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Omaha conference explores new terror threats

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Terrorists and extremists are evolving, finding new and ingenious ways to attack our nation and its infrastructure.

Academics — including some here in Omaha — are evolving their own new ways to keep up and stop them.

That was one theme of “Envision 22,” the annual conference of the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology and Education Center last week in Omaha.

About 150 experts and students from 13 states plus Washington, D.C., and Great Britain attended the two-day event, which wrapped up Friday at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. It was the first in-person conference for the counterterrorism center, which is primarily funded by the Department of Homeland Security and is now in its third year.

“The world has become a more dangerous place,” said UNO Chancellor Joanne Li, welcoming the visitors. “You are here to help us stay ahead of the curve, ahead of danger.”

The center’s director, Gina Ligon, said UNO beat out high-profile universities on both coasts to land NCITE.

“We’re trying to establish ourselves out of the Beltway,” she said. “We have people here who aren’t necessarily the usual players, working together to solve these problems.”

It won’t be easy.

In earlier eras, terrorism typically involved organized groups with defined ideologies, said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

In the 1970s, violent extremism was typically associated with the far left, while in the 1980s and ‘90s, the far right rose up. In the 2000s, the focus shifted to international jihadist groups, Hughes noted. Today the far right is back.

When groups are driving terrorism, police agencies can monitor and infiltrate them.

“(Law enforcement) is inherently drawn to take these groups down,” Hughes said.

But in the internet era, the groups are loosely organized and decentralized — even “ephemeral,” said Martha Crenshaw, director of the Mapping Militants Program at Stanford University.

“You can belong to a group simply by following it online,” she said.

Some operate in concert, but with no formal leadership.

“These groups are very fluid. It’s often difficult to discern the borders between them. We read about them, they have a name, and then they disappear.”

Some terrorists are self-radicalized loners, borrowing bits and pieces from various extremist ideologies.

Others are drawn by the lure of something like celebrity. Hughes called it the “Joker effect.”

“They don’t subscribe to ideologies,” he said. “They just want to rack up a count.”

And as ideologies mutate and proliferate, terrorists have new tools and new targets to choose from, said Austin Doctor, a UNO assistant professor of political science who leads NCITE’s counterterrorism research initiatives.

These include cyberattacks on government facilities and hospitals. Agriculture is vulnerable because of its new reliance on satellite technology, Doctor said. So is the cutting-edge “metaverse,” which unites elements of the internet in a new immersive world of virtual reality.

“The violent extremists of all stripes have a growing number of tools at their disposal,” Doctor said. “Terrorist attacks on critical infrastructure have taken a front-row seat.”

Joshua Geltzer, President Joe Biden’s deputy Homeland Security adviser, praised the NCITE researchers during a video appearance from the White House for developing new methods to counter violent extremists.

“Our government is trying to adapt, and be nimble,” he said. “We in government depend on research to inform our efforts.”

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