Interdisciplinary Research Furthers Understanding of Radicalization and Terrorism

“Having so many differently qualified people working on the same project broadens the possibilities for analysis. Different people spot different things and add to previously established knowledge, which improves the quality of the work we do.”

Claire McHugh Headshot.JPG

Claire McHugh, Political Science AB '19, joined with Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST)’s Militant Propaganda Analysis Team (MPAT) over a year ago.

CPOST is a university-based social science research effort focusing on issues of strategic importance to U.S. national security policy. CPOST’s work on militant propaganda is funded by the Department of Defense’s Minerva initiative, and one of the project’s primary undertaking is creating a searchable database of militant propaganda and recruitment efforts by analyzing videos produced by groups such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and al-Shabaab.

Part of what makes the Minerva project and CPOST so effective is its one of a kind, large-scale research team of dedicated graduate and undergraduate research assistants. In any given academic quarter, there is a team of roughly 40 students working to collect, code, and catalog data.

“I was looking for a job and I found this research institution that was right up my alley,” says McHugh. “I had just finished studying abroad in Beijing where I did a project examining state propaganda in subway advertisements, so I had an in working with radicalized data.” As an undergraduate, McHugh actively participated in a variety of RSOs, including Emancipate North Koreans (ENoK) where she tutored North Koreans who have defected to the United States in subjects like ESL and GED prep, and Groove Theory, a dance crew that specializes in hip-hop street styles, where she led as an Artistic Director for two years. “Groove Theory in particular was a hugely influential aspect of my undergrad experience. I made some of my closest friends and best memories in that RSO, and really developed as a leader and a dancer.”

In McHugh’s role as Senior Research Analyst, she and other research analysts code propaganda videos for different visual elements such as a depiction of violence or the image of a child. Videos are found through protected online archives such as, founded by Aaron Y. Zelin, Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and various social media platforms.

“One of the roadblocks we’re facing is figuring out where this content was originally posted because archivers like Zelin are simply collectors of this information, and we want to get to the source,” she says.

“We then use these to make different inferences about groups’ strategies of recruitment. A key part to understanding why these videos work is the use of narratives. The big theory deals with social and heroic narratives. Social narratives draw people in with a premise of working for a greater good and helping others. Heroic narratives emphasize a sense of adventure, scenes of gratuitous violence, and maybe even overcoming feelings of personal insignificance. When people see themselves in these narratives, they are more likely to join these radical efforts.”

McHugh emphasizes what has been achieved to date. “The project originally started out as a handful of profiles on people in the US who have committed crimes related to terrorism. Through these in-depth profiles we were able to almost map the radicalization process in different communities throughout the United States.”

One new theory emerging from the Minerva Team’s analysis concerns the less understood “home-grown terrorist,” usually US-born citizens with little to no ties to the Muslim community.

Understanding the radicalization process and what makes videos like these so effective is crucial to the prevention of terrorist activity. Patterns are extracted from the database by Professor Robert Pape, professor in the Department of Political Science, and other senior staff to construct theories that are later presented at congressional hearings, to the FBI and other intelligence cohorts, and published in books and reports on security.

Disciplinary boundaries are also pushed by the Minerva team. For example, Professor Jean Decety, Irving B. Harris Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Psychology and head of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, adds to theories with his examination of the social and neurological constructions of martyrdom.

“In my experience, though the work CPOST researchers produce is ultimately packaged in the rhetoric of political science, we don't limit ourselves to only employing political science methods. There was a time when we were interested in the role social networks played in radicalization, and in retrospect a lot of that work (mapping social connections, developing criteria to distinguish core members of a terrorist plot from those on the periphery) fell more into the realm of sociology than political science. Overall, I think this kind of approach, almost unintentionally interdisciplinary, is very typical of UChicago. At this university creativity and innovation are typically more valued than staying within arbitrary disciplinary lines.”

Students working with CPOST gain research skills while making real-world impact. “It’s great being surrounded by such capable people and great mentors”, says McHugh, “so many have gone on to work for organizations like the UN and NATO. It’s amazing to consider the global impact.”

“I think being an FBI Analyst would be a great application of the skill set and knowledge I've built up at CPOST.” While McHugh is still eagerly exploring future job prospects, she expresses an interest to continue working in the same line of work even after her time at CPOST.