Professor Brent Smith

Tracking Terror

Terrorism Research Center fights terrorism with data.

National expert tracks domestic terrorism and the effectiveness of intervention strategies.

The story of how the University of Arkansas’ J. William Fulbright College of Arts & Sciences came to house the most comprehensive open-source database on FBI counter terrorism 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 were riding in the back seat of his armored Mercedes sedan.

At 7:18 a.m. would-be assassins fired an antitank grenade, hitting the car’s trunk. Both Kroesens suffered only minor cuts from the broken glass. In the aftermath of the attack, the U.S. government decided it needed to quickly learn more about terrorism. The first step was to establish a counter terrorism program at Fort McClellan, Alabama.  

A Life Plan

In the late 1970s Brent Smith, now a distinguished professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice and director of the U of A’s Terrorism Research Center, was a young Ph.D. criminologist fresh from Purdue University. Instead of going into academia, he joined the military. Smith was teaching at the Military Police School at Fort McClellan when the counter terrorism program was established. A major assigned to teach the topic knew nothing about it, Smith recalled, so the task fell to him, a 1st lieutenant. “I had no background in it at all.”

At the time, he said, nobody knew much about counter terrorism. “That’s what got me interested in terrorism research,” he says.

Smith is now an internationally know expert on domestic terrorism. He established the Terrorism Research Center at the University of Arkansas in 2003 to research domestic terrorism, extremist violence, mass shootings and the effectiveness of intervention strategies. It has grown over the last decade through federal funding to specialize in analysis of demographic patterns of those indicted on terrorism charges and emerging groups, federal court strategies and geospatial and temporal analysis of terrorist activities.

The data took years to collect, and Smith’s work continues today, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The database began when Smith left the Army and took a job at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and began collecting court documents on domestic terrorism trials. His work caught the interest of the FBI, and in 1987, the agency gave him a list of cases prosecuted under the U.S. attorney general’s guidelines on counter terrorism.

Smith hit the road.

“I would drive up the eastern seaboard to Charlotte, Richmond, Washington D.C., New York, wherever I had to go,” he says. “Back in those days I didn’t even have enough money to copy the records. I would just take extensive notes.”

In 2003, the Hot Springs native moved back to Arkansas to teach at the U of A, and he brought his growing American Terrorism Study database with him.

Big Data

These days, Smith and his team continue to collect data, but they don’t have to travel as much because most records are online. And funding for terrorism research has grown.

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 at the University of Maryland. There, Smith’s American Terrorism Study database was integrated with three others to create a sophisticated research tool called the Terrorist and Extremist Violence in the United States database, or TEVUS.

Smith’s still-expanding American Terrorism Study database continues to feed other projects. The U of A’s Terrorism Research Center recently received a grant from the National Institute of Justice — its seventh — to study “longevity” of American terrorists, i.e. how and how long they are able to evade capture.

“The longer they can avoid arrest, the more their reputation grows,” Smith says. “A myth emerges. People want to emulate that. If you can arrest people early, you might be able to interrupt the radicalization process.”