New Research Offers Hope For Cops Fighting Terrorists

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“Local law enforcers tend to believe that terrorists come from a long distance away to attack without warning in their jurisdiction,” says Dr. Brent Smith, director of the Terrorism Research Center at the University of Arkansas. “Officers often feel they are prey and that there’s nothing much they can do about it. We need to alter that mind-set.”

The results to date of a multi-phase research project Smith is leading for the National Institute of Justice should help do just that.

His findings show that Timothy McVeigh, the 9/11 hijackers, and abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph, who selected targets hundreds of miles from their homes, are stark exceptions.

“Most terrorist types strike close by, often within 30 miles of where they live, and they typically present precursor (pre-event) clues of what’s coming,” Smith told Force Science News. And while terrorist acts appear unpredictable, there is, in fact, “some predictability” to them.

With an awareness of common patterns and the right intelligence gathering, observation, and interviewing skills, local peace officers may be able to disrupt terrorists’ plans before they wreak havoc.

“If you look at the majority of terrorist acts in North America from the 1960s forward, you’ll see that Dr. Smith is right on target,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato. “Lives have been imperiled and great damage has been inflicted on our culture with the greatest frequency by terrorism on a local scale.

“Smith’s work debunks some pervasive false assumptions and should be empowering to local law enforcement.”

Smith, a professor of sociology and criminal justice and a researcher of terrorism in America for nearly 3 decades, launched his current on-going project in 2003 with curiosity about how terrorist behavior might compare with that of “conventional” criminals, a subject about which “little information has been available,” he says.

Other studies have shown that “traditional” criminals generally commit their crimes close to home, and as creatures of opportunity, they tend to operate spontaneously. But, in light of terrorism commonly being perceived as a foreign threat, what is the true geographic range of terroristic criminals, Smith wondered? How long do they spend planning their deeds? And do different types of terrorist groups vary in these respects?

Using publicly accessible data, Smith and his research team first spent 2 years analyzing 60 cases of terrorism within the U.S., attempting to pinpoint “pre-incident indicators;” that is, the preparatory steps terrorists take before striking. Then the researchers spent another 2 years studying 59 additional cases from the standpoints of preparation time and geography, focusing particularly on environmental and international terrorism.

Overall, the cases examined spanned 25 years of terrorist activity in this country. For the most part, these cases resulted in federal indictments, and they represented attacks by 4 major types of groups: left-wing, right-wing, single-issue, and international.

The results so far, which were disclosed recently, have been surprising, Smith says.


In a report on his work, Smith writes: “Terrorists most commonly prepared for their attacks with surveillance and intelligence gathering, robberies and thefts to raise funding, weapons violations, and bomb manufacturing. Most of these behaviors took place relatively near their homes and targets.”

For instance, among the single-issue terrorists studied, such as environmental and anti-abortion extremists, 71% of the preparatory acts occurred within 12 miles of the ultimate target; 92% within 28 miles.

These figures may be influenced by “lone wolf” sympathizers who impulsively decided on their own to use tactics of “uncoordinated violence” in support of a single-issue cause.

However, even among international terrorists, who typically are more highly organized, nearly 60% “prepared for their attacks within 30 miles of their target sites.”

Only major illegal fund-raising acts–robberies, burglaries, and thefts–tended to break this pattern. These crimes often occurred “much farther away”–sometimes several hundred miles distant–”apparently to avoid drawing [police] attention to the group’s location and target choice,” Smith states.

According to Smith, about 85% of the counts in federal indictments brought against terrorists in the U.S. relate to precursor activities, such as manufacturing silencers, failing to pay tax on explosive devices, converting semi-auto to fully automatic weapons, and illegal immigration.

“Not all preparatory activities are explicitly illegal,” he says. The most common precursor activity, for example, is surveillance of a potential target, an activity that “may arouse the suspicions of an alert officer who is not too quick to dismiss what he sees.”


When it comes to selecting targets, “terrorists think globally but act locally,” Smith says, and law enforcement’s focus needs to be on “local events and persons as the primary source of information about terrorist activities.”

Some differences are evident among terrorist types. “International terrorists lived relatively near their targets, whereas right-wing terrorists lived in rural areas but selected targets reflecting the ‘pollutants of urban life’ in nearby cities,” he reports.

Overall, nearly half the terrorists examined lived within 90 miles of their target, with 44% residing within 30 miles. In the international-terrorist category, “nearly three-fifths lived within 30 miles of their targets and over 75% lived within 90 miles,” Smith says.


The researchers found that preparations, including pre-event crimes, “generally began less than 6 months before the attack and ended with a flurry of actions a day or so before.

“This pattern varied by group type. Single-issue and right-wing terrorists engaged in substantially less preparatory crime over a shorter period–once again, most likely reflecting the use of ‘leaderless resistance’ and lone-wolf strategies.’ The planning cycle of international terrorists tended to be longer.”

Compared to environmental extremists, for instance, international terrorists engaged in nearly 3 times as many preparatory acts per incident, and the average planning cycle was considerably longer.

“Whereas environmental terrorists committed an overwhelming majority of their preparatory activities in the week before the incident, international terrorists often took up to 6 months to prepare,” Smith notes. The “larger number of people usually involved in international incidents” and the “size and scope of the planned incident” may be factors in the difference. So may the fact that environmental extremists often use unstable home-made explosives that can’t be stored for long periods.

One group that Smith’s team studied was an environmentalist organization of at least 16 members known as “The Family,” to which 21 terrorist incidents were attributed, including multiple attacks on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management buildings and the arson of a Colorado ski resort.

Although generally eschewing impromptu “uncoordinated violence and lone-wolf strategies,” 85% of The Family’s “known preparation activities–typically, inspection of the target, purchase of bomb-making items from local stores, and identification of a staging area a short distance from the target–still occurred within 6 days of the planned attack. An explosive device was assembled at the staging area a day or so before the incident and then delivered to the target. Participants usually returned to the staging area to destroy any evidence.”

With such a tight timetable, Smith points out, police may need to move quickly to harden targets once suspicions surface, rather than try to employ more time-friendly strategies like infiltration of the group.”


With terrorists of all stripes generally living near their target, preparing for their strike over a period of time, and conducting most of their precursor acts near both their residence and their intended target, Smith believes there is strong potential for many planned terrorist events coming to the attention of local law enforcement before their scheduled occurrence. “For law enforcement, the implications of these patterns are significant,” he writes.

In a further analysis of terrorist data, he hopes in the next phase of his research to identify in greater detail the specific sequence of pre-event activities that terrorists tend to engage in. Knowing such information may enhance law enforcement’s opportunities to intervene.

Lewinski shares Smith’s hope that what the research is revealing will help stimulate a more proactive mind-set among LEOs. “Terrorists are not just a far-off, foreign threat,” he told Force Science News. “A terrorist attack by an extremist group or individual can occur in small towns and rural areas as well as big cities–wherever there is a vulnerable or desirable target.

“With that in mind, anticipate what there is in your jurisdiction that might invite attack. Be observant for signs of surveillance or staging activity in and near those potential targets. Develop intelligence contacts in places that may supply ingredients that can be applied to terrorist activity. Probe more deeply with subjects who are unduly nervous or deceptive in your presence.

“The fundamentals of good police work can be a strong weapon against terrorism. Dr. Smith’s studies should motivate 5%ers to expand their thinking about the terrorist problem, to focus on more thorough investigative tactics, and to commit themselves to being part of the solution to this persistent threat.”

To read a report on Dr. Smith’s work that appears in the NIJ Journal, visit:


For more information on the University of Arkansas’s Terrorism Research Center, which focuses on “terrorism, extremist violence, and the effectiveness of intervention strategies,” visit: http://trc.uark.edu/.

Dr. Smith was assisted in directing his research by Dr. Kelly Damphousse, a sociology professor and an associate dean at the University of Oklahoma, and by Dr. Jack Cothren, an assistant professor of geosciences at the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies at the University of Arkansas.

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