(July 2007) Unfortunately, some acts of kindness are far from random. They can be downright deadly.
New homeland security research is showing how terrorist groups around the world develop strategic relationships with charity and humanitarian organizations in the very communities where they operate. In fact, these groups often fund or provide direct services such as medical care, wastewater treatment, and garbage collection, only to help build their legitimacy and recruit members for more acts of violence.
“They work to generate good will,” says Shawn Flanigan, who traveled to Lebanon and Sri Lanka from the State University of New York at Albany through funding by the Science and Technology Directorate's (S&T) Centers of Excellence program. And if these relationships initially succeed, she says, the terrorists will pressure the organizations along what she calls a “continuum of community support.”
Charities in the Middle East, for instance, may at first be hesitant to accept money or support from groups such as Hezbollah, which is known to advocate violence to achieve political goals. But over time, if the need for medical and other services becomes dire, they will move from passive acceptance to cooperation and, eventually, to full involvement in the cause. “Some people [in the charities] will turn their heads at the violence, and others will say their religion calls them to be engaged with these groups,” says Flanigan, now a professor at San Diego State University.
She also suggests a way to prevent terrorists from using charities: Help those same charities. If organizations have the supplies they need for their communities—including the support of local and national governments—she says they will be less inclined to side with radical and violent groups. She recognizes, however, that such a change will not come overnight. As an example: While the Hezbollah-funded organization Jihad in Construction is listed as a terrorist “front” by the U.S. Department of State, it is also a prominent provider of public works in Lebanon, often contracting with the Lebanese government.
Flanigan conducted her research through funding from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START),a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland. START is seeking to understand how radical and violent groups form and then persist. This knowledge, it says, can lead to effective ways to counter and prevent the spread of terrorism. Flanigan participated in START’s Pre-Doctoral Fellow program, an annual competition that provides scholars with funds to support innovative research.