The principal investigator of a research project designed to develop data sources that could potentially inform law enforcement policy and counterterrorism efforts, Jennifer Carson, Ph.D., professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Central Missouri, has been awarded a $506,497 grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

This three-year financial award includes collaboration with faculty members at three other institutions in the United States and abroad.

Carson, who also serves as director of UCM’s Honors College, learned in September that the grant proposal submitted to the NIJ, with assistance from Sarah Craig, director of Sponsored Programs and Research Integrity at UCM, has been funded through the NIJ Fiscal Year 2022 Research and Evaluation on Domestic Radicalization and Violent Extremism program.

The grant to UCM was one of only two awards nationally that received funding under this initiative, and it is the first grant the NIJ has ever awarded to UCM. The NIJ established this grant opportunity for the purpose of making possible research and evaluation projects that will develop a better understanding of the domestic radicalization phenomenon, and to advance evidence-based strategies for effective intervention and prevention.

Carson and others involved in this research effort will begin their work, effective Jan. 1, 2023. Their project is titled “Understanding the Complete Spectrum of the Left-Wing and Environmental Movement: A Data Driven Approach."

Joining in this project will be Michael K. Logan, Ph.D., an assistant professor of criminal justice at Kennesaw State University, which is a sub-recipient of the UCM grant; Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the extension program at George Washington University; and Nadine M. Connell, Ph.D., professor of criminology and criminal justice at Griffith University in Australia.

The researchers plan to use a two-pronged strategy in order to advance the knowledge surrounding the full spectrum of behavior perpetrated by individuals motivated by a left-wing or environmental ideology. According to grant documents, the first phase of the project involves the creation of a new database of pre-incident behaviors, failed/foiled plots, non-terrorist criminal incidents, and terrorist attacks committed within the U.S. Homeland, as motivated by a left-wing and/or environmental ideology, from Jan. 1, 2008 to Dec. 31, 2022.

The second part of the research project will examine the operational capacity of left-wing and environmental terrorists by analyzing indicators of malevolent creativity and innovation and criminal expertise. Together, findings from this project will provide recommendations on the scope and novelty of violence perpetrated by these actors and can be used to inform counterterrorism efforts.

“This project’s main objective is to obtain knowledge about far-left criminal activity and terrorism given what we know about these actors is very limited from the existing data,” Carson said.

She added that research on the “left wing” relates to individuals who perpetrate crime in the name of certain ideologies. This includes individuals categorized as anarchists, people motivated by animal or environmental rights, and those with a Marxist and/or communist/socialist belief system. Carson said throughout U.S. history, individuals who are motivated with these particular agendas have been far less lethal than other ideologically-motivated movements, but have been among the nation’s most frequent perpetrators of domestic terrorism.

One important piece of the study is to develop data on crimes that occur prior to terrorist acts in order to gain a better understanding of the full spectrum of behaviors, Carson said. This is an area in which there is currently limited research. This includes, for example, a crime such as a break-in at a business that sells furs prior to an act of terrorism at the business, such as setting the structure on fire.

“Most of these actors are not violent….A big scope of activity perpetrated by these actors is unknown, so a part of this will be the creation of a database using federal prosecution data, but also open sources that we know will provide more information about the crime side. As a criminologist, I am really interested in that,” Carson said.
She noted that the research team will not be doing their work alone. The grant comes with opportunities to enhance student learning.

“The most exciting part of this project is that students can be a part of the grant,” Carson said.

The grant includes student graduate and undergraduate paid positions that will enable students to contribute to the project and the body of research, Among such learning opportunities, the proposal notes that a team of students will undergo 40 hours of training in theories and methods related to terrorism, creativity, expertise, and crime, in order to help code information related to malevolent creativity and innovation as well as criminal expertise. Students also will be engaged in activities such as report writing, and helping with other deliverables that are expected by the grantor.

Carson said the opportunity to engage is this type of project is a win for her and her students.

“I think research and teaching are not two things that compete but rather complement each other very much,” she noted. “On one hand we have students who can directly benefit from their participation on the grant, but I also feel like I am a better teacher when I am up to date on the research. It informs my lectures, giving me unique context in the classroom. I think sometimes we see these two things as competing but I really believe they marry quite well."

Carson praised the work of Sarah Craig who assisted her throughout the grant-writing process. Craig’s experience and dedication has contributed greatly to NIJ’s decision to award this grant to UCM.

“UCM's proposal being only one of two awarded for this highly competitive National Institute of Justice funding opportunity demonstrates the expertise and experience of the project personnel, led by Dr. Jennifer Carson, and the timeliness of this research topic,” Craig commented. “It is rewarding to know that this project will provide research opportunities for our students and expand our collaborations with partnered institutions Kennesaw State University and George Washington University, as well as provide valuable data for NIJ and other law enforcement agencies to assess domestic threats.”

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