A Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Be careful what you ask for: 10 Years at START


Be careful what you ask for: 10 Years at START

October 29, 2015Gary LaFree

The following is a keynote address given by START Director Dr. Gary LaFree at the 2015 START Symposium on Oct. 15, 2015. START researchers from across the country gathered to present their research among an audience that included fellow scholars, analysts and representatives from government agencies. The Symposium was made possible through funding from the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s Office of University Programs.


It gives me great pleasure to welcome everyone to the START 2015 Symposium.  This is an especially exciting meeting for us because it marks the 10th anniversary of START as a DHS Center of Excellence.  Indeed, we began the competition to win the Center grant in 2004.  In early 2005 DHS Secretary Tom Ridge came to the University of Maryland to announce the funding of what became the START Consortium.  I remember going back to my office in Criminology after the ceremony and finding 100 new voice mail messages—and I realized that we were embarking on a whole new experience.  This experience was perhaps best captured for me personally by Dr. Mel Bernstein—who was Matt Clark’s predecessor as the head of the DHS Office of University Programs.  Just after we received official notification that we had won the DHS competition for the Center of Excellence, Mel came up behind me and whispered, “be careful what you wish for.”Gary LaFree

Much has changed since the first COE meeting I attended in Boston in 2005—when all of the directors and their support staff and the DHS team could meet in a local Starbucks.  But the mission of START has been the same since we began more than a decade ago: to advance the science-based knowledge about the human causes and consequences of terrorism.  As many of you in the audience will know, for whatever reasons, social and behavioral sciences were slow to get into the field of terrorism studies.  On the day after 9-11, no one on the planet had systematically collected data on total world trends in terrorism.  No one could tell you for sure how much extremist violence there was in the United States and whether it was increasing or declining.  No one could provide a catalogue of major responses of governments to countering terrorism and which of these were most successful.  The START Consortium now provides evidence based answers to questions like these.

Over the course of the past 10 years we have developed a START model that has a number of characteristics that I think are both unique and valuable.  I want to talk about four of these characteristics.  First, we are a broadly networked research and education consortium.  One of the things we have learned over the past ten years from researchers like Victor Asal and Gary Ackerman is that terrorist organizations are far more effective when they are more highly networked—turns out this is also true for terrorism research centers!  START works with over 70 universities around the US and in other countries.  We have now done projects with more than 125 scientists from around the world on START projects.  And this networking is not limited to universities—we also work closely with government agencies, national labs, industry partners and other COEs.

Second, we are highly interdisciplinary—we work regularly across all of the behavioral and social sciences, but also work with mathematicians, computer scientists and engineers.  It may seem obvious that no one field has all the answers when it comes to something as complex as violent extremism.  But interdisciplinary research is still unusual in universities--typically, behavioral science gets done by a couple of researchers from the same field working together during the duration of the research project—often a 1-2 year grant.  START is based on a much more interdisciplinary model.

Third, from the time we began more than ten years ago we have fostered a symbiotic relationship between research and education.  We realized from the beginning that to be effective we needed to take full advantage of what universities do best—educating students.  As soon as START was stood up, we developed both undergraduate and graduate programs in terrorism studies.  We have now worked with over 3,000 students ranging from high school kids to post docs.  And our student interns are not just running errands and making photocopies--they are directly plugged into real projects.  For example, our Global Terrorism Database has included the work of 100s of students over the past decade.  And after their education, many of these students find jobs in an area related to homeland security.  Among a recent group of graduates from our undergraduate minor, 80% found jobs in some part of the Homeland Security Enterprise—either working for federal or state governments or in university research positions.  Ask CEOs of Fortune 500 companies what is the most important aspect of their operations and they will tell you it is not just technology but the quality, expertise and training of the staff using that technology.

And finally, START has developed a very flexible organizational structure—both in terms of personnel and research focus.  While we have worked with more than 125 university professors from around the country, we do not have a single university professor working full-time on DHS funded projects.  Most often we are supporting a month of summer salary or a graduate student working with a particular professor or in a particular laboratory.  START is also flexible in terms of research focus.  Our original grant proposal 11 years ago did not even mention terms like “foreign fighters,” or “sticky bombs.”  Threats are evolving quickly.  We do not have the problem of being saddled with dozens of people that speak Spanish and no one that speaks Urdu.  We have the flexibility to respond to rapidly changing demands.  For example, as social media and the Internet have become more important, we have been able to move our focus in that direction.  When foreign fighters became a more important issue, we were able to move aggressively into studying it.

So how have terrorism threats change in the past ten years—from 2004 TO 2014?  Let me provide some comparisons from data collected by START.  In 2004, when we were getting organized--the GTD recorded a little over 1,100 terrorist attacks from around the world.  In 2014, we recorded nearly 17,000—an increase of 1400 percent.  In 2004, the GTD reported a total of just over 5,700 fatalities.  In 2014 that number had increased to over 43,000 fatalities.  In 2004, there were a total of 474 terrorist attacks in just three countries—Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  For the same three countries, in 2014 that number had increased to nearly 8,000—a 1600% increase! 

Terrorist tactics have also changed in some important ways.  In 2004, the GTD recorded a total of 112 suicide attacks.  In 2014 this number had increased to 738 attacks—more than a six-fold increase.  Sticky bombs are small light explosives, often magnetized, that can stick to the sides of vehicles and be detonated remotely.  In 2004, the GTD did not record a single terrorist attacks using a sticky bomb.  In 2014, we recorded nearly 200.

The groups responsible for attacks have also continued to evolve. In 2004 the top ten most active groups that used terrorism included FARC, the LTTE, and the ETA.  By 2014, the LTTE and ETA had ceased to exist and the FARC was greatly diminished.  By contrast, the top ten groups in 2014 include many that were not very active or did not even exist in 2004—including al Shabaab and Boko Haram.  Other groups that make the top ten in 2014 but not 2004 include Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Tehrik i Taliban Pakistan—the TTP.  The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or ISIL) is also new to the top ten list in 2014—although one of its predecessors Tawhid and Jihad was already prominent in 2004.

The point is:  Who can guess what issues we will face ten years from now?  This is why we think that a highly networked, interdisciplinary, flexible organization that continues to attract the best and brightest students, is important.

In 1989, social commentator Francis Fukuyama wrote a provocative essay called “The End of History.” He argued that the advent of Western democracy signaled the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and represented the final form of human government. Fukuyama said “what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War…but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Of course Fukuyama was not claiming that all historical events will stop occurring in the future, but rather that all that will happen in the future is that democracy will become more and more prevalent in the long term—even if it suffers temporary setbacks.  In other words, that there is no longer any serious alternative to democracy as a political system.

Not surprisingly, with predictions this sweeping, Fukuyama’s essay sparked a firestorm of reactions over the past quarter century.  Some pointed out that contrary to Fukuyama’s optimistic views, in absolute numbers at least, the contemporary world today has never seen more conflict or violence.  Others criticized Fukuyama for not taking into account the power of ethnic loyalties and religious fundamentalism.

In an influential 1993 essay Political Scientist Samuel Huntington responded directly to Fukuyama’s theses by arguing that the temporary end of conflicts between Cold War ideologies that Fukuyama focuses on is being replaced by something much more dangerous—a more ancient clash between civilizations.

Fukuyama was criticized especially after the 9-11 attacks—critics accused him of naiveté and undue optimism.  Fukuyama responded to some of these critics in a Washington Post editorial in 2008:

Democracy’s only real competitor in the realm of ideas today is radical Islamism...Some disenfranchised Muslims thrill to the rantings of Osama bin Laden … but the appeal of this kind of Islamism is strictly limited.

Another strong challenge to the “end of history” thesis is the growing economic and political power of China—and to a lesser extent Russia.  China with its one party system is poised to become the largest economy in the world.  While Russia is nominally a democracy, most would argue that it has become a de facto authoritarian state.  Also, as the original promise of the Arab Spring has increasingly descended into chaos, it has shaken the faith of many in a uniformly positive future.

So what will the future hold—can we rest assured that democracy has now taken hold and has no serious competition? I am guessing that most of us would say unfortunately, no—that vigilance remains extremely important.  That democratic governments are not a foregone conclusion and that various forms of totalitarian dictatorships—represented most worryingly today by ISIL—will continue to threaten the world.  And in a very small way, I am hopeful that organizations like START can help bring a measure of objectivity and openness to this ongoing struggle. 

Over the past decade, members of the START consortium have developed an evidence based approach to those who use extremist violence and terrorism.  We have completed nearly 200 research projects on areas as diverse as the risk of chemical threats to links between narco-trafficking and terrorism.  Our researchers have responded to nearly 500 government requests for information—including 200 requests from different branches of DHS.  We have done briefings for all three secretaries of Homeland Security and testified a dozen times before Congress.  We were very active in the recent White House-sponsored international symposium on countering violent extremism.  We have supplied objective data to the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos and the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.

START researchers have published their scientific findings in nearly one thousand articles and book chapters.  Our researchers have developed 80 software products.  The START website provided objective information to more than 4 million visitors last year.  Our website was visited by nearly 1,000 different agencies and departments in 2014; the top government users were the State Department, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy, the House of Representatives, the CIA and the Department of Justice

We have conducted interviews with dozens of reporters and media outlets.  START has made 24 of its data bases available on line to researchers and policy makers. More than 5,000 people have attended training sessions led by START researchers.  START researchers at the University of Maryland have taught 80 classes on terrorism related topics over the past decade—awarding nearly 470,000 credit hours--and that does not include the many other universities in our consortium.

More than ten years ago we began with the goal of advancing science-based knowledge of the human causes and consequences of terrorism.  As you will see from the panel discussions and networking sessions at today’s symposium, START researchers continue to look for an evidence based understanding of terrorism and its effects.  The panel discussions today will highlight recent research on counter terrorism, extremist organizations, and individual radicalization.  The networking stations will allow you to explore a wide variety of topics from research on improved risk and crisis communication, to geographic information systems to transnational criminality.

So, welcome to the tenth anniversary Symposium of START.  We are honored to have you here today and we pledge that in the years ahead we will continue to develop and support a network of experts that policy makers can rely on to generate objective data on terrorism to serve as the foundational starting point for your own analysis. 

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