Filling the Domestic Terrorism Research Gap at DHS

Filling the Domestic Terrorism Research Gap at DHS

A new center of excellence is employing emerging technologies to address domestic terrorism trends in the U.S.

The Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate’s newest Center of Excellence launched during the tumultuous year of 2020, but it is already spearheading counterterrorism solutions with artificial intelligence, augmented reality, data analytics and social media analysis.

Led by the University of Omaha-Nebraska, the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology and Education (NCITE) COE launched July 1 in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide protests. Its lead, Gina Ligon, told GovernmentCIO Media & Research she’s focusing on four themes to guide NCITE’s research.

“The first theme is the nature of counterterrorism operations, devoted to helping support the counterterrorism professional and the technology she might need to solve some of the problems she's faced with,” Ligon said. “We have some of the HoloLens tech happening with different types of augmented reality and AI programs loaded onto it for [Customers and Border Protection] agents so they have all of this different info that they're trying to make decisions about in one place.”

Like the other centers of excellence at the agency, NCITE functions as outsourced research and development for DHS. NCITE’s research and technological solutions, if they fit DHS needs, will transition to DHS use.

“Theme two is suspicious activity reporting, or TSAR projects,” Ligon said. “When you think about what [DHS] was stood up for, it's really about collaboration across state, local and federal information sources and threat assessment at these different levels. What is the technology we can use to support individuals who are combining data from all these different levels of authorities to put together a clear assessment of the threat picture for our country?”

Ligon called the first two themes “really big data issues” that need data visualization. “All the different types of collection authorities … the answers are all there, it's really about our ability to streamline that information to what's relevant for the counterterrorism [officials] and their decisions," she added.

The third theme is all about preventing terrorism before it starts.

“One of the projects we have in this particular theme is federally incarcerated extremists and what happens when they're released back into society,” Ligon said. “It's a really challenging technical issue because once you've served your prison sentence, you can no longer be monitored. So this is more of a support to offer community resilience. It's such a rare and nuanced problem what type of extremists each community might have.”

Ligon is working on a project to evaluate what risk individuals incarcerated for violent extremism and terrorism pose to society upon release. Academics and the federal government haven’t studied this issue much in the past because domestic terrorism has a low base rate, she said.

Even though NCITE is brand new, Ligon is excited to get to work on this issue in particular because there’s such a strong need.

“We don't have a lot of good research done on this issue in the U.S.,” she said. “This is a new problem where I think academics can really help.”

NCITE’s partner in London, The King’s College, will supplement this research with social media analysis to see how foreign extremists and terrorists use social media to inspire and radicalize.

“Every team has a STEM member on it that's actually trying to translate these findings into algorithms, data analytics, machine learning,” Ligon said.

The NCITE team structure also feeds into the fourth NCITE theme: a focus on workforce development and encouraging more STEM individuals and computer scientists to pursue careers in the counterterrorism space.

“All of our teams have students on them, so we're inspiring the future workforce for DHS as well because they've gotten training on how to apply their STEM research to a DHS problem,” Ligon said. “That's the other thing the COEs do; they expose the best and brightest.”

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