PhD Original Contributions to Field of Study

This weekend I’m preparing my Pre-Submission Seminar / Final Review slides for Monash University. I will give a presentation on 14th November to an academic panel. I’ve also started an ARC DECRA application for future submission. Below are some thoughts on my PhD’s original contributions to my field of study (counter-terrorism):

  • ‘Fourth Generation’ Strategic Culture: My PhD dissertation has conceptualised a fourth generation of strategic culture theory-building that is closely linked to national security concerns, occurs in a multipolar world, and considers a broader range of instruments beyond military force such as economic statecraft.
  • Strategic Subcultures in Terrorist Organisations: My PhD dissertation has developed and tested a new conceptual theory on strategic subcultures in terrorist organisations. I have developed empirical tests for an expanded case universe.
  • TheoryBuilding and Theory-Testing: My pre-doctoral research used theory-building and theory-testing to critically evaluate a range of theories in journalism, media studies, and internet sociology. In particular, I have recently paid attention to the evolution of ideas and ideologies into mobilised political and religious violence.
  • Methodological Advancement in Qualitative, Causal Analysis: My PhD research and recent scholarship combines theory-building and theory-testing forms of process tracing with counterfactuals and event studies. I am presently exploring the Bayesian and set-theoretic roots of process tracing and other causal inference methodologies.
  • Event Studies: Over my pre-doctoral, and doctoral research career, I have authored and co-authored a range of qualitative event studies, notably on the journalism, media, and grand strategy impacts of the September 11 terrorist attacks on Australia and the United States, and the social media network Twitter’s role in Iran’s 2009 election crisis.

I will submit my PhD to Monash University on 22nd July 2019 for review.

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s Break

American University’s Tricia Bacon and Georgetown University’s Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault have a new article in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism journal on the break between Al Qaeda and Islamic State. The article’s abstract:


Employing counterfactuals to assess individual and systemic explanations for the split between al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), this article concludes that individual leaders factor greatly into terrorist alliance outcomes. Osama bin Laden was instrumental in keeping al Qaeda and ISIS allied as he prioritized unity and handled internal disputes more deftly than his successor, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although a troubled alliance, strategic differences between al Qaeda and ISIS were not sufficient to cause the split. Rather, the capabilities of al Qaeda’s leader determined the group’s ability to prevent alliance ruptures.


The article is an interesting use of the counterfactual method for causal inference of explanations. The authors’ focus on Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri contrasts with other explanations such as Will McCants’ focus on Islamic State’s apocalyptic belief system.

13th February 2012: Dan Drezner on the New Al Qaeda

Foreign Policy‘s Dan Drezner on the new Al Qaeda and threat escalation:


That said, I’m going to continue to insist that the United States faces a much less threatening threat environment now than it did fifty years ago.


I reached a similar conclusion here using Richard Ned Lebow‘s counterfactual method. As did John Mueller, and Adam Curtis in his documentary The Power of Nightmares (2004). September 11 could have been much worse.

13th December 2010: GWOT Counterfactuals

Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit, suggests that the 2003 Iraq War was a significant recruitment tool and self-justification for Al Qaeda. This prompts what political scientist Richard Ned Lebow calls a counterfactual: an alternative history or series of events if different choices had been made. What if the US neoconservatives had not strongly influenced the Bush Administration’s foreign policy? What if the US had pursued a more multilateral and international approach to fighting Al Qaeda? What if the US had killed Bin Laden at Tora Bora in late November or early December 2001? What if the US had not invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq?

The Bush Administration — along with many counterterrorism analysts and policymakers — embraced the frame ‘Global War on Terrorism’ or GWOT immediately after September 11. Apart from making war on a tactic, this immediately locked the Bush Administration into a line of thinking based on historical analogies including to previous wars and antifascism. It didn’t leave a lot of room to maneuver when conditions worsened in Afghanistan and pre-surge Iraq. Lebow’s counterfactuals approach suggests that rather than taken as a given, GWOT unfolded as a series of foreign policy decisions where other possibilities and strategies existed and that remained unexplored. Perhaps that’s why in his second term Bush quietly abandoned the term, and the successor Obama Administration has conceptualised its national security in a different way.