From Maxwell Perspective...

Truer Threat

A think tank’s interest in domestic terrorism drove two MPA research projects, each showing how, on American soil, Islamist extremism is only part of the picture.

In 2001, a microbiologist killed five people with anthrax-tainted letters. A husband and wife were arrested in 2003 with enough hydrogen cyanide gas to kill thousands. And, in 2008, radiological materials used in making “dirty” bombs were found in the home of a Maine resident following his death.

All of these aspiring terrorists had at least one thing in common. They were not Islamist jihadists, but extremists bred from a spectrum of radical political and social ideologies in the United States. The threat from such terrorists may be more potent than jihadists, according to research by the New America Foundation, a public policy institute in Washington, D.C. The foundation has examined threats from homegrown domestic terrorism since 9/11, creating a more accurate and expansive picture of terrorist activity in the United States.

“The evidence from our research spoke very loudly. There are a lot of ideologies that inspire people to do great violence to other people,” says researcher Colin O’Hara ’11 MPA, part of two teams of Maxwell students who conducted research for the foundation. “If we just see this as a matter of radical Islam then we misrepresent the threat out there.”

 “We found perpetrators with ideologies from left, right, and center, motivated by a variety of intents and rationales, and included in an expansive demographic group,” says Kathryn Sepka ’11 MPA, another student researcher on the project. It was a “sobering discovery,” she adds, to realize that a high percentage of the terrorist acts (and deaths) in America since 9/11 had no direct relationship to the sort of Islamic-extremist motivations one normally associates with that event.

O’Hara and Sepka conducted the research while still MPA students at Maxwell, as part of two “capstone” teams engaged by New America. All MPA students at Maxwell complete an intensive, four-week-long capstone project near the end of their year’s study — real-world public management projects, done for a client with faculty supervision.

In the first of the two capstone projects, in 2010, Maxwell students collected data on jihadist terrorist incidents in the United States since September 11, 2001. The results were discussed at hearings held earlier this year by Congress’s Committee on Homeland Security, where Peter Bergen, director of the foundation’s National Security Studies Program, testified. He said there were just four incidents of homegrown jihadist plots between 2001 and 2009, which resulted in 17 deaths. None of the jihadist cases they researched involved chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons.

Then, this spring, the foundation engaged a group of MPA students in the 2011 class, this time to expand the research to non-jihadist terrorists. These students — Nick Barone, Gary Clark, Aaron Sanders, O’Hara, and Sepka — collected data from a variety of open sources, including the Global Terrorism Database, Department of Justice reports, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“The idea was to put social science behind the gut instincts and see if we can validate or invalidate some of those impressions about the terrorist threat,” says William Banks, professor of law and public administration, director of SU’s Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, and faculty advisor for the capstone groups. “They asked and answered questions in the way that good social science researchers do,” he says. “Collect data, analyze, and figure out trends.”

Members of the second capstone team acknowledge that the number of cases they studied isn’t exhaustive, but did reveal at least five instances of the attempted purchase or development of biological, chemical, or radiological weapons by non-jihadist extremists. The results should be a cautionary tale to policy makers.

“When you’re allocating scarce resources and trying to make the right policy decisions to combat terrorism, it’s important to understand that Islamic jihadism isn’t the only threat,” Sanders says.

One of the challenges students faced was the definition of terrorism: what would be considered a terrorist act versus a hate crime or criminal activity. The students developed a standard for terrorist incidents to tie together the seemingly disparate incidents. “Scholars still debate the proper definition of terrorism, so it makes it difficult to parse out cases when there’s no easy factor unifying them,” says Andrew Lebovich, a policy analyst at the foundation.

The research and database on both jihadist and non-jihadist terrorist acts appear on a dedicated web site,, which has generated a lot of traffic, Lebovich says. An account of the report by Bergen and Lebovich also appeared on

In a nod to greater understanding, President Barack Obama’s administration recently produced a strategy document that recognizes the diversity of the terrorist threat, but changing public perception might be more complex. “The theories of what makes an Islamic terrorist are easily digestible,” says Clark. “. . . Discovering there are individuals and groups of U.S. citizens that want to use violence against us is a tough pill to swallow.”

— Kathleen Haley

Kathleen Haley is a writer/editor in SU’s Office of Publications and a graduate of SU’s Newhouse School of Public Communications and College of Arts and Sciences.
This article appeared in the fall 2011 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2011 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail