National Center for Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism

by Claudia Ginanni

Professor of Psychology Clark R. McCauley has been named one of three co-directors of the new Homeland Security National Center for Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (NC-START). The center, which will be directed by Professor of Criminology Gary LaFree at the University of Maryland, is one of four such centers created by the Department of Homeland Security; each center assembles a multidisciplinary team of scholars to examine a cluster of critical homeland-security issues.

DHS plans to provide about $12 million in funding to NC-START over the next three years. McCauley will lead a team of researchers studying terrorist group dynamics; this team will be supported by a subcontract from the University of Maryland to the Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania. The DHS award provides half-time support for McCauley, who will continue teaching and research at Bryn Mawr half-time, including work on some of the center’s terrorism studies. The grant has a budget for undergraduate research assistance, and McCauley expects to employ Bryn Mawr students in this work.

A DHS press release says that the center’s focus “will include the sources of and responses to terrorism, the psychological impact of terrorism on society, and increasing the American public’s preparedness, response and resilience in the face of threats.” Its researchers “will examine the motivation and intent of terrorists in order to develop strategies and tools to improve counteractions, such as understanding and forecasting the magnitude of the terrorist threat and formulating effective response strategies.” The center, it continues, “will also consider the impact of terrorism on the public, and will develop risk communications techniques and relevant educational programs.”

According to McCauley, plans for the first year focus on developing three broad types of data survey and focus group data, historical studies and a comprehensive database of terrorist incidents and on development of quantitative models built on these three kinds of data. McCauley will conduct and supervise both survey and historical research.

“One study I’m involved in looks at historical instances in which terrorist campaigns ended very suddenly,” he notes. “There are several examples: we want to examine each one to learn about the circumstances in which such an outcome is possible.”

Another historical study will examine groups that have undergone a metamorphosis from nonviolent protest groups into terrorist organizations. “How and when do groups develop the moral framework that makes violence against civilians acceptable or necessary?” McCauley asks. “What kind of rhetoric powers the change?”

The center will employ experienced survey researchers working in countries whose populations have contributed significant numbers to terrorist groups. “We hope to learn more about the motives and intentions of terrorists and terrorist supporters, including their responses to U.S. foreign policy,” McCauley explains.

“We’ll also be able to conduct national surveys of the U.S. population,” McCauley says. “In one of these, I hope to be able to include questions that will distinguish between the perception of personal threat and group-level threat. I expect results to show that people respond differently to these two different kinds of threat, and that the distinction has important political consequences.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the center, McCauley says, is one of its greatest strengths. “There are decades of research into these topics, scattered across many academic disciplines. We think that considerable value is added by an interdisciplinary community where scholars know what others are doing not only after it’s published, but when it’s in the planning stages. Perspectives from other disciplines could strengthen the design of a study before it takes place.”

McCauley cites his work for the Asch Center, which is similarly interdisciplinary, as an important training ground in this sort of project. He notes, too, the cross-disciplinary course “Political Psychology of Group Identification,” which he team-teaches with Professor of Political Science Marc Ross. Ross is also affiliated with the Asch Center, as well as the Bryn Mawr-Haverford Peace and Conflict Studies Program.

McCauley stresses that none of the center’s work will be classified. “From the perspective of the DHS,” he explains, “a primary value of these academic centers is that they move the world of homeland security, which is to a large extent the world of people with guns and badges, toward the academic world. It would undermine the value of the center for it to disappear into the classified world.”

“Although there is a historical precedent for this kind of interdisciplinary collaboration between government and academy in the Manhattan Project,” McCauley says, “we don’t aim to improve the weapons or war capacity of the United States, but to bring about an understanding of intergroup conflict that will help reduce violence.”