'Dot Coms to Pipe Bombs': Terrorism Research Center Studying Offline and Online Extremism

TRC team members Jeff Gruenewald and Katie Ratcliff.
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TRC team members Jeff Gruenewald and Katie Ratcliff.

Researchers at the University of Arkansas' Terrorism Research Center were recently awarded $893,721 from the National Institute of Justice to study online radicalization and domestic violent extremism in the United States.

The three-year project is one of the most comprehensive investigations to date examining risk factors for violent, non-violent, and cyber extremism, spanning across multiple terrorist ideologies — extreme right-wing, extreme left-wing, and radical Islamic terrorism.

Understanding how risk factors compare across forms of offline and online extremism are critical for informing risk assessment tools used by law enforcement, intelligence analysts, and counterterrorism officials, and for proactively mitigating pathways to violent extremism, said Jeff Gruenewald, principal investigator for the project and director of the Terrorism Research Center.

"It's now clear the online environment plays a key role in online radicalization processes and mobilization to violence," Gruenewald said. "So it's our goal to illuminate how these processes unfold over time. The design of our project reflects the evolving, multi-dimensional threats to national security we now face."

Gruenewald said Terrorism Research Center researchers plan to integrate data from several open-source databases including the American Terrorism Study, which is the longest running domestic terrorism project in the United States, and the Bias Homicide Database, both housed in the Terrorism Research Center.

Collaborators on the project include faculty and students from Michigan State University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who will provide data and expertise on issues of cyber extremism.

"The new award is critical to advancing the TRC research agenda, and our ongoing efforts to provide graduate students and undergraduate interns opportunities for conducting original research," said Katie Ratcliff, TRC associate director and research program manager.

The TRC has been housed in the Department of Sociology and Criminology since 2003. Its areas of research include individual and community risk factors for radicalization to terrorism, prosecutorial and defense strategies in federal terrorism court cases, bias-motivated violence, and legal responses to cases of human trafficking.

"This grant from the National Institute of Justice is timely and important," said Shauna Morimoto, chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminology. "It will allow Dr. Gruenewald and his team at the Terrorism Research Center to examine cyberterrorism as a critical extension of their pathbreaking work explicating extremist violence in the United States."

In 2020, the U of A's Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences also supported the creation of the TRC's Crime and Security Data Analytics Lab (CASDAL), to meet the analytic needs of students, faculty, and external partners by providing space for research projects relating to crime and security issues.

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