Homeland Security recognizes IST professor for combating extremism

WASHINGTON, D.C. — For his insightful work into battling extremism on college campuses, Peter Forster, associate dean for online and professional education at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), has received a recognition from Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly.

Along with Penn State President Eric Barron, Forster served as a task force lead on the Academic Advisory Council for DHS. In this role, Penn State is contributing meaningful academic research to battle the global war against terrorism.

Explained Forster, “We were charged with making recommendations about how Homeland Security can work with the academic community to combat violent extremism — either through prevention, intervention or mitigation.”

With counterparts from the University of Maryland and a former Scotland Yard investigator, Forster was assigned to a sub-committee task force that investigated how to improve the strategic partnership between DHS and college campuses to better detect and prevent extremism in communities. 

As Forster notes, the college-aged population can be particularly influenced by extremist ideology. For instance, the transition to college can be overwhelming for young adults who are often living by themselves for the first time.

“It’s a stressful time in many people’s lives, a time when you can easily feel ostracized and disenfranchised,” Forster said. “(College students) can be an at-risk population to become radicalized.”

The team collaborated for more than six months about the best ways for DHS to establish crucial partnerships and procedures to identify and dissuade students from becoming radicalized, whether online, by themselves, or through a larger community. By connecting with campus police, behavioral threat assessment teams, and religious organizations within the University and the communities, Forster was able to further develop his research related to how people become motivated to commit violence.

“The thing I’m interested in is what role does modern computer communication like social media and the Internet play in this?” he said.

The interdisciplinary environment of IST, studying not only technology but also the influence and interruption it has on society and people, is the lens in which Forster examines these issues.

“You have to understand the networks people are engaged with, how they’re communicating, but also the psychology and mental health,” he said. “It’s really the convergence of the people, technology and information side of IST that can begin to solve this problem.”

“Dr. Forster is contributing critical research, expertise and information to those charged with keeping our nation safe,” said President Barron. “His recommendations to the Homeland Security Academic Advisory Council helped inform and guide the discussions; I’m proud that he and other Penn State faculty, students and staff are supporting the efforts of the Department of Homeland Security.”

Forster was aided in his research by two IST students, Mason Northrop, a senior majoring in Security and Risk Analysis (SRA), and Samantha Weirman, a doctoral student studying IST.

Weirman added, “For me, the goal of research in this field has always been about making a difference and being able to apply our work. So this opportunity is really the ultimate.”

However, Forster and his team know they’re fighting an uphill battle. DHS is eager to partner with research universities like Penn State because much is unknown about the process of radicalization, and it is often unique to each person. With any numbers of causes, cultural backgrounds, and intent of bad actors, it’s difficult to determine whether one person will become an extremist.

“There is no defined path,” Forster explained. “I can’t look at someone and say ‘you fit into this profile and we think you’re going to be violent.’ It’s very individual to the person, which makes it extremely hard for anyone whose trying to intervene.”

It’s for this reason his recommendations are being heard at some of the highest levels of government.

“We need to look at raising awareness within the campus communities that the possibility for extremism exists. These are problems we need to be aware of,” he added.

Secretary Kelly is currently reviewing the recommendations and will be prioritizing their implementation in the coming months.

“Regretfully, we’re only at the beginning of this issue. But it speaks to [DHS’s] interest in engaging with academia on a range of problems,” Forster said. “They don’t have the resources or time to do this research and make evidence-based decisions. So that’s the role the academic community can play.”

Last Updated July 28, 2017