The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced yesterday that it will underwrite a new center at the University of Maryland to conduct social and behavioral research into terrorists and terrorist organizations, hoping to break new ground by employing many of the same academic tools used to battle drug gangs and violent crime.
One of the center's first tasks will be a study of how terrorist organizations form and recruit, with a focus on specific organizations, such as al-Qaida, that pose a danger to the United States. The center's scholars will also study such questions as whether terrorists inspired by religion are more likely to use weapons of mass destruction, and whether American prisons have become terrorist recruiting grounds.
The new center, the fourth of five Homeland Security Centers of Excellence that federal officials hope to create, will be based at the and financed with a $12 million federal grant parceled out over three years.
But organizers say the research will be conducted by psychologists, sociologists and other academic specialists around the world, through a network of five affiliated universities in the United States and scholars from Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan and other countries.
Other projects contemplated include a study of how the Sept. 11 attacks were used as a recruiting tool by terrorist organizations. Researchers also will hold focus groups in Muslim countries to probe the attitudes of fundamentalists. One of the center's goals is to harness what is known about the criminal mind and use it to explore the terrorist mind, with the hope of providing the government with information to disrupt the development of terrorist groups and reduce terrorism worldwide.
"In my field - criminology - there is a lot of research into why people join gangs or organized criminal networks, and much of it can apply to terrorists," said Gary LaFree, a University of Maryland professor who will direct the new center. "There are also a lot of gaps in that research when it is applied to terrorism, however. And that will be one of our first goals - to fill in those gaps."
LaFree said the Center of Excellence for Behavioral and Social Research on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism will operate much like other academic centers, financing research and vetting and publishing unclassified papers in scholarly journals. The center has no plans to offer a degree in terror-related social science, LaFree said, but expects to offer a concentration or certificate program. Scholars and researchers will be culled from other programs at the university.
But the center will be somewhat unusual because of its close link with the government agency that sponsors it, and because of its decidedly nonacademic mission of helping to prevent and fight terrorism. In statements announcing the new center, LaFree called it "the social science equivalent of the Manhattan Project," referring to the World War II research effort that led to the atomic bomb.
"We'll be a kind of academic rapid-response team," LaFree said. "Part of our job will involve getting timely advice to homeland and national security professionals in government."
Other academic centers established by the Department of Homeland Security include one at the University of Southern California that explores terrorism's economic underpinning and consequences, and centers at the University of Minnesota and Texas A&M University that conduct terrorism research related to agriculture. The department plans to seek proposals this week for a fifth center to explore preparation for and reaction to "high-consequence events."
Homeland Security officials said they selected Maryland from among 27 institutions that submitted proposals. Among the university's attributes, they said, were its broad research capabilities, its proximity to Washington and extensive work done by LaFree to compile a database of about 74,000 terrorism-related incidents around the world.
"An essential aspect of fighting terrorism is understanding terrorism," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in remarks prepared for the formal announcement at College Park yesterday. "The better we understand terrorist behavior, the better we can counter terrorism through prevention, detection, preparedness and response."