A Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Combatting terrorism with data analytics


Combatting terrorism with data analytics

Q&A with Thomas Guarrieri

November 9, 2017Zane Moses

Spurred on by his family’s contributions to the fight against terrorism, Thomas Guarrieri uses his methodological training to further that mission.Photo of START Researcher THomas Guarrieri

“The policy-relevant research we conduct here at START takes on added importance to me since my brother is a sergeant in the Marines,” Guarrieri said. “The more that we can learn about terrorism through data, the better informed policy-makers will be in developing effective counterterrorism strategies.”

Before joining START’s Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division, Guarrieri taught terrorism, American foreign policy and international relations classes at the University of Missouri. His work currently surrounds the intersection of adversarial behavior and unconventional threats, such as chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons.

Guarrieri describes himself as a professionally oriented social scientist. He seeks to use his research to aid practitioners in the field.

How did you initially get involved with the study of terrorism?

After I graduated from Rutgers, I was planning on going to graduate school to study Philosophy. While I was an undergraduate, I wasn’t really too keen on statistics or really anything related to numbers for that matter. But, for my first job I needed to learn some economics. The more I learned about economics, the more I began to appreciate the power of statistics. So, I enrolled in a political science program and within my first semester I had grown to really enjoy quantitative methods. Then I took a terrorism seminar my second year and it became evident to me that this was what I wanted to study. There are so many puzzling, unanswered questions about extremist violence. I hope the research we’re doing at START can help mitigate this threat.

Are there any specific topics from your researching career that stand out to you? What was your favorite thing to research or write about?

Terrorism is a challenging subject to study because it’s not an enjoyable topic to spend time thinking about. But, I really enjoy the actual process of the research. In particular, statistical computing. Growing up, I loved reading popular science books on cosmology, the theory of relativity and the like. Once I got to graduate school and learned that you could apply the scientific method to study counterterrorism, I thought “wow, this is a pretty good fusion of my interests.” I really enjoy the process of developing a research design, thinking about how to measure concepts and coming up with innovative techniques for a project. I have a lot of fun using statistical computing programs like R and Stata. I’m always excited to learn new ways to analyze data and I like playing around with statistical graphics.

How have your research interests evolved over your career?

When I first started researching, I was primarily interested in how technological advancements affect counterterrorism.  I wanted to focus on drones, robotics and artificial intelligence. The issue was that there wasn’t much open source data available for the types of studies I envisioned. Then I read Audrey Cronin’s excellent book, “How Terrorism Ends,” and began to think about my research in terms of adversarial behavioral and my research began to shift in that direction.   

How has your work with START helped to advance your research interests?

My favorite thing about working at START is my colleagues. While my background is in political science, I’m constantly thinking about new approaches and methods to tackle research questions that require expertise across different disciplines. In UWT alone, we have a fantastic team of experts across a wide array of academic fields. If I think of a novel, interesting study to address a pressing question in counterterrorism and the scope requires in-depth knowledge of psychology or biology or military history or chemistry, all of which are outside of my area of expertise, all I need to do is walk down the hallway and I can float some of my ideas to my colleagues. The collaborative environment at START really allows me to pursue diverse avenues of research that I previously disregarded because I felt they were too ambitious or beyond my expertise. The atmosphere is tremendously creative and it’s pretty inspiring to work with people who are dedicated and passionate about their research.

Are there any topics you wish you could do in-depth research on that you haven’t already?

I’d like to spend more time examining the tactics and behavior of lone wolves. Much of my research up to this point has focused on terrorist organizations, treating groups of individuals as a single decision-making unit. But if you look at many of the more recent terrorist attacks, a lot of what we’re seeing are acts committed by individuals who are inspired by an ideology or movement. Even if groups like the Islamic State and the KKK aren't actively planning operations, there is still a serious domestic threat coming from violent extremists who are inspired by these groups. I’ve been spending more time thinking about why certain extremists would choose CBRN as opposed to conventional weapons. A CBRN attack at the hands of a lone actor might not kill as many people, but the psychological effects would be devastating. So, I’d like to put more thought into this.      

What are you working on now? What projects lie in the future for you?

Right now, my projects focus on the intersection of adversarial behavior and the use of CBRN weapons. For one project, I’m working with research teams at the University of Sydney and the University at Albany, State University of New York, to analyze how illicit networks might exploit security vulnerabilities to steal radiological materials. For this project, we’re only looking at Southeast Asia, so our UWT team is collecting data on the nuclear fuel cycles in the region, as well as information on criminal organizations. The hope is that what we learn can be useful for security officials in countries that are developing a nuclear infrastructure.

Another project I’m on is for the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office at DHS. The aim of the project is to develop an insider threat tool to help professionals in the aviation industry detect potential insider threats to air cargo aviation. The project has been on-going for a few years now, and my role is to assist with the validation of the algorithms used for the tool. Beginning in a few months, I’ll be working on another aviation related project funded by the Transportation Security Administration. Right now, our division is working on a project that will contribute to TSA’s internal vetting procedures. We’ll be extending these findings to different regions of the world once we’ve completed the work on the domestic effort. Our team in UWT is always trying to think of new, interesting projects to assist homeland security practitioners, so I’m sure there’ll be more on the horizon soon.   

What are your interests outside of your research? What do you do for fun?

Music is a pretty important part of my life. I play guitar in a few bands, and won’t hesitate to fly across the country to see one of my favorite artists in concert. My family is from Philadelphia so I’m a pretty devoted Philly sports fan. I played ice hockey for years, and then played roller hockey for Rutgers, so I try to get to a hockey rink as often as I can. I’m also a bit of a cinephile, and I have a great time visiting the historic theaters around the D.C.-area to catch a film.