What makes terrorists tick

Why do suicide bombers and others do what they do? Gary LaFree is chasing that urgent question at a new Maryland research center.

Profile -- Gary LaFree


The carpet is spotless, the desk still has the sheen of the furniture store, and criminologist Gary LaFree is huddled over a new computer, exercising part of his database for the first time. The performance is fascinating but chilling: The global maps he's manipulating document the spread of terrorism over time. There's hope that the information stored here can help scholars learn about the nature of terrorism - and eventually help rid the world of it.

For now, though, there are many unanswered questions to ponder: What do Palestinian terrorists have in common with members of the IRA? Or Shining Path? Or abortion clinic bombers? How is the Mafia different from al-Qaida? How do terrorist groups form? How do they sustain themselves? Why do some disappear?

Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, LaFree studied international homicide statistics. Now, he is one of the newest warriors to join the battle against al-Qaida, director of the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START, at the University of Maryland.

It is the first U.S. program funded by the government to study terrorist behavior. And LaFree is charged with studying it fast.

Given the growing incidence of suicide strikes around the world, you might consider START the Manhattan Project of social science. As chief organizer, LaFree's running his cell phone bill "through the roof" contacting scholars throughout the world who are working collaboratively on projects.

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security hold great hopes that START's "rapid-response team" of academics can use LaFree's database of more than 70,000 terrorist events to begin finding answers to some of terrorism's fundamental questions.

"The Maryland START Center will help strengthen the nation's ability to understand the root causes behind acts of terror and the motivations of terrorists and those who enable them," Charles McQueary, DHS undersecretary for science and technology, said last month.

LaFree's background in criminology provides an "interesting new way" to look at terrorist behavior, said Melvin Bernstein, director of university programs for Homeland Security.

"So much of the research so far has been just on people who have actually engaged in terrorism," LaFree says. "We argue that to understand terrorism, you've got to know not only about the relatively small number of people that engage in it but all the people who could have. And about the people who support the goals of the terrorists, strongly or even weakly. You've got to understand the communication going on between this relatively small group and the larger society."

LaFree also hopes that the center will persuade students to make careers in the study of terrorism and counterterrorism - a field with room for many disciplines. The UM center has connected psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, geographers, criminologists, demographers and economists.

"I believe in interdisciplinary research, big time, but it also raises a host of challenges," LaFree says. "We all speak different languages, have different publishing outlets and we're not going to agree on a lot of stuff."

You get the sense, though, that such challenges only motivate the 54-year-old LaFree. And the lanky, affable Diet Coke-drinking fellow from Indiana already has accomplished much since January, when Homeland Security awarded $12 million to fund the three-year program that LaFree and his colleagues proposed.

Five-school consortium

Although START is a consortium of scholars from five universities, it now has a physical location in a third-floor suite of rooms in Symons Hall on the Maryland campus. It will publish a pioneering study on airplane hijackings. It has organized conferences, and research teams are surveying people in Pakistan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, asking such questions as: Are you more likely to justify terrorism against the United States when it is doing things in foreign policy you don't agree with?

"The famous phrase is that one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter," LaFree says. "The reason it's so complicated to tell whether something is `terrorist' is, in large part, because terrorism really isn't a person, it's a technique. Different groups sometimes use the technique, and sometimes they don't."

In his definition, terrorism involves a "sub-state" agent, violence or the threat of it, and goals that are political, religious or social.

"I would count the Mafia's killing of a judge because they don't like his ruling, or a government official because they're trying to get more favorable policies, as terrorism," LaFree says.

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