By Katharine Webster
A team of five students — mostly criminal justice majors — who created a website that educates students, parents and teachers about terrorist recruitment methods won an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., in January after advancing to the final round of an international contest.
The Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism (P2P) competition, sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and Facebook, taps college students’ social media skills to counter the influence of extremists and terrorists in their own communities, from white supremacists in the U.S. to ISIS and homegrown terrorist cells in troubled countries.
The UMass Lowell team, working as interns with lecturer Neil Shortland, program manager for the university’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, used a $2,000 seed grant from the competition’s sponsors to develop Operation 250, which they named for the more than 250 Americans known to have been recruited by ISIS.
They spent the first month of the fall semester doing research and deciding on a project. Their own experience suggested that middle- and high-school-aged kids are curious about terrorism but are not well-informed, in part because their parents and teachers don’t know how to talk about it. And their research showed that was a serious problem.
“Because kids are uneducated about it, this leads to greater vulnerability and a higher likelihood they will be exposed to online, violent extremist material,” says Nicolette San Clemente, a sophomore international business major from Shrewsbury. “In the worst-case scenario, that can lead to kids being recruited to terrorist organizations.”
So the team decided to create a website showing preteens and teenagers how extremist organizations — in particular, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or DAESH) — use social media to find, befriend, convert and isolate young people, then recruit them as members.
“We felt it was important to get to them (students) before any radicalization happened, because otherwise it’s too late — there’s no getting through to them,” says junior Jamie Keenan, a criminal justice major and psychology minor from Westford. “We also went after parents and educators, giving them the information and teaching tools they need, all in one place.”
The website opens with a powerful video scripted by the team that shows the stages of online recruitment. It stars a local teenage actor and his mother, who volunteered for their roles, along with team member Jonas Pierribia, a senior criminal justice major from Boston.
“We wanted the video to be as realistic as possible” to draw in young viewers, says Pierribia.
Operation 250 also has lots of information about ISIS and terrorism, online safety tips, lesson plans for educators and links to numerous other educational videos and news articles. The website was designed under the team’s direction by art major Jennifer Mayer.
After Operation 250 was chosen as a finalist in the fall semester P2P competition, the team flew to Washington with Shortland. In a whirlwind three days, they met the three other teams of finalists, toured the capital, attended a Senate session, met with U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts, went to a reception hosted by Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and rehearsed their presentation obsessively. They finished by presenting their project to a panel of judges from the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center and Facebook.
Their third-place finish netted them a $1,000 award—and a couple of angel investors, including former National Security Council member and counterterrorism expert Roger Cressey ’87, so they can continue developing Operation 250 and help it reach a broad audience. Now they’re on a mission.
“The five of us are incredibly driven not only to see a problem, but to act on it,” says senior Tyler Cote, an honors student from Clarksburg in Berkshire County who is double-majoring in criminal justice and political science. “We’re only getting started. Now we’re excited that we can take our time and put together an even better project.”
Meanwhile, Shortland is already mentoring a new team of interns—the third UMass Lowell team so far—who will enter this semester’s competition. He says the CTSS has 30 interns each semester, and they can choose between the P2P competition or entering data for large-scale research on terrorism. Danielle Thibodeau, a senior from Methuen on the Operation 250 team, says the choice was a no-brainer for her.
“To get the chance to do something about terrorism and use what we’re learning was really interesting,” says Thibodeau, who is double-majoring in psychology and criminal justice. “It reaffirmed that I would like to work in counterterrorism.”