CURRENT RESEARCH PROJECTS

  • Evolutionary Approach for the Study of Terrorist Innovation

  • Terrorist Use of Drones

  • The Diffusion of Vehicle Ramming Attacks

  • Depictions of Disabled and Wounded Fighters in Islamic State Propaganda

  • Social Network Analysis of Canadian Far-Right Networks on Facebook

  • Application of Machine Learning to Analyze Terrorist Propaganda

Evolutionary Approach for the Study of Terrorist Innovation
This research project contextualizes the use of terror as part of wider movements of political contention, demonstrating that terroristic innovation occurs as part of wider historical processes rather than in a vacuum. Drawing on evolutionary theory, Dr. Veilleux-Lepage explains how terroristic groups innovate upon, transform, and abandon techniques of political violence in order to advance their causes against the state.  This book further traces the processes through which the use of aircraft as weapons of destruction developed, from the first instances of aircraft hijacking in 1920s Peru, through Palestinian terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s, up to its adoption by al-Qaeda in the 1990s and leading to the 9/11 attack in 2001.  This study provides an essential focus on the techniques through which terror is achieved, offering a novel understanding of the mechanisms of political violence and the implications of counterterrorism on the evolution of terrorism.

BOOK: HOW TERROR EVOLVES

Terrorist Use of Drones
This research project, in collaboration with Emil Archambault, seeks to addresses the relationship between the emergence of new terrorist techniques and military innovation, through an analysis of the terrorist use (or non-use) of drones.  We suggest that significant aspects of terroristic techniques are derived from the mirroring, replicating, or explicit countering military techniques and tactics. We demonstrate this by surveying the use of drones to carry out terrorist attacks by groups such as Aum Shinrikyo, the FARC, Lashkar-E-Taiba and the Haqqani Network, as well as the creation of extensive drone ‘programs’ for insurgencies by groups such as Hezbollah, Islamic State, and Hamas. Moreover, we analyze the use of modified civilian drones by terrorist groups, both on the battlefield and for terrorist attacks, tracing a number of failed attacks in Western countries, in order to demonstrate that military innovation, along with criminal and civilian practices, provides a key source for the evolution of terrorist techniques, impacting the efficacy, legitimacy, and feasibility of attacks.

Diffusion of Vehicle Ramming Attacks
This research project addresses the process of terrorist innovation through a case study of the diffusion of vehicle ramming across groups and ideological movements. Studies of terrorism tend to view terrorist groups independently. However, focusing on the rise in the prevalence of vehicle-ramming attacks globally, this presentation seeks to demonstrate how diffusion theory can allow us to better understand this process by specifying ways in which terrorist groups or social movements may influence one another through indirect network ties. Using historical data, this presentation traces the rise of such attacks since 2006, particularly in terms of their temporal and proximal clustering, arguing that vehicle ramming spread across ideological and ethnic divides, from its genesis in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the repertoire of ‘lone-wolf’ jihadi-Salafists, and more recently to far-right activists. Employing a parallel process growth model and Poisson distribution analysis coupled with empirical evidence derived from terrorist propaganda and statements, court documents, and media sources, it is contended that vehicle-ramming as a technique has spread from one conflict to another largely as a result of its perceived legitimacy, feasibility, and effectiveness, with comparable lethality to other forms of attack.

Depictions of Disabled and Wounded Fighters in Islamic State Propaganda
Like Boko Haram and Al Shabaab, the Islamic State features disabled fighters in its propaganda, encouraging people with disabilities to wage war against the enemy in what might be considered an attempt at inclusivity. Beginning in 2017, footage of seriously injured or maimed fighters returning to battle has been a recurring theme in IS propaganda.  Although such displays may be puzzling and could be interpreted as signaling a shortage of able-bodied fighters after their recent territorial losses, for other analysts, this instead communicates a media narrative depicting the group’s commitment to a ‘long war’ against its enemies in which it will ultimately prevail,  a use of symbolism which originated in Western military propaganda.

 This project, in collaboration with Dr. Mia Bloom, explores how the propaganda of both terrorists and Western militaries construct and represent disability. Islamic State propaganda that depicts injured fighters depends on normative, and Westernized notions of masculinity, heteronormativity, and militaristic nationalism.  It emulates Western states’ efforts to glorify and weaponize images of wounded soldiers returning to combat, and their desire to (re)construct new masculine models of heroism to appeal to a contemporary audience. In other words, IS frames its propaganda in much the same way as Western democracies have done since World War One. 

Social Network Analysis of Canadian Far-Right Networks on Facebook 
In recent years, extreme right groups and activists have greatly benefitted from social media and other online technologies that allow for easier communication, coordination, and propaganda dissemination.  The importance of understanding how extreme right groups interact through social media is increasing as interactive communications facilitate more active involvement and increased coordination between networked extremist groups. Undeniably, the use of new technologies does not merely expand the capabilities of groups, but allows such groups to coalesce into larger scale social movements in which online and offline structures and interactions influence each other and shape the group’s activities, ideology, and rhetoric.

This research project, in collaboration with Emil Archambault, seeks a comprehensive picture of the structure and rhetorical frames uniting extreme right groups and communities in Canada and abroad through a study of Facebook-based relations. 

Application of Machine Learning to Analyze Terrorist Propaganda
Violent actors have weaponized social media in ways we have never seen before. On average 1.8 billion images are posted daily on a variety of platforms across 5 continents and in over 25 different languages including ASL. Though a significant percentage of the images might be construed as harmless, recent research has shown how social media data, including images, may be used to predict violent criminal acts. Moreover, law enforcements agencies in the United States have taken to monitoring social media for posts related to gun violence. That said, the hand collected, and coded analysis of large data is unfeasible due to time and cost constraints.

In order to overcome this ‘big data’ problem, this project, in collaboration with Dr. Raj Sunderraman, and Bhashithe Abeysinghe, seeks to employ deep learning for the automatic detection of images of firearms in social media data.