The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will fund a new center at the University of Maryland to conduct social and behavioral research into terrorists and terrorist organizations, reports the Baltimore Sun. The unit will use many of the same academic tools used to battle drug gangs and violent crime. One of the center’s first tasks will be a study of how terrorist organizations form and recruit, with a focus on specific organizations, such as Al Qaeda, that pose a danger to the United States. The center’s scholars will also study whether terrorists inspired by religion are more likely to use weapons of mass destruction, and whether American prisons have become terrorist recruiting grounds.
The new center is the fourth of five Homeland Security Centers of Excellence that federal officials hope to create. It is financed with a $12 million federal grant. “In my field – criminology – there is a lot of research into why people join gangs or organized criminal networks, and much of it can apply to terrorists,” said Gary LaFree, a University of Maryland professor who will direct the new center. LaFree called the project “the social science equivalent of the Manhattan Project,” referring to the World War II research effort that led to the atomic bomb. Other centers established by the Department of Homeland Security include one at the University of Southern California on terrorism’s economic underpinning and consequences, and centers at the University of Minnesota and Texas A&M University that conduct terrorism research related to agriculture. The department will seek proposals for a fifth center to explore preparation for and reaction to “high-consequence events.”