Skip to content

One-Stop Shop for Counterterrorists

​ONE OF THE IRONIES of American terrorism research, according to Gary LaFree, director of National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, is that the least amount of attention has been focused on U.S. domestic terrorism. But that’s beginning to change with more than $500,000 in funding from the Human Factors Division of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T).

This past winter, START released a report that mapped terrorism hotspots inside the United States for four decades at the county level. The analysis—a product of a larger project that’s akin to an of information on extremist violence, terrorism, and counterterrorism in the United States—was groundbreaking.

“No one has ever looked at this for the United States: To what extent are events concentrated in a few cities? To what extent do you get differences in the ideological motivation of terrorists in different parts of the country?” notes LaFree. “And we’re finding strong effects there.”

START found that 30 percent of all terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2008 occurred in five jurisdictions, which are, in descending order: Manhattan, New York; Los Angeles, California; Miami-Dade, Florida; San Francisco, California; and Washington, D.C. It has also uncovered more recent hotspots—such as Maricopa County, Arizona; and San Diego, California—that flew under the radar.

While the frequency of terrorist attacks in the United States has fallen dramatically since the 1970s, they have become more lethal. The analysis also found that attacks by single-issue terrorists—motivated by concerns for animal rights or the unborn, for example—have spiked throughout the 2000s, while attacks by left-wing and right-wing terrorists haven’t been significant since the 1970s and 1980s, respectively.

Other discoveries included correlations between ideology and the location of attacks over time. “There are big regional differences,” notes LaFree. Al Qaeda-style events tend to occur in the Northeast; environmental events occur in the West; left-wing events take place in the East; and right-wing events are carried out in the Midwest and the West.

The hotspots report is one of the first products from an ongoing effort to build an integrated terrorism database for intelligence analysts, law enforcement, and researchers. Known as the Terrorism and Extremism Violence in the United States (TEVUS) project, the effort was directed by START and includes 16 university researchers across the country.

The undertaking consists of four projects chronicling terrorist attacks and groups, extremist crime, and profiles of individual terrorists—all integrated into a relational database. START hopes the database will give law enforcement the ability to do a deep dive on terrorism-related subjects and achieve situational awareness faster than they can now.

Since 9-11 and the creation of the DHS, local law enforcement’s responsibilities have expanded to include counterterrorism. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has repeatedly called local law enforcement the nation’s first preventers because they can distinguish what’s normal and abnormal in their areas and, therefore, are in the best position to thwart a nascent terrorist attack. This belief in the capabilities of local law enforcement has led the DHS to distribute $34 billion in homeland security grants to states and localities since 9-11, according to data from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

But the relatively new responsibility can seem daunting, says LaFree. “How could a guy working out in North Dakota or Arizona be up on what’s going on internationally, nationally, or even locally” when it comes to terrorism trends?

START researchers believe TEVUS will be a big part of the information-sharing solution. LaFree’s Special Advisor Kathleen Smarick says the goal is to have TEVUS become the “one-stop shop” for counterterrorist stakeholders, particularly local police officers.

“Because it is inclusive of all groups that have engaged in extremist violence and extremist crime, it allows an officer in Montana, who is not as worried about the al Qaeda-type threat, to really look at data about the types of threats she is concerned with,” says Dr. Allison Smith, director of the Motivation and Intent Program at DHS S&T’s Human Factors/Behavioral Sciences Division.

If a terrorist group comes to an area, it’s important for the local police to understand that group’s profile. “The international groups tend to plan for sometimes years. Al Qaeda is a great example of this,” says LaFree. “On the other hand, environmental groups from the time they get the initial idea to commit an act until they execute it is very short. So you don’t have much time to wait around if you have an environmental group coming up.”

Just knowing whom you’re dealing with can affect tactical choices. How law enforcement deals with a potential cell of al Qaeda-inspired militants would conceivably be different from how it deals with the Earth Liberation Front, which primarily eschews violence against people and engages in property destruction.

But Smith makes it clear that this integrated database is not geared towards tracking terrorism incidents in real-time in an effort to prevent or disrupt attacks. “[TEVUS] does not include any operational data,” she explains. “It does not include any classified data. It does not include the type of information that would allow a police department to track how it is doing in terms of countering violent extremism or identifying terrorists.”

Soon, the Maryland fusion center will begin testing TEVUS and providing feedback to START. And with the database just integrated a few months back, START researchers are excited about the potential for counterintuitive findings that may reveal flaws in the conventional wisdom on terrorism inside the United States.

“We’re just scratching the surface,” says Smarick.