Do casual words betray terrorists’ murderous intent?

Peter Aldhous, San Francisco bureau chief

What do George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden have in common? Both may have unwittingly revealed their decisions to launch violent actions through subtle shifts in their use of language.

"It doesn’t matter which team you’re on," James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, claimed at the annual meeting  of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "If your team is going to war, there are these linguistic shifts."

Pennebaker is one of several researchers working with the US Department of Homeland Security on the Comparative Case Studies of Radical Rhetoric project, which is analysing English translations of  statements issued by al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, alongside those released by two groups with similar radical Islamic philosphies, but which have not resorted to violence. The ultimate goal is to help intelligence analysts predict impending acts of terrorism.

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