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ASU research helps impact in US anti-terrorist program

February 15, 2011

Two Arizona State University research initiatives have been recognized this month by the Department of Defense for aiding the U.S. government efforts to understand and effectively operate in the human terrain during non-conventional warfare and other missions.

One of the projects, “Identifying Terrorist Narratives and Counter-Narratives: Embedding Story Analysis in Expeditionary Units,” is part of research being conducted by the Consortium of Strategic Communication in ASU’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. The research is funded by a $1.6 million renewable grant from the Office of Naval Research.

The second initiative, “Finding Allies for the War of Words: Mapping the Diffusion and Influence of Counter-Radical Muslim Discourse,” is a $5.8 million grant to the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, a transdisciplinary research center in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It is one of seven projects at U.S. universities funded by the Minerva Research Initiative, a program of the Secretary of Defense that focuses on areas of strategic importance to U.S. national security policy.

Both ASU projects, which deal with different sides of the problem of extremism in the Muslim world, were recognized at ceremonies in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 9 for “exceptional scientific achievements and contributions” by the Human Social Culture Behavior (HSCB) Modeling Program at the Department of Defense. The HSCB program was established in 2008 to develop a science base and associated technologies for modeling human, social and cultural behavior. The projects received two of the three awards given this year.

“Identifying Terrorist Narratives and Counter-Narratives has significantly increased our understanding of the threat posed by terrorist narratives among contested populations and provided the models and tools that allow for the development of effective counter-measures,” wrote Capt. Dylan Schmorrow, deputy director of the Human Performance, Training and BioSystems Research Directorate, in notifying team leader Steven Corman, Herberger Professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The project is based on empirical research on extremist texts and statements with analyses and models, said Corman.

“The research aims to create a database of Islamist narratives while revealing how these narratives are used to influence populations in areas such as the Middle East and Southeast Asia and North Africa,” Corman said. “People from the U.S. often lack training and knowledge of the culture they reside in while overseas. This database will be useful for practical applications in the field.”

The project focuses on how such extremists use rhetoric and narratives to instill hostility toward enemies, recruit new members, and incite action. Others on the research team include ASU faculty members Angela Trethewey, H.L. “Bud” Goodall, Daniel Bernardi and Pauline Hope Cheong.

“It’s a global battle of hearts and minds, and we’re trying to analyze their methods of communication in order to counter their influence,” said Trethewey, who attended the award presentation with Corman.

Their research was selected for the recognition because it “addresses a problem that is very important to our HSCB users, is innovative in its research and technical execution, and even though not yet complete is already having impact within our user community,” said Department of Defense spokeswoman Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan.

This work “addresses a problem important to the Department of Defense and potentially others. Dr. Corman and his team are helping to build an understanding of the communication frameworks (narratives) that the extremist movements use to motivate behavior,” Morgan said.

The Consortium for Strategic Communication was formed in 2005 to apply concepts from communication research to problems of combating terrorism, promoting national security, and engaging in public diplomacy worldwide.

“Our field doesn’t do much funded grant work and it’s gratifying to receive acknowledgment for having done something valuable,” said Trethewey. As a result of the project, a book titled “Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism” summarizing the team’s findings was published Feb. 1.

The other ASU initiative, “Finding Allies for the War of Words,” was recognized by the Department of Defense for its exceptional scientific achievements and contributions to the field of social cultural modeling.

“Your Minerva project, ‘Finding Allies for the War of Words: Mapping the Diffusion and Influence of Counter-Radical Muslim Discourse,’ has significantly increased our understanding in countering violent extremist ideologies,” wrote Schmorrow.

The principal investigator for ASU’s Minerva project is Mark Woodward, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. He leads a multidisciplinary, multi-university international team that includes, from ASU, Hasan Davulcu and Arun Sen, School of Computer Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering; Tom Taylor, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences; and Corman; along with David Jacobson, University of South Florida; Riva Kastoryano, Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, Sciences Po, France; and Muhammad Sani Umar, Northwestern University.

“One of the goals of the project is to deepen our understanding and knowledge of the types and complexity of counter-radical Islamic movements and networks in critical regions,” said Davulcu, who attended the ceremony on behalf of the team.

“By linking the deep knowledge of area experts and scholars of religious and Islamic studies with the quantitative and computational expertise of social and computer scientists, the Minerva project will provide a powerful visual tool for understanding the flow and influence of counter-radical ideas and movements across regions as well as globally,” Davulcu said.

“Scholars in the humanities have a rich history of studying the philosophical, social and historical dimensions of other cultures, hence they are able to pick up subtle nuances that are critical for understanding how counter-radicalism works on the ground across diverse communities and regions,” said Linell Cady, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

“The integration of the qualitative methods of the humanities with the quantitative and computational methods of social and computer science produces a whole that is significantly greater than the sum of its parts,” Cady said.

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict was created in 2003 with the aim of addressing the global dynamics of religion and political conflict. Since its inception, it has developed a strong track record of funding for its globally-scoped, multidisciplinary projects including grants from the Ford Foundation, Luce Foundation, National Science Foundation and John Templeton Foundation.

The center’s Minerva project has already begun to produce a stream of publications that reflect the advances being made in sociocultural modeling.

Written by Chanapa Tantibanchachai and Carol Hughes

Carol Hughes,
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences