How to stop terrorism 

LINE OF DEFENSE: Brent Smith serves as director of UA's Terrorism Research Center.
  • 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.



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