Impact Awards
2023 Talent Award winner: Jessica Davis

Already a leading authority on counterterrorism, Jessica Davis is pursuing doctoral studies at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University to tackle a neglected area of the field: measuring the outcomes of counterterrorist financing legislation, policies and practices.

In the years since September 11, 2001, a key part of how governments around the globe combat terrorism has been by targeting financing; the amount of money and resources that terrorists can access directly determines the types of attacks they’re able to carry out. To counter this, states take a five-pronged approach: denying, deterring, destroying, detecting and disrupting terrorist financing.

However, the effectiveness of these policy tools—which work to reduce terrorism, and which work less well—has received little empirical evaluation.

“It’s something that’s been lacking for the last 20 or so years of counterterrorism,” Davis said. “Are these tools that we have doing anything? And are they proportional to the harms they’re causing?”

Davis is filling this knowledge gap with a research design that integrates quantitative analysis of the effects of the criminalization of terrorist financing with comparative case studies of counterterrorist financing legislation in Canada, Sri Lanka and Turkey.

Davis’ thesis will have wide-ranging impacts, providing a knowledge base to rationalize international counterterrorism efforts, improve security, and reduce the negative impacts of current policies on human rights and financial inclusion.

“If we can identify the tools that are effective, then we can emphasize those tools, and we can train our partners to use those tools. We can also then develop new ways to go after this really important part of terrorism,” Davis said.

Furthermore, if the research identifies any tools that are not particularly effective—if they’re doing more harm than good—this knowledge can be the basis for policy tweaks.

“The fight against terrorist financing often disproportionately targets charities and civil society organizations. I think we can do better than that. I think that we can design tools and policies and legislation that is more targeted.”

Davis’ PhD studies build directly on the first 17 years of her career in the Canadian security and intelligence business—starting in the Canadian Armed Forces, then transitioning to roles at Global Affairs Canada, FINTRAC (Canada’s financial intelligence unit) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

In addition to her work as a PhD candidate, Davis is president of Insight Threat Intelligence, the consulting firm she founded, and the author of two books. Illicit Money (2021) is a prelude to her thesis research, broadening knowledge of what terrorist financing is and how it is accomplished.

Davis’ entry into the counterterrorism field is deeply personal. She was a student at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) on September 11, 2001. It was a pivotal moment.

“When I joined the military, I joined as a peacekeeper,” she said. “Then 9/11 happened. We were suddenly a warfighting military. The mission changed on an absolute dime.”

Davis’ parents were living in Washington at the time of the attacks. When she went down to see them at Thanksgiving, she saw the damage to the Pentagon firsthand.

After graduation, friends of hers from RMC were deployed to Afghanistan. Some of them never came home.

“It’s been something that’s consumed my career ever since.”

As she hones her expertise in this field, winning the SSHRC Impact Award in the Talent category is “an incredible honour,” Davis said.

“It really encourages me that other people also see this as important and that this is really something worth pursuing.”

Now in the final year of her PhD program, Davis’ expertise is highly sought after and informs public policy in Canada. She has been invited to present as an expert witness before several Canadian parliamentary committees. For example, after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, she testified about whether and how to allow aid into the country. She was also called on by the Public Order Emergency Commission, with the final report citing her testimony and recommendation for a public registry of foreign agents. Her invited talk for the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency informed the research agenda and approach the agency will take to review counterterrorism financing activities in Canada.

Davis also takes her expertise directly to communities under threat. She travels extensively to give presentations about counterterrorism financing, helping communities to connect the dots between attacks and finances, and have frank conversations about the different tools at their disposal and how they might use them.

“I love helping them see how countering terrorist financing can make their communities more secure.”

Davis was a finalist in SSHRC’s 2023 Storytellers Challenge, for Counter-Terrorism Financing and the Evolution and Adaptation of Terrorist Tactics.

About the award

The annual Impact Awards recognize the highest achievements in SSHRC-funded research, knowledge mobilization and scholarship, as well as the highest achievements resulting from a SSHRC fellowship awarded.

The Talent Award recognizes outstanding research achievement and career potential from a SSHRC doctoral or postdoctoral fellowship or scholarship holder.

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