This unique team of scholars is researching the causes of extremist violence and the tactics terrorists use, while searching for solutions to make the world safer for everyone.
When the Sept. 11 attacks happened, Tony Lemieux was in graduate school, studying intergroup conflict.
Like many people, he had personal ties to the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil. One of his college friends didn’t make it out of the World Trade Center complex in New York. Lemieux’s father was in a building around the corner. It turned out that he was safe, but family members agonized when they couldn’t reach him all day.
Suddenly, some of the issues that Lemieux had been studying had become all too real.
“These were the things — these big, vexing problems that were so deep and so challenging and things that almost seem unfathomable — that I wanted to address in my work,” he says. “I thought this was something that I’d like to learn about so I can try to make a difference.”
Today, Lemieux is among a collective of scholars at the College of Arts & Sciences who are working to understand terrorism and share their expertise on the causes of conflict and potential solutions. The Transcultural Violence and Conflict Initiative includes researchers who represent a wide range of disciplines, including communication, anthropology, psychology, global studies, political science, religious studies and computer science.
They monitor encrypted chat rooms, analyze the social media messaging of terrorist groups and sympathizers, and conduct briefings for congressional delegations and training for NATO officers. Their work has already prevented terror attacks, and they are now helping the U.S. government develop a tool to make it easier for people who learn of a planned attack to report it to authorities.
There are four core members who anchor a much larger group of researchers and students examining global violence. Mia Bloom, professor of communication, speaks eight languages and has finished a new book, “Small Arms: Children and Terrorism.” Carol Winkler, professor of communication, and Lemieux, director of the Global Studies Institute, work on analyzing online multimedia propaganda in the Middle East and North Africa. John Horgan, professor of global studies and psychology, studies how people move into and out of terrorist groups and is a member of the Research Working Group of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.
“The interdisciplinary team has increased research opportunities for everyone,” Winkler says, “I personally have learned more faster than at any other time in my life.”
Here is a small sampling of their findings:
Focusing on Islamist terrorism is counterproductive.
You might be forgiven for thinking that Islamist terrorists are the greatest threats to Americans. The news media give roughly 350 percent more coverage to Muslims who commit attacks than to non-Muslims, according to a study by the research group.
Actually, non-Muslim groups committed nearly twice as many terror attacks on American soil as Muslim groups between 2006 and 2015. A focus on Islamism distracts from that, and it makes it harder to catch the Islamists themselves.
“Our greatest resource for preventing attacks has historically been community members who pick up the phone and call law enforcement,” Bloom says. “I’m not concerned that American Muslims will be radicalized. I’m concerned they won’t pick up the phone.”
Terrorist groups are media experts.
Terrorist groups work through encrypted websites and constantly changing social media accounts, but there’s much more. ISIS has produced weekly newspapers, video games and coloring books, for example.
“They have very sophisticated audience targeting strategies,” Winkler says. “Their messages differ by language, by region and by demographic group. Throughout, they integrate resonant interpretations of Muslim history with current grievances to have a wide appeal.”
Terrorists can be victims, too.
Over the past two decades, terrorist movements have slowly but steadily shifted toward recruiting children. They do so to intimidate their enemies but also to build a pipeline of future soldiers, says Horgan and Bloom, who are conducting federally funded research in the area.
“They are children,” Horgan says. “They have been exploited, tricked and groomed into an activity they neither support nor understand.”
Child recruits can be rehabilitated, but often they need protection from the family members who pushed them into terrorist movements in the first place.