Crafting a Mental Profile of a Terrorist Researchers at the University of Maryland are working on a government-sponsored project to develop psychological profiles of terrorists.

Crafting a Mental Profile of a Terrorist

Crafting a Mental Profile of a Terrorist

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Researchers at the University of Maryland are working on a government-sponsored project to develop psychological profiles of terrorists.


In this country the Department of Homeland Security is working to answer some fundamental questions. Why do some people become terrorists and others don't? Why do some terrorist groups thrive and others disappear? A new research project based at the University of Maryland is looking at those and other questions. It's one of four university-based centers the department is funding to help it understand and deal with the terrorist threat. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

Criminologist Gary LaFree has just moved into the research project's new offices at the University of Maryland. Boxes are stacked on the floor. The bookcases don't have shelves yet, let alone books. But LaFree already has one important tool in place.

Mr. GARY LaFREE (Criminologist): We've been collecting a database on terrorist events that goes back to 1970. It currently contains about 70,000 events.

FESSLER: Including attacks reported in every part of the world: hijackings, bombings, assassinations, any violent act conducted against civilians for a political purpose. Already the data have shown some interesting things.

Mr. LaFREE: Probably domestic terrorism outnumbers international terrorism something like 7:1.

FESSLER: Something, he says, that appears to have caught Londoners by surprise this summer. The data also show a large majority of attacks have taken place in only 15 countries, many in Latin America. LaFree and his colleagues hope to organize the data in ways that will eventually help authorities to spot emerging threats.

Mr. LaFREE: Let me see if I can find--where the heck is it? Oh, here it is.

FESSLER: LaFree demonstrates on his computer by pulling up a map of Colombia. His database has information on every recent terrorist attack in the South American nation.

Mr. LaFREE: And we code them geographically and then we look at the accumulation of events geographically over time. And so you can see essentially how one group--in this case it's FARC--how FARC has spread over time in Colombia.

FESSLER: And, indeed, the first map shows a blue dot to mark a single terrorist attack in 1970 attributed to Colombia's most notorious terrorist organization. But as the sequence progresses, the dots multiply rapidly across the country. Another computer sequence shows the spread of FARC attacks around the world. LaFree's group will study similar progressions for about 1,000 terrorist groups.

Mr. LaFREE: Are you likely--if you've got a terrorist group in one rural valley, does it jump to the next? Under what circumstances does it jump to the other end of the country? Or how does it jump to an entirely different country?

FESSLER: But that's only one part of the Maryland project. The research group, which brings together about 40 sociologists, psychologists, political scientists and others from several universities, will also study why some radical groups become violent and others do not, and they'll explore individual responses to terrorism and who some people join terrorist groups. Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert at Harvard, says the new research is much needed.

Ms. JESSICA STERN (Terrorism Expert, Harvard University): We have a pretty rudimentary understanding of terrorism at this point.

FESSLER: She says the United States still doesn't have a good handle on who its enemy is and what motivates it, in part, because of a lack of good data. She says, though, that researchers also need to be careful in coming up with a terrorist profile.

Ms. STERN: There are fads that come and go, and so one thing we need to be aware of is that what we think the typical terrorist looks like today, if we were able to generate a picture, it could easily change tomorrow.

FESSLER: LaFree says he agrees.

Mr. LaFREE: We're certainly not looking for a gene that predicts terrorism, and I think most of us think that probably wouldn't be productive if we were trying to do that.

FESSLER: He says instead they'll study what social and psychological factors terrorists appear to have in common. The Department of Homeland Security has given the center $12 million to do its research over three years. Other university centers are studying food security and the economic impact of terrorism. Donald Tighe, a department spokesman, says outside researchers have time to explore things that government researchers do not, and there should be some practical applications. For example, he says...

Mr. DONALD TIGHE (Spokesperson, Department of Homeland Security): What does the organizational structure of terrorist groups tell us about how to best respond to that when we focus as a country on public diplomacy, reaching out to the rest of the world?

FESSLER: Tighe says a fifth research center will be announced this fall. That one will look at how prepared the country is to respond to a catastrophic attack such as one involving weapons of mass destruction. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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