How Nebraska became a secret weapon in the fight against domestic terror

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wooAs hen rioters stormed the US Capitol in January this year to block the certification of the presidential election, Dr. Gina Ligon saw something familiar. She recognized the same boiling anger in the crowd that caused Timothy McVeigh to blow up a Confederate building in his native Oklahoma when he was just a teenager. And he saw the same signs of bigotry among his leaders that he had studied in his years as a terrorism researcher.

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It was also a validation of the work he and his colleagues set out to do less than a year ago, when they were tasked with tens of thousands of people by the US government to better understand and understand terrorist threats to the US, including domestic ones. million dollars was awarded. extremist

“It added a new significance to the work,” she explains. Granthshala In his office at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. “I was relieved when the inauguration came and went and there was no death attached to it. I was prepared for it and prepared for it in many ways.”


The past has shaped the fight against terrorism for decades. The September 11 attacks set the course for a generation of researchers, law enforcement officials and policy makers. But the relentless focus on the threat of Islamic terrorism left the home alight. As a result, in later years, the threat of domestic extremism was ignored, even became more lethal,

That’s what’s changing now. The attack on the US Capitol was a wake-up call for many, and retaliation for others. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has since doubled Its domestic terrorism caseload. In June of this year, the White House published its first national strategy to combat domestic terrorism.

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The way experts study terrorism is also changing. The creation of a multimillion-dollar terrorism research center in the heart of America, now led by Dr. Ligon, is perhaps the most obvious sign of that change.

Based at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, the National Center for Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology and Education (NCITE) is exploring new ways to tackle terrorist threats at home and abroad. It was launched in 2020 with a $36.5m (£27.3m) grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and a mandate to research solutions that law enforcement may not have the time or expertise to explore.

“We look at terrorist innovation: how can we stay ahead of it, and how can we help the government anticipate it,” says NCITE director Dr. Ligon.,

“Many times people have seen what happened earlier and prepared a lot for it. Take our TSA, for example. We are very prepared for air strikes right now, but how prepared are we for drone swarms?”

According to Dr. Ligon, the center aims to be very different in more ways than one. It has brought in academics from fields not usually associated with terrorist research, among them criminals, computer engineers, systems designers and organizational psychologists such as Dr. Ligon.

In a gleaming new wing of the university’s business school, where NCITE currently resides, an IT professor and a criminologist are working to build a chatbot for members of the public to report suspicious activity. Along the hallway, a team of students is investigating calls for violence among key figures in America’s domestic terrorism ecosystem in the months leading up to the January 6 siege. Another team is studying how people respond to a family member who begins to identify with white supremacist extremism.

Some of the research feels like it’s taken away from a sci-fi movie. Dr Sam Hunter, another organizational psychologist who moved to NCITE six months ago, is studying ways to inhibit “hell creativity” to deter potential terrorists from following a path that allows them to launch an attack. can motivate you to do so.

The potential applications are equally mind-bending. For example, a better understanding of malicious creativity could allow officers to change potentially terroristic behavior. Law enforcement may be able to use media to influence a potential attacker to purchase a certain product, making them more easily tracked.

Dr. Hunter says, “I think one of the benefits of being an academic institution is that we push the boundaries and think about five or 10 years down the road, or things that are on the edge.” Huh.”

“But then we also have to turn and say, what is the practical application? Some of the functions are very directly applicable to a specific problem. And then some of it is forward thinking, so that we can be a little more creative and innovative,” he said. Said further.

The University of Nebraska is the centerpiece of the project, but the entire project is made up of more than 50 academics at 18 universities. The ongoing work on that network represents a change not only in methodology, but in focus. Domestic panic is no longer a consideration.

A team from King’s College London is investigating international influence between jihadist groups in the UK and right-wing groups in the US. The George Washington University in Washington DC, which has run a comprehensive project to track IS-related terrorism cases through US courts, is now also tracking more than 600 criminal cases related to the January 6 Capitol attack. Here in Nebraska, researchers are looking at how to better support communities where extremists will re-enter after prison.

Donald Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6 in a riot that left five dead

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Donald Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6 in a riot that left five dead

The field of terrorism research is catching on in this regard. The US national security apparatus was slow to keep pace with the rise of domestic extremism in America in the years following 9/11. In the wake of the Capitol attack, Martha Crenshaw, one of the foremost terrorist experts in the United States, compared the area to “an aircraft carrier, slow-turning”.

“Our preoccupation with the Islamic and jihadist threat since the September 11 attacks has blinded us to the fact that terrorism may have started at home, with familiar ideologies,” she wrote. NS new York Times,

The data was with everyone. According to the New America think tank, since 9/11, jihadists have killed 107 people inside the US. The death toll from far-right terrorism, including anti-government, militia, white supremacist and anti-abortion violence, stood at 114.

Dr. Ligon and Dr. Hunter both traced their early interest to the field of domestic hazards. Dr. Hunter grew up in Michigan, which has long been favored by anti-government extremists as a hub. Dr. Ligon was in high school when domestic terrorist McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people. She went to the bombed site and the next day stood in front of the rubble.

“I remember in later days everyone assumed it was an Islamic extremist,” she says. “Then when they showed pictures of the man they found he was this blond kid, light eyes and an underbite, ex-military. It was an early experience to know that this man was an American and had invaded America.”

Twenty-six years later, when Dr. Ligon was giving DHS ideas for a counter-terrorism research center in Nebraska, he said his team would do everything possible to stop the next McVeigh. On January 6, 2021, when he saw the Capitol building being raided, his mind went back.

“It reminded me of Oklahoma City,” she says. “I think when you use violence as a tool to achieve your ideological goals, to me it’s like Timothy McVeigh.”

At a time when the direction of terrorist research is changing, so are the people doing that research. For the past 20 years, counter-terrorism has largely dominated the memory and trauma of 9/11. But many of the students here at this new counter-terrorism research center are too young to remember that day. The decisive event of his lifetime may have been the January 6 attack. This has potential implications for recognizing and understanding future threats.

“There isn’t a single student in my classes anymore who remembers 9/11,” says Kat Parsons, a research associate in criminology at the center. “Younger children have a better appreciation for a domestic terror threat because that’s where they grew up and began to spread and manifest.”

According to researcher Dr. Erin Kearns, that distance has also given students a unique insight.

“I think they have a better appreciation for some of the early policy glitches after 9/11. I used to get a lot of pushback about it, they were clear it was a bad idea,” she says.

Neo Nazis, alt-right, and white supremacists march with lit torches before the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia

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Neo Nazis, alt-right, and white supremacists march with lit torches before the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia

Parsons, Dr. Kearns and their colleague Clara Braun all work in the field of criminology. They were all drawn to the center’s efforts to broaden and diversify the types of people who engage in terrorism research.

“I think the best part about the center is the interdisciplinary nature,” says …

Credit: / US capitol

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