UNO professor speaks about overseas and domestic terrorism

Dr. Ligon poses with students in Washington D.C. in 2017. They participated in a Facebook event about violent online extremism. Photo courtesy of Dr. Gina Ligon

Greg Staskiewicz

Curiosity is one of the greatest drivers of human history. Without it we never would have left footprints on the moon or mapped our genome.

The Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center (CEC) at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) kicked off its monthly Curious People series Oct. 17. The second event will be Nov. 7. The series gives UNO faculty members a chance to share the ideas they are most curious about.

Gina Ligon, an associate professor of management and collaboration science, with affiliate appointments in criminology, information technology innovation and industrial and organizational psychology, was the first to speak for the series. She researches both overseas and domestic terrorism and talked about how people become homegrown terrorists.

Ligon works in several colleges with students from several different majors. This is useful, she said, because different perspectives allow researchers and students to think about terrorism from their own angle.

“The thing about studying terrorism is that you need people from all different backgrounds, because it’s such a complex issue,” Ligon said.

The three brands of terrorism she studies include radical rightist groups like neo-Nazis and white nationalists, radical leftist groups such as eco-terrorists and animal liberation groups. The third is salafism, a radical branch of Islam that advocates jihad.

These types of terrorism have more commonalities than differences because they use similar tactics, justify violence and mobilize resources in the same ways.

“From an organizational perspective, they’re just in different industries, if you will, but they’re all the same kind of organization,” Ligon said.

She also works for the Radicalization and Violent Extremism division at UNO’s Center for Collaboration Science, an initiative studying interdisciplinary issues.

Ligon is trained in management and organizational psychology, where much of her research deals with the leaders of terrorist organizations and how they attract and radicalize followers.

“Of all my research, one of the things I’ve wrestled with is why someone in the United States, who lives here, like a U.S. resident, a citizen, why they would engage in an act of terrorism against their country because some group from overseas told them to do it,” Ligon said.

Ligon and her colleagues analyze the way these leaders radicalize people from overseas by looking at terrorist organizations’ magazines, websites and propaganda.

The researchers also look at why people might be vulnerable to such messages. According to Ligon, social unrest is one spur to join terrorist organizations.

“There’s a lot of social unrest in America right now, a lot of uncertainty,” Ligon said. “So, what they [terrorist organizations] do to try to get people to come to their side is show that their side is in the right, that their side is the one that you should follow for security.”

The Department of Homeland Security commissioned Ligon and her colleagues to write forensic biographies of 261 recent domestic terrorists, such as the San Bernardino and Pulse nightclub shooters, in order to learn about what motivates them.

The biographies include public documents such as court records and news articles. Their work helps people who work to prevent domestic terrorism by giving them a better understanding of what kind of individuals are vulnerable to becoming radicalized.

Ligon recently spoke to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) about terrorist profiles in order to help TSA officials more skillfully watch for terrorists, as well as to avoid hiring them. Hiring a terrorist could cause “tremendous harm” to the United States.

Despite a common public perception, Ligon believes that terrorism is not as much of a threat as it used to be. Many plots have been stopped and there are far more resources invested in countering terrorism than before, she said.

Seventy-three percent of Americans rate defense against terrorism the most important policy priority, according to a Pew Research Center report published Sept. 11. This priority has remained at the top for Americans since the 9/11 attacks.

There have been no salafist-inspired terror attacks in Nebraska, but the state hosts five known white supremacist groups.

Four of them are neo-Nazi groups and the other is a white nationalist group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map. It shows the locations and names of many different kinds of hate groups all over the United States.

Ligon said it is important for people to understand that these kinds of organizations are terroristic too, just like jihadists.

“I guess I’m just so very lucky to be in a position at UNO where my results are able to be shared with the government so that we can help solve real problems associated with it,” Ligon said.