Know the Enemy
How the University of Arkansas Became a Leader in Counter-Terrorism Research
A color-coded map was the Terrorism Research Center’s first method of categorizing domestic terrorism cases post Sept. 11. Photos by Russell Cothren.
The story of how the University of Arkansas acquired the most comprehensive open-source database on FBI counter-terrorism efforts begins with an Army general’s ill-fated trip to the dentist.
Just after 7 a.m. on Sept. 15, 1981, U.S. Army Gen. Frederick J. Kroesen was driving west from his home in Schlierbach, Germany (West Germany at the time), into nearby Heidelberg. Kroesen, commander of the 220,000 Army troops then stationed in Western Europe, and his wife, Rowena, were riding in the back seat of his light green armored Mercedes sedan. An aide to the general was in the front passenger seat of the car, which was driven by a plainclothes West German police officer.
At 7:18 a.m., as the car passed a wooded section by the side of the road, would-be assassins fired an antitank grenade and gunshots, hitting the trunk of the sedan. They fired a second grenade that missed the car and dug a trench in the road behind it. The attack damaged the rear of the Mercedes, shattering the back window, but no one inside was seriously injured. The general and his wife suffered only minor cuts from the broken glass. Later, investigators combing the woods found a tent, sleeping bags, food and a Soviet-made grenade launcher some 200 yards from the car. Hitting a moving target at that distance “represented a damn good aim and a lot of practice,” according to an investigator quoted in The New York Times.
The attack was the work of the resurgent Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, named after the two West German radical leftists who founded it. RAF members believed postwar Germany’s government was thin cover for latent Nazism and wanted to ignite a socialist revolution. Many of its leaders, including Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, were imprisoned after a series of bombings in 1972. Baader, Meinhof and other RAF leaders committed suicide in prison, ushering in a period of dormancy for the group.
But attacks on Kroesen and other military targets showed that the RAF was back in business. And the U.S. government decided it needed to learn more about terrorism, quickly. “The Department of Defense said, ‘We need a counter terrorism program,’” said Brent Smith, director of the UA’s Terrorism Research Center, housed in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts & Sciences.
A Life Plan
In the late 1970s, Smith was a young criminologist fresh from a doctoral program at Purdue University. Instead of going into academia, he joined the military in 1979, coming a step closer to fulfilling a life plan he drafted for himself in the eighth grade in Hot Springs, Ark. “It’s amazing how close my life came to that plan,” he said. If he’d stuck to the plan, he would have gone on to a career in the FBI after the Army, but he chose a different path after being exposed to terrorism research.
Smith was on active duty teaching at Military Police School at Fort McClellan, Alabama, when the Department of Defense, in the wake of events like the RAF attacks in Europe, established
a counter-terrorism training program at the base. Smith, a first lieutenant at the time, was asked to teach in the new program for senior staff members. His qualifications: a Ph.D. and a couple books on the topic he’d picked up at a criminology meeting. “I had no background in it at all,” Smith said.
Fort Mcllelan’s program was directed at installation commanders and their staffs, meaning one-, two-, and three-star generals, lieutenant colonels and full colonels. The pupils significantly outranked the teacher. “What could I teach them?” Smith said. “I had no credibility whatsoever.”
The solution was to assign Smith to teach classified material on predicting terrorism. “Instant credibility,” he said. He discovered that at that time, nobody knew much about counter terrorism. And that’s what piqued his interest.
After leaving the Army, Smith took a faculty position at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Shortly thereafter, he began collecting court documents on terrorism trials, a rich source of information on terrorists’ behavior, group affiliations, finances, and prosecutorial and defense strategies. That led to publishing papers on the topic, which caught the interest of the FBI. In 1987, the agency gave him a list of cases prosecuted under the U.S. Attorney General’s guidelines on FBI terrorism investigations.
Terrorism cases happened all over the country, and this was long before the Internet, so Smith was off on a monster road trip. “I would drive up the eastern seaboard to Charlotte, Richmond, Washington D.C., New York, wherever I had to go,” he said. “Back in those days I didn’t even have enough money to copy the records. I would just take extensive notes.”
In 1998 the National Institute of Justice awarded Smith a $50,000 grant to cover travel and copying expenses. Two years later, he received a $1.1 million grant from National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT), a nonprofit established after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. That award kept him, graduate students and even family members collecting court documents for years.
“My son was standing at a copying machine extracting court records when he was 12 years old,” Smith said. “He knew as much about terrorism research as any graduate students I had at the time.”
When Smith got a chance to move back to Arkansas and teach at the UA in in 2003, he took it and brought his growing database, the American Terrorism Study (ATS), with him. A color-coded U.S. map in his office in Old Main shows just how busy things were after Sept. 11. Prior to the terrorist attacks that day, Smith and his team tracked 200 to 250 defendants per decade, or 20 to 25 per year. After the attacks, the number swelled to more than 250 between 2002 and 2004 alone. The map uses a simple “stoplight” color scheme: green meant cases that were ready to collect, yellow meant the case was still in progress, and red indicated they’d already finished data collection.
“I have left the map on my wall for the past decade because it usually elicits questions about what we do here,” Smith said.
Smith’s map used a “stoplight” coding system: Green indicated a case ready to collect from a federal courthouse, yellow meant the case was in progress and red meant they’d already retrieved the data.
The terrorism research business has evolved. The biggest change, of course, is that it’s no longer necessary for Smith or his team to travel all over the country. Most records, with the exception of some sensitive financial information, are now online.
Another big change has been in the federal government’s role funding terrorism research. In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security began funding “centers of excellence,” including the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START center, at the University of Maryland. There, Smith’s ATS database was integrated with three others to create a robust, sophisticated research tool called the Terrorist and
Extremist Violence in the United States database, or TEVUS. Though each of the four data sets that comprise TEVUS focuses on a unique aspect of terrorism research, the ATS provides the bulk of the information. That’s why Smith wanted TEVUS to be assembled here at the U of A by the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies, or CAST.
By the Numbers
Some findings from the American Terrorism Study database:
- Terrorists do not behave like traditional offenders. While most crime is spontaneous, terrorism usually involves planning and preparation.
- Terrorists think globally, but act locally. Nearly half live within 30 miles of their target.
- A significant portion of the planning and preparation for an attack typically takes place relatively close to the target.
- The ideology of the terrorist is a good predictor of how sophisticated an attack will be. Left-wing extremists and environmental activists, for example, tend to be less sophisticated in their attacks and therefore plan and execute them more quickly than right-wing and international groups.
“Half of TEVUS is populated by our data,” he said. “Because of the complexity of our data, we thought it was critical that the compilation of the data be done here, so we said we would participate if CAST could do the merger.” TEVUS is a means of analyzing activities, behaviors and methodologies of domestic terrorists. It is supported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Meanwhile, Smith’s still-expanding ATS database continues to feed other projects. The Terrorism Research Center received a grant from the National Institute of Justice — its seventh—to study “longevity” of American terrorists, that is, how and how long they are able to evade capture. The idea is that people who become radicalized are often influenced by predecessors who remain a step ahead of the law.
“The longer they can avoid arrest, the more their reputation grows,” Smith said. “A myth emerges. People want to emulate that. If you can arrest people early, you might be able to interrupt the radicalization process.”
On the other hand, making an arrest too early could mean a weaker case. Previous NIJ-funded studies have looked at variables such as the length of time a terrorist typically takes to prepare an attack, what steps they take beforehand, even how far they live from the target.
Ultimately, the center’s job is to help law enforcement officials play the probabilities better, balancing the urgent need to stop terrorists before they act with the just-as urgent need to make a case against them. That’s the kind of perspective you can only get from looking at the metadata. And it’s proving increasingly important.
“It’s nice to know that what you are doing is being used,” said Smith. “Consequently, it is critical that what we release to law enforcement agencies accurately portrays patterns of past, and expected, terrorist behavior.