Professor examines language used to motivate terror attacks

Professor examines language used to motivate terror attacks

July 8, 2013


Queen’s University researcher David Skillicorn was in Seattle recently to present two new papers at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ international conference on intelligence and security informatics Dr. Skillicorn (School of Computing) analyzes language use as a way to understand the mental states behind it.

His first research piece looked at Inspire, an online magazine reportedly published by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which aims to increase the availability of their message. Numerous extremists have been influenced by the magazine, which was recently in the news because of possible connections to the Boston Marathon bombers.

Dr. Skillicorn and co-author Edna Reid of the National Intelligence University studied the language used by the magazine’s editors and its relationship to the magazine’s goal of motivating lone-wolf terror attacks – those perpetrated by individuals, without the support of a group.

“The research showed that the language use was similar to mainstream Western magazines, except that the intensity of Jihadist language increased steadily until the deaths of Samir Khan and Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike,” says Dr. Skillicorn. al-Awlaki was a senior talent recruiter for al-Qaeda.

The authors also noted the magazine is a contradiction – asking readers to act in a way that could lead to death or imprisonment while the editors contribute to the cause simply by writing.

In his other paper, Dr. Skillicorn presented new research that can be used to improve interrogation techniques. The language used by those asking questions interacts in complex ways with the language of respondents, making it difficult to assess deceptiveness from answers alone.

Automated deception detection therefore needs to be based on both the language of the question and the answer. Also, interrogators need to be more intentional, choosing either to be very neutral in their language (“tell me what happened”), or relying heavily on those prompting words that produce the greatest differences between truthful and deceptive responses.

Queen’s graduate student Carolyn Lamb worked with Dr. Skillicorn on this research.