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What makes terrorists tick


The carpet is spotless, the desk still has the sheen of the furniture store, and criminologist Gary LaFree is huddled over a new computer, exercising part of his database for the first time. The performance is fascinating but chilling: The global maps he's manipulating document the spread of terrorism over time. There's hope that the information stored here can help scholars learn about the nature of terrorism - and eventually help rid the world of it.

For now, though, there are many unanswered questions to ponder: What do Palestinian terrorists have in common with members of the IRA? Or Shining Path? Or abortion clinic bombers? How is the Mafia different from al-Qaida? How do terrorist groups form? How do they sustain themselves? Why do some disappear?

Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, LaFree studied international homicide statistics. Now, he is one of the newest warriors to join the battle against al-Qaida, director of the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START, at the University of Maryland.

It is the first U.S. program funded by the government to study terrorist behavior. And LaFree is charged with studying it fast.

Given the growing incidence of suicide strikes around the world, you might consider START the Manhattan Project of social science. As chief organizer, LaFree's running his cell phone bill "through the roof" contacting scholars throughout the world who are working collaboratively on projects.

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security hold great hopes that START's "rapid-response team" of academics can use LaFree's database of more than 70,000 terrorist events to begin finding answers to some of terrorism's fundamental questions.

"The Maryland START Center will help strengthen the nation's ability to understand the root causes behind acts of terror and the motivations of terrorists and those who enable them," Charles McQueary, DHS undersecretary for science and technology, said last month.

LaFree's background in criminology provides an "interesting new way" to look at terrorist behavior, said Melvin Bernstein, director of university programs for Homeland Security.

"So much of the research so far has been just on people who have actually engaged in terrorism," LaFree says. "We argue that to understand terrorism, you've got to know not only about the relatively small number of people that engage in it but all the people who could have. And about the people who support the goals of the terrorists, strongly or even weakly. You've got to understand the communication going on between this relatively small group and the larger society."

LaFree also hopes that the center will persuade students to make careers in the study of terrorism and counterterrorism - a field with room for many disciplines. The UM center has connected psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, geographers, criminologists, demographers and economists.

"I believe in interdisciplinary research, big time, but it also raises a host of challenges," LaFree says. "We all speak different languages, have different publishing outlets and we're not going to agree on a lot of stuff."

You get the sense, though, that such challenges only motivate the 54-year-old LaFree. And the lanky, affable Diet Coke-drinking fellow from Indiana already has accomplished much since January, when Homeland Security awarded $12 million to fund the three-year program that LaFree and his colleagues proposed.

Five-school consortium

Although START is a consortium of scholars from five universities, it now has a physical location in a third-floor suite of rooms in Symons Hall on the Maryland campus. It will publish a pioneering study on airplane hijackings. It has organized conferences, and research teams are surveying people in Pakistan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, asking such questions as: Are you more likely to justify terrorism against the United States when it is doing things in foreign policy you don't agree with?

"The famous phrase is that one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter," LaFree says. "The reason it's so complicated to tell whether something is 'terrorist' is, in large part, because terrorism really isn't a person, it's a technique. Different groups sometimes use the technique, and sometimes they don't."

In his definition, terrorism involves a "sub-state" agent, violence or the threat of it, and goals that are political, religious or social.

"I would count the Mafia's killing of a judge because they don't like his ruling, or a government official because they're trying to get more favorable policies, as terrorism," LaFree says.

The START database includes descriptions of domestic and international events collected since 1970 from news accounts and embassies. LaFree considers a third of the roughly 3,000 groups identified through the database to be "fairly serious." With several other principal investigators and scores of researchers around the world, LaFree hopes to analyze information about these groups in a way that can help keep terrorist networks from forming - and recognize which groups pose the greatest threats.

"You could already make a good case that we have a lot more to worry about from right- and left-wing groups inside the United States than we do from al-Qaida," he says. "Before 9/11, the biggest attack was the Oklahoma City bombing. By far the largest number of attacks have been domestic - domestic outnumber international by seven-to-one."

As a criminologist, he sees similarities between terrorist cells and street gangs.

"People often think in terms of how difficult it is to wipe gangs out, but the reverse is also true: It's really quite remarkable how people without money or great organizational skills can keep their followers interested, day after day.

"Gangs have a lot of work to do just to keep gangs going. It's the same with terrorists. How do you get people to commit to a level where they will live on next to nothing, have terrible living conditions, abandon their families and perhaps even give their lives? That requires a lot of social and psychological work. ... What a lot of terrorist groups are about is just maintaining their own existence over time."

A scholar of violence

When he was growing up on a farm in northern Indiana, LaFree heard a lot about the "troubles" in Northern Ireland because of his father's friendships with several families in Lurgan, in County Armagh. He remembers thinking how senseless that violence seemed. Over the years, however, his main connection to terrorism became the 30 years he has studied violence.

As a graduate student at Indiana University, he read Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will and realized that rape was an "under-studied example of people using violence to get what they want."

He set about to change that. For his book, Rape and Criminal Justice: The Social Construction of Sexual Assault, LaFree consulted court records in Indianapolis for 1,000 rape cases. He tracked how the definition of rape and the way it was treated changed over a decade, from the days when a member of the rape squad tried to make victims "admit" they were lying to a time when the culture was beginning to acknowledge the existence of date rape.

Later he studied crime in the United States between 1963 and 1975, a time when robberies tripled and burglaries quadrupled. Along with spurring the creation of federal bureaucracies and fueling flight to the suburbs, this 12-year crime period permanently changed how Americans live, he writes in Losing Legitimacy: Street Crime and the Decline of Institutions in America.

"I'm sort of an archaeologist," he says. "I like to study things that get left behind, in records and other things. Health records, for instance, tell us a lot about homicides, and court records tell us a lot about violent crimes."

So you can imagine his enthusiasm when he discovered what he says may be the world's most comprehensive "open" record of terrorist events: A treasury of information from 1970 to 1997 collected by Pinkerton Global Intelligence Service.

"The State Department had only considered international acts, missing such events as the Oklahoma City bombing or the sarin gas attacks in Japan," he says. "As a private money-making concern, Pinkerton didn't have all the political pressure that the State Department does. Were the Contras involved in terrorism or not? Was Israel involved in terrorism or just protecting itself? Pinkerton tended to err on the side of inclusiveness."

He persuaded Pinkerton to let the University of Maryland computerize the records - "I said, 'Look, I have no money, I'm an academic. But I think people would be really interested in your data.'" Then he needed to find an army of students - and the money to pay them - to enter the data, which Pinkerton researchers had merely stored in shoeboxes.

A 'center of excellence'

When his initial project grants were exhausted, his funding search led him and colleagues to draft a proposal to become an academically based "center of excellence" funded by the Department of Homeland Security. (Other centers concentrate on the economic consequences of terrorism and on protecting livestock, and the harvested food supply, from bioterrorism.)

"Ironically, I ended up getting this award because I had been turned down for others," LaFree says.

Now that the Pinkerton data are computerized, researchers around the globe are feeding the database with new examples of terrorism small and large, successful and failed.

Although psychologists and psychiatrists have tended to assume that terrorism is pathological, research instead reveals its "banality," says Arie Kruglanski, a University of Maryland psychologist who is START's co-director.

"A certain psychological process can turn anyone into a terrorist," he says. "Terrorism is not a syndrome, not a disease like depression; it is a tool anyone can use. ...

"We're asking, 'When are people drawn to this particular tool? What would dissuade them from using it?' That's a new direction for study."

Perception and preparation

Another major area of research at START concerns the public dimensions of terrorism - how Americans perceive the threat, how they are likely to prepare for it and react to it. Since Hurricane Katrina, such questions as 'How can the government effectively communicate risk?' and 'What's the best way to evacuate people after a terrorist strike?' seem even more pressing. Almost a third of the center's 60 researchers are natural hazards specialists led by Kathleen Tierney, director of the National Hazards Center of the University of Colorado.

"I think we were ahead of the curve on this one," LaFree says. "We saw the connection between hazard response and terrorism response very clearly when we organized this new center."

Other groups are looking at such issues as whether U.S. prisons serve as breeding grounds for terrorists, whether terrorists who act for religious reasons are more apt to use weapons of mass destruction, and how terrorist organizations have used the Sept. 11 attacks to attract new followers.

START scholars are also part of a project in Northern Ireland that examines how British responses to terrorism have affected subsequent attacks.

"If they [British] respond in a very harsh fashion, it tends to increase the strikes," LaFree says.

"With 9/11, al-Qaida, in part, was trying to provoke the United States to kill a bunch of innocent people in order to drive a wedge between the Islamic world and the United States.

"If we want to understand our adversaries, we better take into account that sometimes whacking the other side is playing into their hands. It may be exactly what they want."

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