By John Laidler
With last year’s Boston Marathon bombings and recent events in the Middle East having cast a renewed spotlight on terrorism, the University of Massachusetts Lowell will undertake two cutting-edge studies that could broaden understanding of the problem.
UMass Lowell has received two grants totaling $2.1 million from the Minerva Research Initiative, a Department of Defense-sponsored social science research group. The initiative selected 12 projects in all to receive grants this year, and UMass Lowell was the only university to receive two of them.
The UMass Lowell awards will go to the new Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, launched in September as part of its School of Criminology and Justice Studies.
Professor John G. Horgan, the center’s director, will receive $1.13 million for a three-year study examining the growth of Islamic conversion in the United States and why, in comparison with native-born Muslims, a disproportionate number of converts are involved in extremist activity.
Horgan and professor Scott Flower from the University of Melbourne in Australia will spearhead a team of international researchers from Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States for the project.
Professor Mia Bloom was chosen to receive a $941,169 grant for a three-year study examining the growing recruitment of children into terrorist organizations. She will coordinate a team of researchers, including Horgan and Heidi Ellis of Boston Children’s Hospital.
The projects, designed to expand the scope of academic research on terrorism, will be based out of the center’s facilities in UMass Lowell’s new $40 million Health and Social Sciences Building.
“To say that we are excited about this is an understatement,” Horgan said in an interview. “The Minerva Research Initiative represents some very innovative and creative thinking on the part of the Defense Department, a recognition that social sciences have enormous potential in terms of understanding the causes and precipitants of terrorism.”
“It’s a huge responsibility for us,” he added of the grants, “because now all eyes will be on us to not just produce outstanding quality research but also to disseminate the results of that research.”
The center was created when Horgan and Bloom last year joined UMass Lowell from Pennsylvania State University, where Horgan had served as director and Bloom as a fellow at Penn State’s former International Center for the Study of Terrorism. Together with professor James Forest, they form the core of the UMass Lowell center.
“The grants awarded by the Minerva Initiative recognize the expertise and international reputation of the faculty in UMass Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, as well as the great need for the research being conducted,” said UMass Lowell Chancellor Martin Meehan in a prepared statement. “They also highlight the quality of the education and the access to real-world research and expertise our students receive.”
Bloom’s new projects build on trips she and Horgan made to Pakistan over the past year, during which they witnessed the impact of child recruitment into the Pakistani Taliban and its effect on communities.
“We are trying to understand how and why children are increasingly part of terrorist groups,” Bloom said, noting that the ultimate goal is to find strategies to prevent it.
Bloom said possible explanations for why terrorist groups recruit very young people are that groups are having difficulty enlisting adult members, or they view children as effective agents because they look innocent, do not have a strong sense of mortality, are not fearful, or are easily manipulated.
She said Horgan, a psychologist by training, will look at how children are recruited. She said some groups have reached out to children, for example, through summer camps or media campaigns. In other cases, the recruitment is carried out through forcible means such as kidnapping.
The research will focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia, but Bloom emphasized that the problem is global and the study will reflect that.
“Children’s involvement in terrorist groups cuts across different countries, regions, religions, and ethnicities, so it’s not a phenomenon of only Africa or the Middle East,” said Bloom, a former term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Horgan, a native of Ireland, has also taught there and in the United Kingdom.
“What we have noted is that converts to Islam in the United States are statistically over-represented in Islamic extremist activity, and the vast majority of what is written about why that may be the case is based on little more than opinion and conjecture,” he said.
“We want to establish a clearer, evidence-based understanding of Muslim converts in the United States and the role that a small number of them play in terrorist plots,” he said. “This is a profoundly poorly understood process, and there is an urgency, particularly given unfolding developments in the Middle East.”
Through the grants, the contingent of three research assistants will expand, with up to four more graduate students being hired.
“We are after nothing less than trying to create the premier institution in the Northeast for training the next generation of terrorism researchers and scholars,” Horgan said.
The university community will also have a chance to gain insights into the issues being explored in the project through campus forums, Bloom said, noting also that in September, UMass Lowell and UMass Boston will cohost a conference in Boston of the Society for Terrorism Research that is open to the public.