University researchers to examine behaviour in terror attacks

Maynooth study aims to improve first-responder knowledge in mass-shooting incidents

Lead analyst Dr Mark Maguire said the researchers had “no intention of alarming anyone” and that such attacks remained “extremely rare”. Photograph: The Irish Times

Lead analyst Dr Mark Maguire said the researchers had “no intention of alarming anyone” and that such attacks remained “extremely rare”. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

People’s behaviour during the first 10 minutes of so-called “marauding” terrorist attacks, such as the one in which 130 people died in Paris, is to be the subject of a first-of-a-kind study at Maynooth University.

Dr Mark Maguire, head of the college’s Department of Anthropology, will lead the research, which he hopes will build “societal resilience” and also give first-responders vital insights to help them react to such events in a “measured and effective manner”.

He noted attacks by terrorists using assault rifles and low-grade explosives “to slaughter innocent people at cafes, stadiums, shopping malls and other public places” had become one of the principal forms of terrorism.

Their growing prominence had led counter-terrorist analysts to give them the term marauding terrorist firearms attacks (MTFAs).

But to date, despite the “extensive” information that is collected following these attacks, there had been no research carried out into how people respond in such a scenario.

“Those first 10 minutes of a terrorist attack are extremely long for those experiencing it. An armed security response has not arrived and nearby first response services cannot enter the scene,” Dr Maguire said.

“How people respond in this extreme situation can provide practical information for emergency services and first responders reacting to an attack, but from an academic perspective it also provides a range of insights into human decision-making processes in a uniquely pressurised environment.”

Main stakeholders

St John’s Ambulance, which is interested in improving the first responder services, is one of the main stakeholders in the research.

As well as assessing information collected by international agencies, the researchers will conduct interviews with security forces, first responders, and survivors to explore people’s movements and actions during attacks.

The recent 2011 attacks in Norway, the 2013 Westgate Shopping Mall attack in Nairobi, and the November 2015 attacks in the Bataclan in Paris are of particular interest, the researchers said.

Some early work should be completed in about three months.

“Obviously this research is in its early stages. However, our findings to date point to the very real possibility that the role played by natural instinct in these circumstances has been greatly overstated in the past,” said Dr Maguire.

The evidence pointed to “learned behaviour and cultural factors” playing a far more significant role in decision-making processes when people were placed in extreme stress.

“Where the public is accustomed to being protected by the government, they are more likely to have a passive response to an attack. Conversely, people from states where there has been much conflict and unrest are more likely to take action against the attackers.”

Dr Maguire said the researchers had “no intention of alarming anyone” and that such attacks remained “extremely rare”.

Maynooth University President Philip Nolan welcomed the project, which has been awarded Irish Research Council New Foundations funding.