- LINE OF DEFENSE: Brent Smith serves as director of UA's Terrorism Research Center.
Old Main on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville seems an unlikely place to house a terrorism research center. But there, in an elegant second-floor sociology department alcove, is where terrorism expert Brent Smith operates.
Smith is a professor in the department of sociology and criminal justice and director of the Terrorism Research Center.
“Our goal is not only to research the cause of terrorism but to look at interdiction strategies, the best ways to intervene and prosecute terrorists,” Smith said.
Brent Smith began this venture long before the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the attacks on the World Trade Center seared terrorism into American mass consciousness.
His career track was laid in 1979, when as a newly graduated Ph.D., he served for two years in the Army Police School as an instructor in military police operations and counterterrorism. In 1981 he settled into the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he established himself as a terrorist research scientist and criminologist. He also taught courses ranging from introductory criminal justice to high-level courses like victimology.
But in 2003, the Arkansas native took the opportunity to relocate to Fayetteville, where he teaches one class, Terrorism and Social Control. The rest of his time is dedicated to projects like the American Terrorism Study.
“The American Terrorism Study basically is a record of federal criminal court case documents, sentencing memoranda and affidavits,” he said. “We restrict our research to only open-source data, nothing classified.”
Since 2004 the American Terrorism Study has been funded by the Department of Homeland Security through the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. Previously NMIPT was supported by U.S. Department of Justice grants — which still provide funding for some of Smith's work.
“For years, domestic terrorism lacked high-quality, empirical, quantitative analysis,” Smith said. “So the goal is to maintain an unbiased empirical database from which criminal theory and government policy can be effectively evaluated.”
But to succeed, Brent Smith needed to gain the trust of the country's top police agency — the FBI.
“It's an interesting relationship,” Smith said. “At a conference in Chicago I became fairly good friends with the man who at that time was head of the Joint Terrorism Task Force there. He directed me to FBI headquarters, where I was provided with names of people indicted under the FBI's counterterrorism program. So now we have a compilation of American terrorist incidents dating back to 1980.”
Smith's research has been published in journals such as Criminology and Public Policy; Terrorism: an International Journal; and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. His first book was “Terrorism in America: Pipe Bombs and Pipe Dreams,” published by State University of New York Press in 1994. His latest book, “Patterns of American Terrorism,” was to be published last year, but he pulled it and is shopping publishers, he said.
Smith provides expert testimony, including before Congress in 1995, about the Oklahoma City bombing as well as on the rise of violent anti-government groups in America.
Smith is also overseeing three other National Institute of Justice-funded projects in addition to the American Terrorism Study.
“One of those projects is called a geospatial analysis of terrorist activities, and we do that in collaboration with the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies (CAST) here on campus,” Smith said. The project maps domestic terrorists in proximity to their targets.
Another project is “Terrorism in Time and Space,” which will aggregate the center's research into one package.
The third, newest project is more sociological than data-driven.
“We are looking at how prosecutors and defense attorneys portray domestic terrorists at trial,” Smith said.
A few other universities around the country support academic research on terrorism, but studies of terrorism can be frequently skewed by ideological agendas as well as substandard sources, Smith said.
Brent Smith works with two other UA faculty: Paxton Roberts, a GIS specialist and liaison to CAST, and Chris Shields, an attorney, who works full time on the American Terrorism Study.
Smith has written that because the U.S. government has not effectively responded to domestic dissident and terrorist group incidents in the past, he hopes his research will help to overcome such deficiencies.
While Smith said he does not consider himself a criminal profiler, some people might consider him to be a geospatial profiler — dispelling certain myths on how domestic terrorist groups operate.
“Think of Oklahoma City, Sept. 11 — even Eric Rudolph and the bombings in Atlanta. In all three of those situations the terrorists lived hundreds of miles from their targets. So local law enforcement is left with the impression that there's not really much they could have done,” Smith said. “But in actuality what we are finding is that domestic terrorists tend to commit their crimes fairly close to home. And approximately 50 percent of these people will commit their acts within 30 miles of their place of residence.”
Smith also found that nearly 60 percent of domestic terrorists are likely to prepare and set up their staging area within a 30-mile radius of home — giving local law enforcement an opportunity to intervene early.
Smith also studies domestic environmental extremism — which he says may increase in reaction to global warming. His baseline has been a group called the Family, which operated out of Eugene, Ore. They used arson to block urban development.
“That case is extremely interesting,” Smith said. “Their pattern was to engage in spontaneous kinds of target selection. They would read something on the Internet or newspaper, identify it as a target, then in less than two or three days engage in the procurement of incendiary devices, go to the staging area and commit the arson.”
But since the arrest of Family members in 2005, incidents of environmental terrorism have diminished.
So-called homegrown threats by international terrorists are also the subject of Smith's research.
In 2006 members from a Sunni Islamic extremist group in California known as the Assembly of Authentic Islam were caught committing armed robberies to finance terrorist attacks against the enemies of Islam.
The FBI also dismantled a global network of extremists based in Georgia operating primarily on the Internet, who were preparing to attack the U.S.
And most recently an alleged plot earlier this year to bomb a fuel pipeline feeding John F. Kennedy International Airport was foiled.
“We don't know the direct impact of what we are doing,” Smith said. “We would like to think we are providing information to local law enforcement that would encourage them to think locally. Many terrorist incidents don't happen because of serendipitous police contact. So if we can assist local law enforcement to be more aware, we can keep the percentage of preventions up in relationship to completed acts.”
Brent Smith said he's kept a low profile since moving his center to the UA four years ago. He gives fewer public talks and testimonies. Part of it has to do with concentrating more on his research projects. The other part may have to do with his having been listed as a possible target of domestic terrorism himself.
When pressed about how he copes with studying terrorists day in and day out, the social scientist wouldn't answer directly. Instead, he shrugged and said he's not worried. And Americans shouldn't be either.
“Terrorism accounts for a small percentage of violent crime in this country,” Smith said. “It's not something that should immobilize us as a nation or individuals. The chance of being a victim to an act of terrorism is very slim in this country simply because the number of people engaged in terrorist activities is very small. In the last 25 years, only a thousand people have been indicted in federal court for these kinds of crimes. So you can see this is a minuscule activity.”
“Still,” he said, “when terrorists do act, it's serious and the damage is extreme. So it's worth being watchful, but not worth allowing our nation — or ourselves — to become immobilized.”