'Science' of Terrorism; UMd. Center Will Study the Threat

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 23, 2005 | Go to article overview

'Science' of Terrorism; UMd. Center Will Study the Threat


Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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