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Radical Research: Understanding Origins of Terrorism

DHS scientists are working to understand terrorist intent and behavior, and how radicalization leads to violence. (December 2007) Generally, it was blissfully quiet in the row houses on Forest Road in London’s gritty East End. In the cramped quarters of one apartment, however, even those living next door knew nothing of the terror being concocted within. With fanatical determination, the men living there were devising a plan to mix a sports drink with a gel to make an explosive that could be detonated using an MP3 player or cell phone. They were hell-bent on bringing a second September 11th aboard a dozen aircraft bound for different cities in the United States. Two wrote out martyrdom notes.

Then, in the days just before August 9, 2006, the plotters received a very short message: “Go now!”

Authorities moved in, and the London liquid bomb plot was thwarted. These questions became paramount: What makes an individual become fanatic and aggressive? What makes a group go from belief, to hostility, and lastly to violence?

Understanding terrorist intent and behavior, and how radicalization leads to violence, is a top priority for the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) Human Factors Division. For example, there are theories that victimization, political grievances, and joining radical groups lead individuals down the slippery slope of increasingly extreme behaviors. At the group level, some theories propose that isolation and perceived threats may heighten group radicalization. These are just a few of the many theories that must be tested against others in order to become useful to intelligence analysts.

“The bottom line is that we need to better understand the process of radicalization in order to thwart it early in the process,” says Sharla Rausch, the head of the Human Factors Division.

One effort aimed at doing this is a collaborative effort between four National Labs called the Group Violent Intent Modeling Project, which is managed by the Directorate’s Jennifer O’Connor. Drawing on the theories and data of the social and behavioral sciences, researchers use advanced modeling and simulation techniques to examine influences on future terrorist behavior. Ultimately, the project aims to provide intelligence analysts with tools that can help them estimate the likelihood of groups engaging in violence.

To support the project, the S&T Directorate will sponsor basic research focused on identifying the precursors and signatures of radicalization, the role of communities in moving groups toward or away from radicalization, and the impact of media on radicalization. Findings from these studies will expand and refine the models. “Our goal is not only to gain a better understanding of the process of radicalization,” says Allison Smith, Program Lead for Radicalization Research. “It is also to uncover valid behavioral indicators that a group is moving towards imminent violent activity.”

The importance of gaining insight into the motivations, beliefs, and behaviors of groups who aim to do us harm cannot be underestimated.

“Only known threats can be prevented,” says Rausch.

To request more information about this story, please e-mail st.snapshots@hq.dhs.gov.

Last Updated: 10/21/2021
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