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Professor receives grant to combat terrorism

By Sabrina Chow

Section: News

March 9, 2018

Brandeis professor Jytte Klausen (POL) received $731,000 in funding to create a database predicting the patterns of radicalization and terrorism. Klausen and Anura Jayasumana, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Colorado State University, received the grant from The National Institute of Justice, the research portion of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). They are partners in the project and will be splitting the funds between them.

Klausen will use the grant in connection with her Brandeis-based Western Jihadism Project (WJP). The WJP was founded in 2006 and, through the collaborative efforts of student research assistants and Klausen, maintains a database of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists in the West. The database uses open-source materials, including newspaper articles and public social media pages to build profiles of terrorists and is constantly being updated. Klausen’s new project “builds upon previous research that proved the utility of using real-world data (RWD) garnered from public records to chart the typical radicalization process of the so-called homegrown jihadists,” she said in an email to The Brandeis Hoot.

“Our collaboration utilizes what I call second-generation computational data sharing and analytics,” Klausen said. “We will be working together through an online portal that I have designed and [was] built by Brandeis COSI students over the past three years.” Klausen and Jayasumana have not yet met in-person and were connected through one of Jayasumana’s PhD students who was using Klausen’s data for his research. Both of the professors expect to travel back and forth to plan and review results.

Given the large scope of the project, both Klausen and Jayasumana will rely in part on student contributions to the project. Brandeis students working at the WJP go through thousands of public sources online to collect information for the database. Klausen uses “sandbox learning,” a method in which student research assistants help teach each other and learn by actively doing research and collaborating. She says the students working in her lab come from 12 different departments all across campus, including the Politics Department and the Computer Science Department. The majority of the over $700,000 will be devoted to paying the student employees that work at the WJP.

“Now that I am increasingly focused on computational social science analytics, more COSI students will be involved,” Klausen said. This integration of politics and computer science presents a larger scope of possibility towards the combination of the social and hard sciences. “Essentially what I am doing is a super-powered version of quantitative analysis of historical data,” said Klausen in an interview with BrandeisNOW for a Feb. 6 article.

Klausen explained “people who commit criminal acts on behalf of the international jihadist movement are not crazy or suicidal, or in other ways ‘abnormal.’ In fact, they are on average better educated than the average American and they are not particularly religious or concerned about politics until they become attracted to the ideas and lifestyles advocated by the jihadist philosophy.” Part of the WJP’s mission is to better understand factors that draw people to join jihadist movements.

“In many cases, even most cases, people become drawn in through somebody they know,” Klausen said. She sees the grant as a “fantastically interesting [chance] to produce a novel approach—a new tool really” to better understand when terrorists become radicalized and how to intervene.

The WJP faces some challenges, including high turnover among the staff of mostly undergraduate students. Klausen said that, due to the turnover, she is “constantly having to train new students. The loss of knowledge and skill that come with a high turnover rate is a significant project.”

Editor-in-Chief Emily Sorkin Smith is a research assistant at the WJP.

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