Building security and peace after 9/11

Sept. 11 graphic

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, revealed some of the ugliest facets of human nature. In their aftermath, however, a different side of humanity showed through – one of compassion, generosity and heroism. People within the U.S. and around the world rallied around the victims, offering both help and hope.

This desire to offer help and hope affected people of all skills and talents, including researchers and the agencies that fund them. Numerous research projects in the 10 years since the attacks have focused on keeping people safe, improving emergency responses, and perhaps most importantly, fostering a better understanding of our fellow humans, so that we can build our future on a foundation of peace.

“Research is, at its core, about making the world a better, safer, healthier place to live,” says R. F. “Rick” Shangraw, Jr., senior vice president for ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development (OKED). “Here at ASU, our faculty is taking advantage of the university’s core strengths, and of an interdisciplinary research environment, to help tackle some of the key challenges in national security.”

The following are some highlights of ASU research in the areas of security and peacebuilding:

A framework for security

Interdisciplinary research is a key aspect the new Security and Defense Systems Initiative (SDSI), launched this year at ASU. Led by former Chief Scientist for the U.S. Air Force Werner Dahm, the initiative is dedicated to finding solutions to national and global security challenges.

Researchers working with SDSI will address issues of national defense, homeland security, counterterrorism and cyber warfare, narcotics interdiction and cybercrime.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to bring engineers, social scientists and legal experts together, so that beyond technology we can look at the root causes of the problems, the global disparities and tensions that lead to national and international threats,” says Dahm. “The way ASU has organized itself to address these kinds of global challenges is unique. This is one of the few places where a collaborative effort to focus on problems of such a big scope is even possible.”

SDSI will provide a framework for security-related research at ASU, but the university already has extensive expertise in the area. For example, ASU leads a multi-institutional research program developing systems to rapidly measure an individual’s exposure to radiation in the event of a radiological or nuclear incident. The project is led by Lee Cheatham, deputy director of the Biodesign Institute, and funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).

In the biological realm, Peter Rez in the Department of Physics recently completed a study sponsored by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. His work provides insight into using the electromagnetic spectrum to distinguish threatening pathogens from innocuous biomolecules.

Moving forward, SDSI will pay close attention to issues likely to pervade the next generation of warfare.

“Research activities that help us stay ahead of the curve include projects that tackle emerging issues such as security and information assurance in cyberspace,” says Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, university chief research officer and deputy senior vice president of OKED.

Are we bio insecure?

One security issue that Americans have been particularly concerned about since 9/11 is bioterrorism—the intentional release of harmful bacteria, viruses or toxins. Researchers throughout the nation have worked to prepare for such an event. But Ed Sylvester, a science writer and professor in ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, questions the U.S. approach to bioterrorism.

Sylvester and Lynn Klotz, a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, raise their concerns in the book Breeding Bio Insecurity: How U.S. Biodefense is Exporting Fear, Globalizing Risk, and Making Us All Less Secure (University of Chicago Press, 2009).

“We became increasingly concerned that the government was taking the wrong direction in preparing against possible bioterrorism attacks in the years after Sept. 11,” notes Sylvester. “The only realistic way for terrorists to get their hands on highly developed pathogen stocks to make such weapons is by stealing them, and the government was making that more likely by funding research into those pathogens at a rapidly increasing number of places around the country.”

In the book, Sylvester and Klotz assert that our best defense against bioterrorism will come from multilateral activities, such as treaties, and international cooperation on defenses against all diseases.

Reducing disease damage

Defending against diseases – whether they occur naturally or are inflicted by terrorists – is a primary goal for Carlos Castillo-Chavez, director of ASU’s Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center.

Castillo-Chavez helps develop mathematical models to quickly detect and protect against the deliberate release of biological agents.

“If somebody was to infect themselves with a pathogen or infectious disease, they could travel on the subways and infect people by sneezing or coughing. This could have devastating consequences and we would not know immediately because it takes a few days for symptoms to show up. Our ability to detect when something is introduced and our ability to prevent or mitigate the effects, this is my concern,” he says.

He also creates models that predict the economic costs of fighting epidemics and the effects that they can have on a country’s stability and national security.

“Economics get severely affected by these outbreaks due to fear, due to dispute of information, due to overreaction. All of this tends to have effects that could destabilize economies and countries, and because of that it is important to national security,” says Castillo-Chavez.

He adds: “This requires measures not only in the United States, but around the globe. Even natural epidemics pose dangers to global stability.”

Using advanced visualization and simulation tools at ASU’s Decision Theater (DT), Castillo-Chavez can help decision-makers simulate a variety of scenarios and test the effects of different policies. The Decision Theater is frequently used for planning responses to emergency situations.

Timothy Lant, an assistant research professor with the DT, is leading a project to create a web-based planning tool to help counties develop and test their “point of dispensing” plans under extreme conditions.

In the event of a public health threat, these plans identify the best locations for dispensing countermeasures such as vaccines, antibiotics, antitoxins or potassium iodine (for nuclear threats). They also help planners allocate staff and resources to the sites appropriately.

Campus communication

Fast, effective communication is another crucial aspect of minimizing the damage from an attack or disaster. Faculty in ASU’s Environmental Technology Management program, part of the College of Technology and Innovation, are working to improve how colleges and universities communicate in emergency situations.

The researchers, funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, are developing a four-part online training course for campus administrators, communicators and emergency responders, as well as the local community. The first course will be released soon.

Whether the emergency comes from a terrorist, a natural disaster, or some other threat, project leader Al Brown says timing and accuracy are of the essence.

“There is a tendency to withhold information until you have a more complete picture,” he says. “But as soon as you have credible information, we advise you to release it immediately.”

Brown has been part of the ASU emergency planning process, as well, and commends their efforts.

“I think ASU did a fantastic job in their emergency communication about the Memorial Union fire a few years back, for example,” he says. “I got a text message myself within minutes after someone pulled the fire alarm. That was a model example. It builds a strong feeling of trust.”

The war of words

While communication can build trust, it can also promote fear, anger and hate. Researchers with the Consortium for Strategic Communication are studying how extremists use rhetoric and narratives to instill hostility toward enemies, recruit new members and incite action.

“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,” says Steven Corman, the lead researcher and professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The project was recognized by the Department of Defense in February 2011 for aiding U.S. government efforts to understand and effectively operate in the human terrain during non-conventional warfare and other missions. The study is funded through a grant from the Office of Naval Research.

“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,” says Angela Trethewey, one of the researchers and director of the Hugh Downs School.

Religion and conflict

The hearts and minds of extremists are also of great interest to researchers in ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict (CSRC). Created in 2003, the center came about largely in response to problems dramatically highlighted by the 9/11 attacks.

“It’s not that 9/11 was the first incident of religiously inflected conflict, of course. But I think in many ways, it was that dramatic turning point where some issues became very visible in a very public manner,” says Linell Cady, the center’s director.

The CSRC has developed an undergraduate certificate program and an undergraduate fellows program. It has also raised more than $9 million in funds since its inception to support interdisciplinary research projects, such as the following:

• “Dynamics of Religion and Conflict” develops predictions of how, when and where religious-influenced conflicts could arise. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation and led by Psychology Professor Steven Neuberg.

• “Finding Allies: Mapping Counter-Radical Muslim Discourse,” led by Religious Studies Professor Mark Woodward, seeks to identify who are the radicals and counter-radicals in Southeast Asia, West Africa and Western Europe.

• “Comparative Secularisms: Religion, Politics, Gender” explores the varieties of secularism and the public role of religion in multiple countries to better understand how religion is negotiated and managed in national and global contexts. Cady leads this Ford Foundation-funded study.

“In American history, secular laws and secular institutions have been deeply shaped by religions, but Americans simply spout a mantra, ‘Oh, we have church/state separation so religion is private,’” says Cady. “So when we look at the rest of the world and see religiosity potentially shaping politics, we imagine that’s somehow deficient when compared to the American model.”

Moving toward peace

Another focus of the CSRC is an initiative in peace studies, which involves research, academic courses, lectures and conferences. Yasmin Saikia, a professor of history, has been named the Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies.

Peace studies move us beyond simply defending against attacks toward forging relationships that prevent violence and promote harmony.

“I think the focus on peace emerged from the recognition that it’s important to not just think about containing conflict, but to ask what are the more positive efforts that are transformative, regarding religion and conflict,” says Cady. “Peace is not just the absence of conflict – it may have more positive and substantive dimensions that should be focused on.”

Written by Diane Boudreau, Pete Zrioka and Allie Nicodemo, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development