Bert Tussing
Bert Tussing
Image: Penn State

Terror threat renews focus on homeland security research and programs

The Christmas Eve 2009 suicide bombing attempt by an Al Qaeda operative on an air flight from Nigeria to Detroit has brought renewed focus nationwide on homeland security and terrorism issues. Penn State Harrisburg advisory board members were on campus recently to learn about faculty research and academic programs in some of these areas.

Bert Tussing of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle set the stage, outlining the challenges facing homeland security at the national level and highlighting the guiding principles of homeland security policy in the U.S. Key among these was resiliency — the ability of individuals, communities, and nations to rebound after catastrophic events.

Michael Kenney, Penn State Harrisburg associate professor of political science and public policy, said his research focuses on resiliency too, but from the "opposite side of the coin." He studies how "bad guys" — like drug traffickers and terrorists — learn and adapt. The process, he said, is similar for the good guys and the bad guys. "Illicit actors and government enforcement agents alike gather and analyze data about each other," he said, "and both sides adapt their practices in response to information and their experiences."

Kenney has conducted field work in Colombia, Israel, Britain, and Spain. His pursuit of first hand information — a personal interview with militant leader Anjem Choudary or a veteran drug broker with ties to the Medellin cartel — has led to some interesting encounters, such as when he tried to meet with Choudary in London. But this type of research is critical, he says, because much of what we know today about the operation of illicit actors is based on secondary sources such as news reports. "Insiders can inform our understanding and challenge existing interpretations," he said.

Along with collecting intelligence, protecting critical infrastructure is a homeland security priority, said James Powers, director of Pennsylvania's Office of Homeland Security. Passenger rail, for example, is the number one threat worldwide since 1992, he said.

College faculty members Jeremy Plant, professor of public policy and administration, and Richard Young, professor of supply chain management, study the safety of U.S. railways. Part of the challenge, according to Young, is the magnitude of the rail network. "There are 170,000 miles of track and more than 100,000 bridges and tunnels," Young said. "The U.S. moves 31 million freight cars annually, and Amtrak carries 25 million passengers each year."

Yet little or no screening of passengers or bags exists, and U.S. railroad police officers number just 2,300, Plant said. Also, rail is the preferred mode of hazardous materials transportation. Young's and Plant's research has pinpointed these and other rail system vulnerabilities, findings that Plant said highlight opportunities to shape public policy on rail safety.

Kenney agrees that faculty research informs policy-making. Equally valuable, he said, is what research adds to educating our students. According to Powers, graduates from programs emphasizing public policy and homeland security and defense will have a competitive advantage in a sizeable job market. "There are 108 congressional oversight committees for the Department of Homeland Security alone," he said. "They need people with policy backgrounds.... All things being equal, a person with this would get the job."

Additional Resources:
audio link Hear Dr. Michael Kenney on WITF's Radio SmartTalk January 11, 2010 broadcast: Tom Ridge and Penn State expert offer suggestions on fighting terrorism.
video link Kenney is the first fellow named to the Penn State collaborative International Center for the Study of Terrorism