Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Terrorism globally is big business. It also is rapidly becoming a new science.

As proof of this, the University of Maryland has been awarded a $12 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to set up a broad-based research center for studying behavioral and social aspects of terrorism with a view to learning how to counter it.

Gary LaFree, a professor of criminology, is head of the newly established National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, which only recently acquired a physical site on the College Park campus. He will be assisted by a number of “team leaders” from several academic institutions across the country. Ramona Harper, a retired Foreign Service officer, is the assistant director.

“I would say definitely we are creating a science,” Mr. LaFree says. “It is very much like criminology, in which we have majors and degrees. … Terrorism, like criminology, has to do with sociology, psychology, geography, theology. We have to approach it in several different directions.”

A database that contains more than 70,000 terrorist incidents from the past 25 years was acquired by his department before the center was conceived. It uses what he calls “the military definition [for terrorism] — essentially violence against noncombatants carried out by non-state actors.”

The database originally was compiled by Pinkerton Corp.’s Global Intelligence Service, according to a University of Maryland Web site, and, with funding from the National Institute of Justice, was given to the university’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice for analysis, which began in January 2003.

Analyzing the database will be just one of the functions of the interdisciplinary project, which involves some 25 university affiliates from the United States, Israel and Europe. Their work is funded by the Department of Homeland Security’s Science & Technology Directorate, which operates the department’s Centers of Excellence program. (Four other centers have been named to date, ostensibly to bolster the country’s resistance to attack and encourage long-range scholarship in the area.)

It’s not that terrorism hasn’t been studied before, key personnel say.

“I think about 5,000 books have been published, and almost every day a new book appears,” the project’s “co-principal investigator,” Arie Kruglanski, said during a recent press conference held to explain the center’s aims and working methods. Mr. Kruglanski is also a University of Maryland social psychology professor.

The meeting took place during a three-day conference on campus that brought together for the first time the widely scattered participants — mostly academics in related fields.

“Terrorism has been studied for the last 30 years, but [it] is a continually changing process,” Mr. Kruglanski noted. “A very dynamic process. We want to trace these developments: What has been known and to what extent what applies to the future.”

Mr. Kruglanski’s job as outlined by Mr. LaFree will be “looking at terrorism as a developmental process: where terrorist groups come from; what psychological factors are related to why someone joins a terrorist group; how such groups are formed; and why do some situations that revolve out of grievances not [lead to the formation of] terrorist groups.”

Simultaneously, Bryn Mawr College professor Clark McCauley will run projects having to do with “what causes the groups to persist; why some groups go out of business and what allowed them to go out rapidly in some cases, and why do groups change patterns over time,” Mr. LaFree said. Mr. McCauley is also director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kathleen Tierney, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado and director of that institution’s Natural Hazards Center, is in charge of studying both preparedness for and the aftermath of an attack, including, in Mr. LaFree’s words, “what sorts of strategies are best for preserving life, evaluating people communicating with the public, and building a more risk-resilient public.”

None present was willing to argue that a catastrophic attack on American soil is imminent.

“Al Qaeda, what is left of it, is working great with its current strategy to divide Islamic people,” Mr. McCauley said. “They attack all the soft targets around the world from Morocco to Thailand to the Philippines and go after missionaries and tourists and are doing a great job. It is very cheap for them, and they get great results. It makes fewer and fewer Westerners want to go. They are creating the clash of civilization they see between Islam and the West.”

About 60 people will work on no fewer than 25 projects the first year. Results will be released in academic journals and in reports to the Department of Homeland Security. The team leaders do not rule out the possibility of continuing the research beyond three years with funding from private and foundation sources.

“You would think criminologists would have done a lot of work on terrorism research and security issues, but in fact they have not,” Mr. LaFree said. “To some extent, that is true to many of the fields [represented] in this conference. We know a lot about related areas but need to apply [the knowledge] in a more effective way.”

He cited as an example the database of terrorist incidents, calling it a springboard for learning how and when terrorists strike and why. “We will look at other groups who have grievances around the world and why some of them turn into strikes and some do not.”

Asking “Why do they hate us so much?” is too simple a question, Mr. Kruglanski argued. The need is to understand “how groups determine their objectives and serve larger ends.” He expects to interview some “prior terrorist leaders” as well as survey “populations that constitute a sentiment pool on which new records can be drawn.”

Dismissing familiar stereotypes is important, Ms. Tierney stressed. The center’s work is not just about studying the minds of terrorists, but also about “the broader social, economic and political factors that give rise to terrorism — factors associated with groups espousing a violent ideology and what makes groups use violent tactics at one point in time.” Anthropology, geography and psychiatry are just some of the disciplines involved, she noted.

Visual profiling — the idea that there are physical features common to a terrorist personality — will not be addressed, according to Mr. McCauley.

The Maryland-based center does not expect to have access to any classified material, a point the participants were quick to defend. “The chief advantage of being open-source is we can communicate with the best scientists around the world,” Mr. LaFree said. “We don’t have to worry about their nationality. We are a university and want to do the work of researchers. DHS does not need another national laboratory.”

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