Jessica Stern seeks out vicious killers and terrorists. Her unblinking research often involves lengthy sit-downs with some of the world’s most brutal characters to better understand what drives them. Stern, herself a survivor of childhood violence, was surprised to discover that her own trauma gave her an edge in getting extremists to talk to her.
“I am fascinated by the secret motivations of violent men, and I’m good at ferreting them out. When I’m in a frightening situation, I can go into a kind of altered state. I do not feel afraid. I do not get angry. I am interested, a spy.”
Last year, the terrorism expert joined the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies as a research professor, and the fieldwork for her most recent book, ISIS: The State of Terror (HarperCollins, 2015), served as the backbone for one of her first courses, Guerrilla Warfare and Terrorism. She has also written on neo-Nazis, anarchists, animal-rights extremists, and white supremacists and has spent several years interviewing Radovan Karadzic, convicted for war crimes in Bosnia. One of Stern’s main focuses is the possible connections between trauma and terror, and she’s been working with a team at Boston Children’s Hospital on the risk factors for violence among Somali-refugee youth.
This past winter, Stern testified before the US Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, urging an expansion of college courses, such as those she’s now teaching at BU, to counter online recruiting propaganda.
“One of the major gaps in our response to ISIS,” she told the senators, “is the lack of investment in developing and disseminating effective counter narratives compelling to the millennial youth who are ISIS’s principal targets for recruitment.”