Terrorism study center broadens networks, research

University Park, Pa. -- For years, researchers in terrorism and counterterrorism have asked questions like "How do people become terrorists and why?" and "How do we find terrorists hidden among the public and stop them?" But the answers are often complicated and multifaceted without easy answers. Over the past year, the International Center for the Study of Terrorism based at Penn State has been actively expanding its reach to scientists from different fields to tackle those difficult and thorny issues.

The director, John Horgan, arrived at the University in November 2007, but has been traveling nonstop throughout 2008 to secure nearly $5 million in combined government funding, to recruit Center fellows from current faculty and visiting fellows from other universities, and to set up a speaker series and an advisory board.

"Kevin Murphy, professor of psychology, launched the center in 2006, with the support of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) and brought an impressive group onto campus for the first discussion," said Horgan, who was previously senior research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews. "Last fall, many of the scientists continued meeting through global video seminars. In the meantime, the Center also has joined the International Relations and Security Network and formed a research partnership with a host of centers of excellence, including the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

"Through these teams affiliated with the center, the best minds will work together to develop knowledge, tools, methods and policy recommendations that will contribute to reducing the threat of terrorism," said Horgan, a faculty member both in the Science, Technology and Society Program in the College of the Liberal Arts, and in the College of Information Sciences and Technology.

Research affiliated with the center will focus on five main themes:

-- Radicalization and de-radicalization, factors that lead individuals to be involved in but ultimately disengage from groups that use violence for political and cultural goals;

-- Terrorist groups and organizations, and how terrorist groups function, develop and end as a way to disrupt and counter their activities at several levels;

-- Reactions to terrorism and efforts to reduce terrorism by organizations, governments and the public, which can help form effective counter-terrorism policy and operations;

-- Perception and communication of risk research, possibly leading to developing effective strategies for communicating about terrorism and countering terrorists' messages;

-- Building resistance and limiting harm among potential targets at individual, family group, community or national levels.

Researchers represent a wide variety of academic disciplines, including psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, religious studies, criminology, entomology and mathematics.

Horgan, a certified psychologist, is an internationally renowned expert on the psychology of terrorism. Initially, his research focused on the activities of the Irish Republican terrorist movements, particularly the operations of the Provisional IRA. But he has expanded his scope to global terrorism particularly the topic of disengagement and re-radicalization from terrorism.

The author of several books, he is publishing the results of his detailed fieldwork interviews conducted in several countries over two years in the upcoming book "Walking Away from Terrorism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements," published by Routledge Press.

According to Horgan, "Most of the research on terrorism is about why people join terrorist groups. I have been asking why people leave. If we understand how and why people leave terrorism behind, we may be able to better formulate tactics and strategy for facilitating disengagement from terrorism. In some cases, we may be able to prevent it from developing in the first place."

Recently, Horgan's research has been cited extensively in the new U.N. Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force's "First Report of the Working Group on Radicalization and Extremism that Lead to Terrorism." Also, his writings are part of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science volume, "Terrorism: What the Next President Will Face," edited by Richard Clarke, head of counterterrorism in the Clinton and Bush administrations.

"I'm very proud to have the opportunity to develop the International Center for the Study of Terrorism," he said. "Penn State offers the best possible setting for us to build our networks and continue to offer the most rigorous, evidence-based research on terrorism we can. I'm confident that our research will inform policy at the highest levels, and that we will be a global leader in research on the psychology of terrorism."

Last Updated November 18, 2010