Dr. Risa Brooks studies a dark side of humanity with a goal of improving the world. Brooks is an associate professor of political science in the Helen Way Klingler College of Arts and Sciences. She’s also a member of a small minority of women who study international terrorism.
MM: Why do you study terrorism?
RB: I study militant groups to understand why they choose violence to pursue their political goals. Only by understanding the forces and factors that result in a group employing terrorism can we identify solutions and policies to reduce the incidence of terrorist violence. Also, although terrorism is commonly defined as a method of armed conflict used for political aims, one thing clear in my studies is that it is often ordinary people with little at stake in a conflict who are harmed by these acts of violence. This is vividly clear in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. I often reflect on this fact and hope my work can contribute to improving life for these civilians.
I ask myself occasionally about why I study such a dark side of humanity. I think what sustains me is the pure intellectual challenge and the desire to improve my own and others’ understanding of the causes of this form of political violence.
MM: How did you get started?
RB: That’s a good question. One thing I can say is I did not come to the study of international security and terrorism “by design.” I thought I would be a biologist when I started college. Then I took a political science course and was hooked. I ended up becoming a professor as a result of a natural intellectual draw to the issues and through the influence of a mentor who inspired me academically.
MM: Is it a challenge for a woman to work in the field?
RB: Yes, at times. There have been issues in demonstrating my credibility in a field that has few women at its top. At the same time, I always keep in mind my mother’s refrain, “to remember my place in history,” which means to me that I can contribute to drawing more women into the field by being willing to be one of the minority today.
MM: What are some important revelations so far?
RB: Although some terrorist groups seem inured to social influences, some operate in social settings in which they take cues from local communities about when and how to use violence against their adversaries. While this is far from the only consideration that affects decisions by a group’s leaders to use terrorist methods, to the extent groups are responsive to pressures from local communities, it opens the door to understanding one way they might be drawn away from terrorism. — JMM