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Sociologist-led Homeland Security Center Is Unveiled

University of Maryland’s START program to explore terrorists’ mindsets, motivations

by David C. Walsh*

A new component of U.S. research-based efforts to understand and weaken global terrorism was formally launched at the University of Maryland’s College Park, MD, campus at a press conference and panel discussion in September. Unveiling the new National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START)—which incorporates a collective of sociologists, psychologists, criminologists, risk analysts, anthropologists, and other scientists—START and University officials described the new Center and its mission.

Enabled by a $12-million Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant announced in January (see February 2005 Footnotes, p. 1), START engages a half-dozen professors at Maryland partnering with collaborators at another two-dozen U.S. institutions as well as some in Europe and Israel. It is the sixth of an eventual seven Homeland Security Centers of Excellence (HS-Centers). START is housed at the University of Maryland. All the HS-Centers will tackle different dimensions of homeland defense.

Sociology at the Center

Sociologists Gary LaFree, START’s director and a criminologist, and Kathleen Tierney, director of the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Natural Hazard Center, are co-Principal Investigators of this new DHS Center. Commenting about the center at the press conference, LaFree said the “intensely interdisciplinary nature” of START’s mission is “highly unusual.” It is very rare, LaFree said, “for people from so many different professions and study areas to get together—especially in a substantive way—to talk about real research problems.”

Arie Kruglanski, a world-known social psychologist, added that another START advantage was its ability to “integrate across different projects.” While there could be debate, he said, “it would be far removed from individualistic projects within a given discipline; it will be interdisciplinary, it will be informed by a variety of viewpoints; it will be integrative.”

He proposed that START draw demarcation lines between “could-be” and “likely-to-be” attacked targets; with the latter subset gladly smaller. But to identify targets, “it’s necessary to get into the terrorists’ heads and figure out what they’re thinking and how they prioritize their targets.” That means learning “what makes sense to them, which may be very different from what makes sense to us.”

This is a task for social scientists, Kruglanski noted: “Terrorism as a whole is quintessentially a social issue . . . a form of psychological warfare . . . propaganda by deed.” Kruglanski cautioned against over-reactions to terrorism, with too many police being detached from their normal law enforcement duties. And he said indiscriminate, excessive responses to terrorism (e.g., Israel’s policy of so-called “targeted assassination”) could backfire, resulting in once-nonviolent, ordinary protesters retaliating in kind.

Kruglanski warned as well against using torture, ethnic profiling, humiliation of detainees and other measures that could “push people over the top.” The psychological/sociological nexus seemed clear.

Concerning cross-communication troubles—too many languages among dozens of disciplines and professions—Kruglanski proposed “having social scientists converse in multiple social science languages and be capable of translating the concern of one social scientist to all the others.”

Educational Aspirations

As START’s co-PI, Tierney divides her time between the University of Maryland and her Boulder campus. She explained at a June colloquy on the Center that “[E]ducating the next generation is a very important part of what we’re doing. We will be developing model curricula and a certificate program.” As well, she pointed out, up to 20 students will get travel fellowships to visit consortium institutions for help with their own homeland-security-related research.

Tierney corrected the misperception of some that “the mind of the terrorist” was the center’s sole thrust. Multivariate factors associated with “groups—not individuals—espousing a violent ideology” will be the focus, along with “the social, political, and economic factors that make particular groups more vulnerable than others” to the rise of terrorism, and the ways targets react to threats and survive attacks.

Understanding Resilience

Tierney leads the working group tackling “resilience issues” in the homeland—emotional, economic, and social. The flip side of vulnerability, she stated, is preparing the public for terrorism and, in the aftermath, evacuating and communicating with shocked, dispirited citizens. “But how do you build resilience within the population? How do you enable people to cope very well with crisis events when they happen and bounce back afterwards? If we could develop metrics for resilience,” she said, “we could compare areas and get a handle on how to raise the level of resilience in less-resilient communities or sub-populations.” Assisting Tierney in her work will be psychosocial experts involved in “natural disaster events, technological disasters, terrorist attacks like Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center,” she said.

Tierney also indicated that Maryland’s START center could look for answers to fundamental questions with integrated event-based data, “matched up with other publicly available data on social and political characteristics of societies in which events took place; with Geospatial Information System data on locations where events took place; and with census data.”

For now, Tierney has tasked her group with gleaning responses to random household surveys about how Americans perceive terrorist threats, assessing matters such as from where they obtain their information on threats, how they act on the information, their viewpoints on public policy, and how well they are prepared for terrorism.

Participating in the discussion panel during START’s formal launch event was Charles McQueary, chief of DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate, who stated, “We’re looking forward to getting great things out of this [HS-Center] in what I think is a very difficult and challenging area to understand in sufficient detail [and] we can make changes, perhaps, in the safety of the country as a result of what we learn here.”

McQueary called the social science aspect “a vital, often overlooked, piece of the terrorism puzzle; and it is an area we believe deserves very close examination—because the fact is, we do not fully understand the enemy we face today. The culture, lifestyle, beliefs and practices of our adversaries provide a stark contrast to our own society.”

While pursuing high-tech solutions, therefore, McQueary said, “we cannot exclude human factor solutions.” It is a question not only of the weapons terrorists employ “but who is likely to use such weapons.” Also, understanding the terrorists’ target profiles should “not overshadow our investigation of the perpetrators—and such analyses go hand in hand.”

START, he added, could aid DHS efforts to “screen, detect, and prevent terrorism through our understanding of terrorist group behavior, recruitment, and motivation.” McQueary stated that DHS wants to know why so many terrorists are willing to die to kill large numbers of people and indicated, “We have many questions, and not enough answers.” The Maryland program is all about exploring the underlying causes of violent extremism, McQueary explained.

The DHS Science and Technology Directorate, he concluded, “is dependent to a very large measure on what can be done in the academic community and private sector” for answers to some of these difficult questions.

David C. Walsh is a Washington, DC-based writer specializing in defense and homeland security issues.