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Maryland to Lead Major U.S. Homeland Security Behavioral Research Center

Maryland to Lead Major U.S. Homeland Security
Behavioral Research Center

The University of Maryland will be home to a major U.S.-sponsored social and behavioral research center dedicated to reducing worldwide terrorism. Its research will focus on areas such as how to disrupt the formation of terror networks and minimize the impact of future attacks.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Charles McQueary, his undersecretary for science and technology, came to College Park earlier this month to announce a $12-million, three-year grant to Maryland and its academic partners to establish the Center of Excellence for Behavioral and Social Research on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism. It will be the fourth university-based center of excellence funded by the department.

“This is a major opportunity for us to help the nation confront the threat of terrorism,” says Dr. Jacques Gansler, Maryland’s vice president of research, who will oversee the work of the center. “The expertise of social scientists can help disrupt terror operations and reduce the aftereffects of attacks. But so far the nation hasn’t taken full advantage of their knowledge. With this new team, we hope to change that.”

Maryland will direct the center, building a research team with its five major partners and more than 10 other academic institutions in the United States and abroad. The University of Colorado, University of Pennsylvania, Monterey Institute of International Studies, University of South Carolina and the University of California, Los Angeles are the major partners.

“This may be the social science equivalent of the Manhattan Project,” says Dr. Gary LaFree, the University of Maryland criminologist who will direct the new center of excellence. “Too often, policy-makers 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.”

The new center of excellence will be built around teams of social scientists drawn from many fields. “It’s an unusual way to do social research, but it fits the challenge,” LaFree says. “We know a lot more about violence, group psychology and international conflict than has been brought to bear on this problem. Our teams will be more inclusive so we can tap this expertise.”

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 9/11 attacks to expand their base of popular support. Yet another will examine U.S. prisons as recruiting grounds for terror groups.

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.”

The researchers will draw on a variety of tools, including 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 center will also have a strong educational component, helping to train a new generation of researchers in the field of terror-related social science.

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