinrikyo’s decision-making: Robert Jay Lifton’s psychohistory (Destroying the World to Save It) and Haruki Murakami’s oral history interviews (Underground). I also develop a new strategic subculture explanation of Aum Shinrikyo’s failure that builds on Frederick M. Smith’s research into South Asian deity and spirit possession experiences (The Self Possessed).


Paper Type: Full Paper

Working Title: Terrorist Groups as Strategic Subcultures

Degree: PhD

Supervisor: Luke Howie

New Books on Al Qaeda’s Strategic Culture

In 2011, my PhD supervisors asked me about a planned case study on Al Qaeda’s strategic culture. Now, there are two books out that address this issue:


  • Michael W.S. Ryan’s Decoding Al Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).
  • Donald Holbrook’s The Al-Qaeda Doctrine: The Framing and Evolution of the Leadership’s Public Discourse (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014).


There are now some case studies and further analysis to answer this initial query.


Alastair Iain Johnston’s third generation of strategic culture focused on organisational studies. A relevant book that may link this third generation to the study of terrorist organisations is Vahid Brown and Don Rassler’s Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).


I’m also looking at Peter Bergen’s reportage on Al Qaeda – so his forthcoming book United States of Jihad: The Untold Story of Al-Qaeda in America (New York: Crown, 2015) may also be relevant.

A PhD Write-Up Update

From an email to my PhD Supervisor about what I’m working on:


  • A revised Chapter 1 on strategic culture will now include a new conceptual framework that examines and integrates the SC literature on two dimensions: theory-building and foreign policy analysis. For now, I have dubbed this a ‘spectrum framework’. It incorporates feedback from the ISA panelists, and from Jeffrey Lantis on recent theory-building / research design debates in the so-called fourth generation (post-2000) of strategic culture. I will contrast the proposed new framework with Alastair Iain Johnston’s generations framework (from his PhD and book Cultural Realism, and from the 1995 International Security article ‘Thinking About Strategic Culture’).


  • A revised Chapter 2 will include a formal model of strategic culture / subcultures in terrorist organisations. Jacob Shapiro’s recent book The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013) is directly relevant, and may answer some of the concerns you initially raised about how to study terrorist organisations from an organisational perspective. For the chapter format I am using as a ‘writing model’ example Chapter 2 from Michael C. Horowitz’s PhD and subsequent book The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010) in which Horowitz presents his Adoption-Capacity Theory.


  • Rather than a separate methodology chapter I am thinking of integrating this into methodology sections in the two case study chapters. The methods to be used are: causal / decision / process tracing of the Peter Bergen / Steve Coll / Michael Scheuer / Lawrence Wright investigative journalism  (Al Qaeda chapter), and interpretivist / qualitative / thematic text coding of Robert Jay Lifton / Haruki Marukami interviews (Aum Shinrikyo chapter). Two of the key methods books I am using are Derek Beach and Rasmus Brun Pedersen’s Process-Tracing: Foundations and Guidelines (University of Michigan Press, 2013), which I picked up at ISA, and Greg Guest, Kathleen MacQueen, and Emily E. Namey’s Applied Thematic Analysis (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2012). I attended a couple of ISA panels with Patrick Thaddeus Jackson (The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations) that were helpful to think through methodological issues.


  • I have some material for Chapter 5 on Conclusions / Further Research.


  • I have started to scope some material that might inform future journal articles beyond the PhD, such as the use of knowledge representation / microfoundations for the underlying logics, and computational cultural psychology as one of several new methodologies for future case studies. I also found this week a parallel approach to my case studies in the new book Global Shell Games: Experiments in Transnational Relations, Crime, and Terrorism (Cambridge University Press, 2014) which uses an experimental political science approach to study organisations, and which has Jason Sharman (Griffith University) as a book co-author. So, more for post-PhD work, I am also considering experimental research methods as a possible avenue.