When do people take a path to terrorism? Three university researchers spend summer looking for answers in some unlikely ways

Dr. Rolin Mainuddin, Mitchell Wallace, & Aimee Williams

Terror cells may turn up where you least expect them. That’s a lesson Mitchell Wallace of Durham, North Carolina, learned in the summer of 2011.

“I did not know that there were home-grown terrorists around my home town,” said Mitchell Wallace, a college senior studying political science at North Carolina Central University (NCCU). He was part of a team that spent the summer systematically examining the process by which a terrorist living in Raleigh, N.C., was radicalized. The terrorist was part of the Triangle Terror Cell in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.  Seven men were arrested in connection with this cell in 2009.

Wallace, NCCU graduate student Aimee Williams and NCCU associate professor Dr. Rolin Mainuddin performed their research at the University of Maryland, College Park, which is the lead research institution in the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), U.S Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Center of Excellence. Their research was conducted as part of the DHS Summer Research Team Program for Minority Serving Institutions. This program, which is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, is designed to increase and enhance the scientific leadership at minority serving institutions in research areas that support the mission and goals of DHS.

Using the North Carolina terrorist cell as their case study, the team applied current social science theories in an effort to help gather more intelligence regarding how radicalization in a group occurs. This information could help U. S. law enforcement officials in their fight against domestic terrorism.

The team focused on three key elements: creating a time-line of life-events; creating a graphic trajectory of the radicalization path from the coded data; and coding four competing theories to determine any effects they might have in the radicalization process.

Williams spent much of her time gathering information from dozens of sources, eventually locating more than 150 postings and other citings for the research. Among the information noted by the team was when an alleged terrorist posted several status updates that suggested he was becoming radicalized, including a militant-looking photo Facebook. Through social media and online sources, Williams and other team members felt they had a unique perspective of the situation that would not have been possible a decade ago.

Williams also found there were many parallels between the theories of radicalization and those discussed in the sociology of religion. “Learning is much more meaningful when you know the data you discover can benefit other researchers.”

As a Muslim immigrant and naturalized U. S. citizen, Dr. Mainuddin’s cultural background provided a unique perspective for the team’s research. He hoped START would give him a better understanding of the point at which religious beliefs undergo “a radical shift with the possibility of a violent outcome.”

He also wanted to use his background to help his students better understand the broader implication of their research, as well as the theories behind it. Eventually he would like to establish a self-sustaining terrorism research institute at NCCU. More immediately, Dr. Mainuddin’s students will benefit from the addition of the summer's research into all four of his courses.

Williams pursued her spot in the program because she wanted to develop research skills under the direction of seasoned professionals. While she went into the program at START with preconceived notions about other researchers she would be working with, she was surprised to find such diversity.

“I truly expected to be surrounded by criminal justice majors,” Williams said. “Instead, I was thrilled to find a diverse group of researchers and interns, from the disciplines of political science, history, psychology and more.”

As for Wallace, he hopes to pursue a master’s degree in international relations with a focus on the Middle East. Right now he is considering a variety of options including the University of Maryland, where START is based. For now he remains focused on education and family. Next year he hopes to mark a milestone. “In May 2012, I will be the first person in my family to graduate from college.”