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Fighting International Terrorism with Social Science Knowledge

Sociologists are integral to Department of Homeland Security research centers grant

by Johanna Ebner, Public Information Office

Social scientists, including numerous sociologists, will unite in defense of national security. The University of Maryland-College Park was named in January as the home for a major Department of Homeland Security (DHS) social and behavioral research center dedicated to reducing terrorism worldwide. The center’s three main working groups will focus on the origins of terrorist groups, the dynamics of terrorist groups, and a group examining societal issues associated with terrorism in the United States.

Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Charles McQueary, his undersecretary for science and technology, announced the $12-million, three-year grant to the University of Maryland and its academic partners to establish the Center of Excellence for Behavioral and Social Research on Terrorism and Counter-terrorism. It is the fourth university-based center of excellence funded by DHS.

“A critical aspect of fighting terrorism is understanding terrorism, understanding how terrorist groups form and operate, how they grow and sustain themselves, and the social and psychological impacts of terrorist attacks,” said Ridge at the center’s dedication.

The center’s team of scholars will be led by University of Maryland criminologist Gary LaFree. “This may be the social science equivalent of the Manhattan Project,” said LaFree, an ASA member. “Too often, policymakers have had to counter terrorists on the basis of assumptions and guesstimates. Our job will be to give them more solid information to work with.”

Team Approach

Teams of social scientists from many fields comprise the Center of Excellence. In the first year, one working group will study how terrorist organizations form and recruit, focusing on specific organizations that pose a clear and present danger. One line of research, for example, will ask whether terror groups inspired by religious zeal are more likely to use weapons of mass destruction than their secular counterparts. Another will look at the way terror groups have exploited the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to expand their base of popular support.

In all these studies, researchers will look for ways to intervene and disrupt the process. “We’ll be a kind of academic rapid-response team,” LaFree says. “Part of our job will involve getting timely advice to homeland and national security professionals in government.”

“This new center award is a very important one and a real accomplishment for sociologists!” said Kathleen Tierney, University of Colorado-Boulder sociology professor and director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center. Tierney will head the working group on the societal impacts of terrorism. In addition to the University of Maryland, the University of Colorado is one of the center’s six academic partners, which include the University of California-Los Angeles, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of South Carolina, and the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

“We will be working to better understand the public perception of the terrorism threat, ways of communicating that threat to the public and to public officials, and preparedness issues in schools and communities,” said Tierney.

Global Databases & Network Analysis

The researchers will rely on a variety of tools already in use by social scientists. These tools include major global databases of ethnic struggles over the past 60 years and the most comprehensive open data set on terror incidents. As part of his prior research, LaFree has been assembling the terror database and will begin to mine it for clues about the roots of terror and effective counter-measures. The researchers will look for patterns among terrorist events and study terrorist groups in the same fashion social scientists have long studied gangs, hate crimes, and social networks in general. In fact, social network analysis was employed to root out Saddam Hussein just prior to his capture in Iraq last year.

“We know a lot more about violence, group psychology, and international conflict than has been brought to bear on this problem,” said LaFree. “Our teams will be more inclusive so we can tap this expertise.” The center will also have a strong educational component, helping to train a new generation of researchers, graduates and undergraduates, in the field of terror-related social science. There will also be a certificate program associated with the program for graduate and undergraduate students, signifying that a student has concentrated in terrorism study within a traditional academic major.

The road leading to the inclusion of social science in criminal justice has been a long one. Sociologists and other social scientists have long collected and analyzed data on the social impacts of natural disasters and extreme events, but receiving recognition and federal government support took much lobbying by social scientists within the government. ASA’s Executive Director Sally Hillsman, while Deputy Director of the National Institute of Justice, was among those social scientists serving on the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) cross-agency committee that helped the administration “understand the potential role of social science and sell the value of the social sciences in fighting terrorism and its causes,” explained Hillsman.

Disasters Have Common Impact

“In terms of physical impacts and the ways in which people and organizations respond, such attacks have a great deal in common with natural disasters such as great earthquakes and hurricanes,” Tierney said. “One of the goals of the center is to ensure that lessons learned from more than five decades of research on natural disasters and other extreme events are applied to the management of emerging terrorism-related threats.”

In addition to LaFree and Tierney, the other team leaders include social psychologist Arie Kruglanski, University of Maryland; Clark McCauley, psychology professor at Bryn Mawr College and co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania; and Jonathan Wilkenfeld, professor of political science and director of the Center for International Development and Conflict Management, University of Maryland. Also, Gary Ackerman, senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies; Susan Cutter, professor of geography and director of the Hazards Research Lab, University of South Carolina; and Linda Bourque, department of community health sciences professor and associate director of the Center for Public Health and Disasters, University of California-Los Angeles.

After the January 10 announcement at the University of Maryland-College Park campus, the university and the federal government will engage in a 90-day negotiation of the final terms of the contract. After that the center will open.