UA Terrorism Research Aims to Aid Investigators and Prosecutors

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — More than 600 individuals have been indicted on charges related to terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001, exceeding all terrorism indictments in the previous 20 years, according to the latest FBI data. The Terrorism Research Center at the University of Arkansas has received the most current FBI list of those indicted, and its enrichment of the data will aid law enforcement officers and prosecutors nationwide.

“The University of Arkansas has a unique capacity to analyze terrorism data,” center director Brent L. Smith said. “Not only do we house an exclusive terrorism database, but we have the expertise to handle large datasets and the experience to ask productive questions.”

The center received the FBI list of people indicted on charges related to terrorism from September 2002 through September 2004. The researchers will augment and analyze the data to provide a comprehensive picture of terrorist activities and counterterrorism efforts in the United States.

Smith works in collaboration with Kelly R. Damphousse of University of Oklahoma and a team of UA graduate students to enrich the FBI data through the painstaking collection of documents and details of the prosecution and final judgment in each case. Project staff members travel to federal courthouses, often in remote areas, to retrieve and examine trial files, record data and photocopy relevant court documents. Subsequent analysis of the data can yield valuable information.

“Terrorism research is in its infancy,” Smith said. “Even basic patterns have been unknown due to lack of data or lack of analysts in both agency and academic research.”

Smith notes most people have a misperception about terrorism, thinking of it as a global threat that is completely unpredictable. In fact, the American Terrorism Study’s indictment database shows that 45 percent of those indicted for terrorism were involved in preparatory activities, such as training or purchase of firearms, fewer than 30 miles from their residence. This suggests that if local law enforcement officers better understood the preparatory crimes, they might be able to intervene before the terrorists complete their mission.

Center researchers say that while conventional crimes tend to be spontaneous, preparatory crimes related to terrorism typically involve more planning and thought, which can leave a paper trail or other evidence. Researchers at other universities have shown interest in looking more closely at the nature of the preparatory crimes and how far in advance they tend to be committed. Patterns are beginning to emerge that can aid prosecutors.

One of Smith’s graduate students, Chris Shields, is examining factors affecting conviction rates. Initial findings have indicated that conviction rates are better with conventional criminal charges than with terrorism charges. When a prosecutor charges illegal possession of a firearm or manufacture of explosives, it is not necessary to prove motive or intent, as it would be with a charge such as seditious conspiracy.

The recently received list is an update to data provided periodically by the FBI to be used in the American Terrorism Study, an ongoing project funded by the Department of Homeland Security through the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City. With this addition, the database comprises indictments from 1980 through 2004.

Smith and Damphousse’s past studies of terrorism have looked at domestic terrorists on the left and the right, environmental terrorists and international terrorists. Their most recent grant from the National Institute of Justice funds research into international and environmental terrorists, both because the data from those groups yields the most identifiable patterns of behavior and because the FBI considers environmental and international terrorists to be the greatest threats in the next decade. Since reporting year 2000-2001, there has been an escalation in the number of indictments, particularly for environmental terrorism, which has often targeted major developers and large corporations.

The American Terrorism Study, which Smith began in 1988 with FBI support, uses open-source documents, primarily court case documents, most of which are made available through the Terrorism Knowledge Base at www.tkb.org. In addition to the data supplied by the FBI and collected by the project staff from court houses, Smith and colleagues attach PDF files of the court documents they copy during their research.

“This is a rich and robust database,” Smith said. “And this project has a great capacity to reveal important information. In the coming year we hope to increase the dynamic capacity of the database ­to include open cases so that ongoing cases can be tracked, and investigators and other researchers can pull up the most recent documents in a timely manner.”

The UA Terrorism Research Center has begun to receive many requests to present findings from their data analysis. The data is a resource for students at the FBI Academy in Quantico, and a center researcher will teach students how to use the database at each offering of the FBI National Academy every year. Most recently research assistant Paxton Roberts made a presentation at Quantico to police chiefs from around the nation, including two from Arkansas. In addition, Smith, Damphousse, and Roberts have contracted to write Patterns of American Terrorism, a book to be released at the end of 2006.

The Terrorism Research Center is housed in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.

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