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Fall 2013

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Fighting TerrorismBookmark and Share

By Rick Davis


Laura Kapustka had just finished her second Boston Marathon when she heard the explosions. “I will never forget the sound of it,” she says from her home in Lincoln, Neb., where she is vice president and CFO for Lincoln Electric System. It shakes you all the way through.”

Kapustka, 2011-12 chairman of the board of the UNO Alumni Association and a two-degreed grad (BSBA, ’84; MBA ’91), had crossed the finish line of the 26.2-mile course in 3 hours, 59 minutes.

Ten minutes later — as she was collecting her commemorative medal and foil runner’s blanket — the first of two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the finish line on Boylston Street.

“It was very, very loud,” says Kapustka, who was about two blocks away from the blast. “I remember looking at the other people around me, and everybody just kind of had this puzzled look on their face.”

Thirteen seconds later, the second bomb exploded.

Some people around Kapustka suggested that the noise was from scaffolding falling.

“I thought it was too loud for scaffolding, but after you run 26 miles, you don’t process things real clearly.”

Kapustka walked to pick up her gear bag when see saw a wave of people running toward her.

“They were just yelling, ‘Run, run, run!’ At that point, I was like, ‘Oh my God, is this like 9/11?”

She ran. Worried. Worried about runners possibly getting trampled in the chaos. Worried about another attack. Worried if she should cover her mouth to protect herself from possible ashes falling from the sky, like during 9/11. Worried about her husband, who was a spectator at the finish line.

After a few blocks, the crowd began to disperse. Kapustka stepped inside a building to put on some cover-up clothes, check her cell phone and collect her thoughts.

A text-message informed her of the bombing. But she still hadn’t heard from her husband. “I just stood there for awhile, because I needed to figure out where he was.”

She began walking to the family meeting area — race volunteers helping her with directions along the way.

“It was like a two-block walk. But that was probably the longest walk of my life.”

The meeting areas were aligned alphabetically. At the “K” section, she found her husband — safe. “It was a very tearful reunion when we both saw each other.”


How safe are we?

Three people were killed and more than 260 injured during the April 15 Boston Marathon terrorist attack.

One of the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, would be killed after an exchange of gunfire with police shortly after midnight on April 19 in Watertown, Mass. His brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the second of two suspects, was captured by law enforcement later that evening.

Investigators say the brothers were motivated by extremist Islamic beliefs but were not acting with known terrorist groups. The surviving brother pleaded not guilty in July to 30 charges stemming from the bombing.

UNO professor Patrick O’Neil says he was impressed with the speed at which the suspects were identified and the manhunt unfolded.

“If you take a look at the technology that was used to visually replicate the scene, that was pretty impressive,” says O’Neil, a retired career Naval officer who now oversees the new emergency management degree program at UNO.

“They went through all these various ATM cameras, traffic cams and security cameras in the buildings to put together the scene. The technology is available to quickly react.”

O’Neil holds a master’s degree in strategic studies and national security from the Naval War College and a Ph.D. in public administration from UNO (2008). He also a is former Navy carrier pilot, having flown the EA-6B Prowler used in electronic warfare such as jamming enemy radar and gathering radio intelligence from the skies.

In the wake of the Boston bombings, he’s asked, how safe are we from terrorist attacks in post-9/11 America?

O’Neil says looking at our critical infrastructure from a macro level, the United States is “extremely well advanced” in the aviation area.

“But when you start looking at 140,000 to 150,000 miles of rail, 200,000 miles of pipeline, thousands of miles of electrical transmission lines, some 80,000 dams, as well as bridges …

“If you look at the environment as an aggregate threat list, or a potential hazard list, it’s impressive. On the other hand, our resources are not infinite, so you have to make some really good choices and try to prioritize as best as possible.”

One area O’Neil says is critical in the fight against terrorism — and a hot-button issue lately — is the gathering of information.

“We’ve gotten a lot better at collecting information both domestically and in partnerships internationally on groups and individuals that would likely try to do us harm,” he says.

“Of course the down side to this is, since you don’t really know who the potential perpetrators are, you’re in the general data-collection business. And that gets into some pretty touchy areas.”

For instance, the recent news that the National Security Agency is collecting the phone data of American citizens — a once-secret practice revealed among the documents leaked by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Opponents of the program say it infringes on Americans’ civil liberties.

Proponents say it has helped thwart terrorist attacks — including, says Gen. Keith Alexander, NSA director and commander of U.S. Cyber Command, a 2009 al-Qaida plot to attack New York City subways “that would have been the biggest event in the United States since 9/11.”


The structure of terrorism

Gina Ligon, an assistant professor of management at UNO, is looking at terrorism from a different angle — in terms of business and leadership.

She is the lone business professor conducting research through the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) — a University of Maryland-based research center supported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

She has been at UNO for just a year, but has been researching the “business of terrorism” for 12 years.

Her work involves studying 45 different “violent ideological organizations” in the United States and abroad — from the Ku Klux Klan to al-Qaida — and comparing their organizational structures and leadership to non-violent ideological organizations and more conventional, corporate organizations.

She is especially interested in the ability of organizations to facilitate creativity or innovation — which, for terrorist organizations, she classifies as unexpected or novel attacks.

“Leaders for innovation in for-profit companies often encourage outside collaboration and job rotations. They provide autonomy to employees to explore ideas. In terrorist organizations, we found the opposite. The ones that are more rigid and controlling of their people actually produced more malevolently innovative results.”

She also found that the “overwhelming majority” of leaders of violent groups use violent themes and punishment for control — rather than “traditional motivation strategies such as individualized consideration and structure” — and are not as supportive or open with their top management as in non-violent organizations.

“This has a lot of implications for succession planning,” Ligon says. If that leader is imprisoned, killed or removed from power, she explains, that organization “is going to be very vulnerable because that leader often has not shared power. Continuity of operations is scant under these leaders during times of change. ”

She also has analyzed terrorist groups in terms of conventional marketing theories around notoriety, while collaborating with colleague Mike Breazeale, an assistant professor of marketing at UNO. For instance, in the for-profit world, when a company makes Fortune magazine’s “most admired” list, they generally have an easier time recruiting new employees. In marketing lingo, it enhances their brand.

So what happens among terrorist organizations? “It’s the same thing, but the ‘third-party endorser’ differs.” Ligon says. That “third-party endorsement” could come from another terrorist group, or even the U.S. government — for example, being placed on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

“Once they get recognized by a third party as a viable group, their recruiting goes up, their fundraising goes up.”

So, what does this all mean for U.S. counter-terrorism efforts? Ligon hopes her research can eventually identify early-warning indicators about up-and-coming terrorists groups — and organizational and leadership weaknesses that could be exploited.


Writing the book on terror

For many Americans, “terrorism” became part of our national psyche following the attacks of 9/11, which claimed nearly 3,000 lives. So who were the 9/11 attackers?

Perhaps no one is better suited to answer that question than UNO graduate and veteran journalist Terry McDermott.

The Iowa native joined the Air Force at 17 and served in Vietnam. After returning from service, he was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb., and began taking courses at UNO. He earned an undergraduate degree in journalism (1975) and a graduate degree in urban studies (1977).

After graduating, he worked at papers in Iowa, Oregon and Washington, before landing a job as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times in 1998.

“The guy sitting next to me in the newsroom was (award-winning journalist) Josh Meyer, who was covering terrorism,” McDermott recalls. “And everybody kind of laughed at him: `You’re wasting your time; nobody cares about this crap.’

“And then 9/11 happened. And for the next five years, that’s all I did was cover terrorism.”

At the end of September 2001, McDermott’s editor asked him to write about Mohamed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker.

“The assignment was to go wherever I needed to go, and to stay as long as I needed to stay,” McDermott says.

McDermott would travel to Germany and almost every country in the Middle East over the next several years.

At the time, the conventional assumption was that Bin Laden and Atta were the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks, McDermott says. “But he (Atta) was just a volunteer,” he says. “So you start wondering, who’s above him? So we went looking for that in-between.”

McDermott’s reporting and subsequent investigations became the subject of two books: “Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It” (2005) and “The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed” (2012), which he co-authored with his Los Angeles Times colleague Meyer.

McDermott says it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who first pitched the 9/11 plot to Bin Laden as early as 1996. “Bin Laden thought it was too complicated and kind of crazy,” he says. “But by 1998, they had refined it enough that he (Bin Laden) gave his blessing to it and agreed to fund it.

“But it was KSM who dreamed the whole thing up. He managed the whole thing, from A to Z. I’m almost certain that if Bin Laden had been captured before 9/11 or killed, the plot would have gone forward. But if KSM had been captured or killed, it would have stopped. He was the prime mover.”

While the profile of Atta went excruciatingly slow at first, McDermott was eventually able to interview Atta’s college roommates in Hamburg, Germany, then people at the Mosque he attended there, and Atta’s family, among others.

Atta, like most of the hijackers, came from a middle-class family and was not particularly religious when he traveled to Hamburg for college, McDermott says. Hamburg’s cold and rainy environment, however, could be an “isolating place for young kids from the dessert.”

“It’s pretty obvious that they would seek other (Middle Eastern) people,” he says. “And the easiest place to find people is at the mosque.”

Atta began attending the al-Quds mosque. “It was a radical place,” McDermott says.

“When I first went there, I was scared to death,” he says. “I had heard about this horrible place. And I go there, and it’s like a clubhouse. It was warm and inviting and friendly. You could just see the shelter that it would give somebody. And then you listen to the sermons, and it’s a whole different story.”

McDermott Photo by Chelsea Sektnun


Back to Boston

Terrorism, at its root, involves intimidation.

That’s why Laura Kapustka, the runner, hopes to be back for the Boston Marathon next year.

“If I can get in, I’m going back,” she says. “I want to show the world that what the terrorists are trying to accomplish is not going to happen. And I really think next year’s Boston turnout is going to be bigger than ever.”

What is Terrorism?

While there is no one authoritative definition, START (for its Global Terrorism Database) and the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP, for its 2012 Global Terrorism Index) describe terrorism as:

The threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.

Teaching to fight information terror at UNO

Did you know that UNO is home to the Nebraska University Center for Information Assurance — which is considered a national center of excellence by the U.S. National Security Agency?

James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, told Congress in March that when it comes to identifying national security threats faced by the United States, “our statement this year leads with cyber and it’s hard to overemphasize it significance.”

Hesham Ali, dean of UNO’s College of Information Science & Technology, which oversees the center, agrees it’s a critical issue.

“Information security is considered by many to be one of the main challenges of our generation,” Ali writes on the center’s website. “Properly addressing Information security concerns is critical not only to economic prosperity but also to national security, and UNO’s information assurance program is regarded as one of the best in the country.”

The center hosted (virtually and on campus) the 2008 International Cyber Defense Workshop, which attracted 100 individuals from 15 countries.

For more on the center, visit


More reading

McDermott isn’t the only UNO connect to have written on terrorism.

Dean Olson, a 1985 UNO criminal justice major, in 2012 authored “Tactical Counterterrorism: The Law Enforcement Manual of Terrorism Prevention and the 2009 book Perfect Enemy: The Law Enforcement Manual of Islamist Terrorism.” Professor John Crank in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice is the author of “Counter-terrorism After 9/11: Justice, Security, and Ethics Reconsidered.”

Terror in the United States — who’s responsible?

Which terrorist organization was responsible for the most attacks on U.S. soil between 2001 and 2011? According to data from START, it was the Earth Liberation Front — ELF — a radical environmental group linked to 50 terrorist attacks in the United States during the decade. They were followed by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), which was linked to 34 attacks.


Weapons used

Of the more than 2,600 terrorist attacks in the U.S. between 1970 and 2011, most relied on readily available, unsophisticated weaponry. Incendiary devices and explosives were the weapons of choice in 81 percent of terrorist attacks in the United States from 1970 to 2011. The top targeted U.S. cities since 1970? New York (430 attacks) and Los Angeles (103 attacks). (Source: START)


Terrorism by the numbers

•  The number of terrorist attacks worldwide has increased fourfold since 2002; however, the number of annual deaths from terrorist attacks has decreased 25 percent from 2007 to 2012.

•  North America is the region of the world least likely to suffer from a terrorist attack, followed by Western Europe and Latin America. (2002-2011)

•  Private citizens and property (29%), government facilities (17%) and police (14%) are the three most common targets of terrorist attacks. (2002-2011)

•  Terrorist attacks are highly concentrated in relatively few places; 35 percent of terrorist attacks worldwide from 2002 to 2011 occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan.

•  While, in 2011, 91 percent of the terrorist attacks were successful, more than half of terrorist attacks since 1970 have involved no fatalities.

•  Nearly all terrorist attacks between 2002-2011 involved 10 or fewer terrorists.

•  Nearly 75 percent of terrorist organizations last for less than one year — gauged by the time of their first strike to their last known strike.

(Sources: START and IEP 2012 Global Terrorism Index)


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