A Department of Homeland Security Emeritus Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Researcher Spotlight: Patrick James


Researcher Spotlight: Patrick James

August 31, 2015Beth Schwartz

Given that he’s spent the past couple of years immersed in research exploring serious topics like radicalization and violent political movements, it’s hard to imagine START Researcher Patrick James as a carefree jazz musician. He didn’t always intend to examine the inner workings of terrorists; he began his undergraduate career at the University of North Texas with brief stints as a biology and music student (jazz bass) before settling on history. After taking an introductory class on American foreign policy he became fascinated with global politics and began studying Arabic. But it was a trip to Cairo that set him on a trajectory to START, where he is the project manager for the Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) project.

What drew you to studying terrorism at START?  

After graduation, I took a year off to travel to Cairo to improve my Arabic skills. However, I soon found myself in the midst of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, hearing gunshots from my apartment window and driving past burned-out armored vehicles in the streets. Although I had to leave the country a little earlier than I had planned, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the global forces behind the democratic movement I was witnessing, as well as the violent reactions to it. When I returned to the states I pursued graduate studies at the University of Denver (DU), taking as many classes as I could on political violence and global democratic movements.

My time in graduate school and the fantastic faculty there sharpened my interest in terrorism and civil conflict more generally. During my second year at DU, I was lucky enough to land a position as a Research Assistant at the Program on Terrorism and Insurgency Research under the tutelage of Dr. Erica Chenoweth. During my time there, I worked on the NAVCO project, which seeks to establish an empirical baseline to study mass political movements and state responses to them. Leveraging my experience as an RA in grad school, my internship at the One Earth Future Foundation, and familiarity with quantitative datasets, I was lucky enough to get hired at START. Working at an organization that values a data-driven approach to understanding a subject I’m passionate about seemed like a natural fit.

What is a typical day like for you?

No day is the same at START – there always seems to be a new project being launched or a VIP taking a tour of our office. But my time can generally be broken into two categories: being a project manager and being a researcher. As a project manager, I spend a lot of my time working closely with the interns on the domestic radicalization team. The work they do is vital to our project, and I want to be sure that they’re getting the most they can out of their time at START. I try to be available to answer as many of their questions as I can and resolve issues as they come up – it can be a very fast moving working environment! I also spend my time preparing weekly meetings to discuss the project’s progress and coding questions with them, as well as various enrichment sessions and professional development. As an organization, we are positioned to mentor the next generation of terrorism scholars and I take a lot of pride in that part of my job.

As a START researcher, I spend a lot of time working closely with my colleagues Michael Jensen and Herbie Tinsley on our various projects. This summer, we’ve been very busy presenting our early findings from our “foreign fighter project” to a variety of audiences, including the National Counter Terrorism Center, Department of Homeland Security and the National Institute of Justice Annual Conference. We are also busy preparing for our next phase of research on building a dataset of deradicalization and disengagement from extremism. This involves a variety of challenges on how to approach writing the codebook, how to find proper sources, and most importantly, how to give the best possible guidance to our student interns.

Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on with START?

This summer’s project on foreign fighters was especially satisfying for me. Our project team at START was able to build an innovative dataset on U.S.-based foreign fighters – the first large sample dataset of its kind that we know of. Almost immediately we gained a lot of attention from policy makers and other researchers seeking fact-based analysis on this highly salient topic. We’re already seeing some very interesting results from the early analysis and I’m looking forward to continuing to improve the data. It is very rewarding to work on the project since its launch and to see where it is now and where it is going.

Are there any topics or researchers that you have been eager to work with but haven’t quite had the chance to yet?

I’m very interested to see how the data we’ve collected for the foreign fighter project can potentially interface with some advanced GIS methodologies. The GIS team at START has produced some really fascinating geo-spatial research tools, like TransIT, and it’s exciting to think about how their expertise can improve and inform the analysis we’ve already done.

What advice do you have for students pursuing studies in security or terrorism?

I have two pieces of advice. First, try to explore as many topic areas as you can – try not to feel too attached to a narrow area of study early on. College and graduate school are some of the best chances in your life to expose yourself to new ideas and research topics that you may not have given much thought beforehand. Second, use this time to study abroad and experience different cultures. Cultural differences are more than just differences in food, language and appearance. Experiencing a different culture first-hand opens a person up to new belief systems, values and perceptions that can have a profound impact on how he/she comes to view the world. It’s an opportunity to expand your worldview, solve new problems, and discover more about yourself. Do it before you get tied down with a job!

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

It’s important for me to unwind when I get home, so I enjoy exercising and playing pick-up basketball. I love to cook by experimenting with new flavors and uncommon ingredients from around the world. I’m a bit of an NBA nut, so when the season starts in October I’ll probably be watching a lot of games at home and going to some Wizards games downtown, although I’m a diehard Dallas Mavericks fan. I also love to go on hiking and camping trips, and going to music festivals whenever I can.