Three military cyber security professionals look at a monitor.

Current & Recent Research into Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy

By School of Public Affairs

American University’s Master of Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy teaches content knowledge about terrorist groups and threats, as well as skills for evaluating these threats, all within a framework of policy creation and implementation.

Joseph Young, PhD, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Justice, Law & Criminology and his graduate students are researching issues that may impact the fight on terrorism and policy related to U.S. homeland security. Some of these projects include exploring the efficacy of peace initiatives in other countries, interviewing U.S. citizens who go overseas to fight against ISIS on their own, and analyzing ISIS data for predictors of whether someone would prefer joining the cause as a fighter or as a suicide bomber.

Efficacy of Strengthening Local Governments in Colombia

Professor Young is part of a team working with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAid) to evaluate whether a project to strengthen local governments in Colombia is reducing a perception of corruption. The findings may influence future interventions around the world.

“We’re doing three waves of nationwide surveys about how people feel about the peace process and how much they do or don’t support armed actors,” explains Professor Young.

The five-year, $50 million program is trying to make local governments more transparent, opening up budget processes so people can understand them, and making the mayor’s office more accessible to average citizens. The goal is not only to reduce violence, but to help citizens feel that their governments are transparent, responsive, and representing their interests.

The baseline survey identified that people view their government as incredibly corrupt. The midline survey is currently underway.

“We’re hoping to see the perception of corruption going way down along with a drop in support for armed actors,” says Professor Young. “If the results are promising, these tools could be applied in other places in the world to reduce support of violent actors like terrorist groups.”

Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy Research: U.S. Citizens Joining the Fight Against ISIS

Another project that Professor Young is working on with a PhD candidate revolves around U.S. citizens who are going overseas independently to fight against ISIS. Fighting for ISIS or another designated terrorist organization is clearly illegal for American citizens. But what about those Americans who join forces with foreign organizations and fight against ISIS?

“There are a number of Americans going abroad to fight with Kurdish rebels against ISIS and that falls into a gray area,” says Professor Young. “There’s not a legal structure in place that says this behavior is wrong or illegal.”

The research team is currently interviewing some of these fighters to learn more about what they are doing and why. The researchers began with a core group via social media building a database of about 100 Americans and, so far, have interviewed about a dozen of them.

Their findings so far include:

  • Fighting independently is self-funded. Some fighters have actually held Go-Fund-Me campaigns, but generally they are limited financially and when the money runs out they tend to return home.
  • There is a women-only unit organized by a Canadian woman.
  • Many of these fighters are former military who were injured, dishonorably discharged, or simply at the end of their service. For them, the motivation is often that they had gone to the Middle East on active duty to secure safety in the region and ISIS has disrupted that, so they are now going back to try to finish what they had started.

“The bottom line is shouldn’t we have a policy on whether people should go fight against ISIS or not,” asks Professor Young. “Our research is always informed by how is this going to influence policy and what should policies look like.”

Analysis of ISIS Job Applications: Predictive Traits of Suicide Bombers

Professor Young is working with another PhD student to analyze data obtained by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) based at West Point. The researchers are evaluating more than 4,000 ISIS job applications looking at the factors that might lead someone to choose to be a fighter or a suicide bomber.

“What we’ve noticed is that country of origin explains much of the choice between applicants who want to become fighters versus suicide bombers,” says Professor Young. “People coming from the West, countries like Australia, America, Britain, etc., as well as those from civil war-torn countries are less interested in becoming suicide fighters.”

So far, the research supports the hypothesis that people who have some military experience tend to be more interested in becoming more experienced fighters rather than sacrificing themselves.

“The Americans and the Westerners don’t have a culture very supportive of the choice to become a suicide bomber,” says Professor Young. “The only folks making the choice to become suicide bombers at a higher rate are those coming from countries like Saudi Arabia or Tunisia where they might have more of a stronger cultural pull for doing an action like that.”

Understanding factors relating to the development of terrorist and anti-terrorist attitudes is critical to U.S. security. Professor Young’s research offers a glimpse into the rich and complex projects seeking to understand how we can protect national security, both in the U.S. and abroad.

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