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The Science of Terrorism

START Director’s Book Explores Complexity of Keeping America Safe

By Liam Farrell


Illustration by Steffanie Espat

Illustration by Steffanie Espat

Since its 2005 launch, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at UMD has been creating a database of terrorist attacks throughout the world.

And its numbers often show a very different picture of the security threat than what is popularly believed.


“We are not characterizing our enemy very accurately,” says START Director Gary LaFree, a professor of criminology and criminal justice.

In their new book, “Countering Terrorism: No Simple Solutions,” LaFree and Martha Crenshaw deconstruct the notion that terrorism is dominated by well-organized groups committing deadly attacks for massive publicity. Instead, the data present a tale of amorphous collectives that may never even carry out violence—and aren’t likely to claim credit even if they do.

Terrorism has been at the forefront of America’s political agenda since the 9/11 attacks, and dangerous developments like the rise of ISIS in the Middle East have kept the world on edge. But LaFree says terrorist attacks are not as lethal or damaging to the fabric of a country like the United States as many people presume.

For example, the coordinated 9/11 attacks make up three of the four deadliest on U.S. territory since 1970, with only the Oklahoma City bombing and Orlando nightclub shootings also resulting in more than 20 fatalities. While those deaths shouldn’t be minimized, LaFree says, responses based on rare assaults hamper the government’s ability to adapt, particularly if their function is mainly to prevent a repeat of the last attack.

“If we treat these really exceptional events as typical, we’re probably going to make some bad policies,” he says. “Terrorists are trying to trigger an emotional overreaction.”

The book also describes how fewer than half of the 2,337 terrorist groups identified from 1970–2015 have actually recorded more than one attack; only 16 percent of the organizations have conducted 10 or more. In addition, only about a third of all terrorist attacks since 1990 have actually been attributed to a specific group, especially against the chaotic backdrop of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Responding to the global nature of the terrorist threat—amoebic, shadowy and rare—is much more challenging than crafting responses to Al Qaeda or ISIS.

“We lose sight of the aggregate,” LaFree says. “We recognize terrorism is a situation where it’s often difficult to tell who did it. We have groups changing in kaleidoscopic fashion.”

He hopes the book can be a starting point in developing methods to gauge how well counterterrorism strategies have fought these threats.

“We’re trying to treat terrorism just like anything else science can study,” LaFree says. “If we really want to be effective in this area, we need to build a stronger science of terrorism and counterterrorism.”

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