Researching terrorism and extremism

Profiles in Norwegian science


Photo: Ilan Kelman
The government building Høyblokken in Oslo, Norway, after it was bombed on July 22, 2011, appears gray and austere.

Agder, Norway

July 22, 2011, remains etched in Norwegian consciousnesses. In 2011, a terrorist planted a bomb in Oslo’s city center, and the blast killed eight people. The terrorist then traveled to the island of Utøya, where he murdered 69 others, mostly teenagers, before surrendering to police.

To better understand this level of hate and violence, and how to prevent it, the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo (UiO) is halfway through its decade-long mandate from 2016-2026. Funded with NOK 100 million from the Research Council of Norway, it was founded “for the study of right-wing extremism, hate crime, and political violence.” Six other Norwegian institutes are partners, along with universities in Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, and the United States.

Professor Tore Bjørgo is the center’s director, and Dr. Anders Ravik Jupskås is deputy director. They manage 16 other researchers, most of them early career, along with two administrators, creating a vibrant scientific environment for contributing to a safer society. Not only has C-REX generated doctorate and postdoctoral opportunities to launch new scientists into their careers, but more importantly, it also ensures that the results are meaningful for improving how we challenge and prevent extremism and related violence.

Its innovation is expressed through the melding of multiple disciplines. The researchers cover political science, peace, and conflict studies, anthropology, media and communication, history, sociology, and international relations. They publish original scientific pieces covering theory and practice, while providing practical recommendations for implementation. They have also set up an international hub to connect scientists studying right-wing extremism.

In doing so, they are changing how we talk about and label terrorists, leading to better ways for stopping the violence. One of their papers last year considered the popular phrase “lone wolf.” Could it mislead how often sole terrorists are linked to harmful ideologies and groups? Does it venerate individuals with the positive traits of wolves? Might it misclassify those who actually work directly with others for violence? The C-REX scientists prefer “lone actor terrorist” as being more accurate while emphasizing the terrorism.

No research is absent from challenges. One exploration for this science is whether or not to use terrorists’ names in publications. Without naming them, it can be hard to describe actions and to deconstruct motives without sounding repetitive. Nor do synonyms necessarily help, since words such as “individual,” “person,” and “perpetrator” drift away from the violence defining what happened. Nonetheless, it remains far more respectful to repeat and remember the names of those who were killed, injured, or otherwise adversely affected.

Similarly, analyzing extremism scientifically entails explaining how and why specific terrorism occurred. Quoting from manifestos perpetuates the misguided ideals and also permits opportunities to refute them. Pointing out mistakes by specific terrorists can lead to improved safety and let others overcome the identified errors to emulate the horrors. As per another 2021 paper from C-REX, terrorists unfortunately do “inspire” others to imitate the acts we wish to stop.

Some details are unsuitable to publicize, such as the exact blast resistance of airplane cargo holds or the weak infrastructural or security points of specific buildings. It is much better to use this knowledge to plug gaps without fanfare, aiming to remain several steps ahead of the criminals.

As such, knowledge is rarely neutral. Facts, such as terrorists’ names and how to create worse atrocities, might be withheld for justifiable reasons. Withholding or censoring information countermands an open society and might possibly impede full understanding of and opposition to violence and extremism. Determining where lines should be drawn is an ever-present dilemma for scientists and the society we serve.

To navigate the difficulties, C-REX’s researchers are producing extensive new knowledge and advice on a range of these topics. They offer science for action to stop extremism, violence, and terrorism.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 21, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.