Web Exclusives:Features

April 24, 2002:
The academics of terrorism

What Princeton professors are exploring in their research

By Melissa Harvis Renny '03

Even before the U.S. watched the twin towers fall, Princeton faculty members were working to stop terrorism around the globe.

The psychology department researched American right-wing extremists, from militias to white supremacists, trying to understand what drove them to violence. In the Woodrow Wilson School, professors worked to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons in the U.S. and the Soviet Union so that these weapons would not fall into the wrong hands. Professors in the politics department studied terrorist organizations in Africa in relation to the U.S. embassy bombings of 1998, examining why certain countries were havens for terrorists.

Since the terrorist attacks on the U.S., Princeton faculty members have continued their work, applying it to the constant, current threat of terrorism in the U.S. Through papers, lectures, and legislation, Princeton University is helping to fight the war on terrorism.

"Terrorism depends on a viewpoint," said Jon Drummond, a graduate student in the social psychology department who is doing research on what motivates terrorists. "I try to look and see how the world appears through the eyes of the terrorists."

In order to help the government better understand the way that terrorists think, Drummond and Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology and public affairs, attended an FBI conference in February on countering terrorism. At the conference, researchers, academic scholars, and personnel from justice, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies combined their knowledge on different aspects of terrorism and made recommendations to the FBI.

Drummond and Shafir also provided input to Senator Ron Wyden's (D-Ore.) Science and Technology Emergency Mobilization Act. This bill would create a science and technology equivalent to the National Guard, mobilizing academics and security experts to work together for U.S. security.

"I think that one of the lessons learned from September 11 is that just the process or just the intention to mobilize and bring to bear all applicable knowledge was probably lacking in many ways," Drummond said.

On campus, Drummond is working with John Darley, a professor of psychology and public affairs, on a theory that explains how people come to extreme views. Called "deviant legitimation," this theory asserts that terrorists move toward violence through a series of recognizable steps over time that leads them to lose faith in their establishment or government, and then to justify their use of violence. Drummond stressed that terrorists do not become violent overnight; rather it is a long, slow process full of thwarted efforts.

"You can't understand why this [September 11] happened until you see the way that the world looks through the eyes of those people," Drummond said.

Frederick Hitz '61, director of the Woodrow Wilson School's Project on International Intelligence, agrees that seeing the world through the eyes of the terrorists is crucial. The Inspector General of the CIA from 1990 through 1998, Hitz claims that before the CIA can change its rules of operation in regard to terrorism, it needs to understand terrorist cultures.

"What we really need to do is strengthen the cadre of analysts and intelligence collectors who work on these issues, because it seems to me there is not really much excuse for not knowing the threat that fundamentalist Islam and disgruntled citizens of the Middle East pose to the U.S. as the big target, and to the West in general, because of our prosperity and success and their poverty and hopelessness," he said.

In a recent article for the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Hitz assessed the pros and cons of using of spies to gather international information, giving the CIA law enforcement powers, allowing assassinations during peacetime, and recruiting journalists and academics as agents. Hitz stressed the need to preserve U.S. citizens' constitutional rights while protecting the country from terrorist threats.

The nuclear threat

Protecting the U.S. from terrorist threats is something Frank von Hippel, director of the Program in Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School, has done for years. As the former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology, and the chairman of the Federation of American Scientists, von Hippel holds a strong belief that nuclear weapons are intrinsically terrorist weapons.

"Nuclear weapons are weapons of terror whether countries own them or terrorists own them," he said.

In the days following the September 11 attack, von Hippel and his colleagues on the Russian American Nuclear Security Advisory Council (RANSAC) sent a letter to President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, urging the leaders to prevent terrorists from gaining access to nuclear weapons. The letter called on the U.S. and Russia to revive underfunded programs that would eliminate nuclear materials left over from the cold war, because "inadequately secured nuclear material anywhere is a threat to all nations everywhere."

Von Hippel expressed specific concerns about Pakistan's stockpile of weapon-grade uranium in an article for the Journal of the Federation of American Scientists. Weapon-grade uranium is highly enriched uranium that, von Hippel said, educated terrorists could turn into a gun type nuclear explosive like the one the U,S, used on Hiroshima during World War II. In the article, Von Hippel made a series of recommendations that included increasing the security of fissile material, increasing transparency between countries about the size of their nuclear stockpiles, ending the production of Plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU), and disposing of excess stocks.

In order to make these recommendations realities, von Hippel and his colleagues worked with a series of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to reverse the Bush administration's initial decision to cut funding for these programs. After September 11, when the administration received $40 billion supplemental to the fiscal budget, von Hippel and his colleagues lobbied so that a portion of this money would go to these key programs. Due to their efforts, the administration reevaluated the budget and allocated $250 million of the money toward programs with Russia that will reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Possible protection

While this money will help programs in need, the struggle to insure safety is far from over. Von Hippel is currently working with graduate students in the Woodrow Wilson School on protection against weapons of mass destruction. One method of protection they are researching is potassium iodide pills. When a nuclear explosion occurs, radioactive iodide is inhaled and goes directly to the thyroid gland, increasing the chance of thyroid cancer. By saturating the thyroid with nonradioactive iodide ñ the potassium iodide pills ñ people can protect themselves from the health effects of a nuclear catastrophe.

Zia Mian, a colleague of von Hippel's in the Woodrow Wilson School, is examining the distribution of these potassium iodide pills in the areas around nuclear reactors as a part of his task force this semester. Mian's task force will examine the possible effects of terrorism on nuclear power plants, using three power plants in New Jersey for models.

"An attack on a nuclear power station can be potentially catastrophic," Mian said. "A nuclear power station is a fixed nuclear weapon of sorts."

While professors in the Woodrow Wilson School and the Psychology Department have been able to work for immediate change, other professors have had a more difficult time finding their place in the torrent of research on terrorism. Jeffrey Herbst '83, chair of the politics fepartment, claims that academics have had a particularly hard time focusing their work since September 11.

"I think academics are particularly challenged when the world changes like it did on September 11, and we want to be relevant to day-to-day controversies, but we have to stick to what I think is our comparative advantage, which is trying to put these things in larger context, and trying to think about more than what's going to happen in the next 48 or 72 hours," Herbst said.

Herbst will put the attacks in a larger context in a conference he is planning for late September that will focus on the heterogeneity of views in the Islamic world. He sees the conference as a platform to expose the U.S. to ideas in the Muslim world that may not be widely known.

"The basic idea is that a lot of people in Muslim countries have all kinds of notions about democracy, about terrorism and the like, and they don't have a very big voice in these countries because the governments are authoritarian and because the fundamentalists in many cases, have crowded them out or intimidated them," he said.

A year after the terrorist attacks, this conference will provide testimony to Princeton faculty's work toward a greater understanding of Islamic cultures, work that, they hope, will prevent terrorism from occurring in the future.