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

Banner year for Gary LaFree

START Director returns to classroom as he continues making strides in his field

Gary LaFree, START Director and Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland, characterized his year as “bursty,” a term that is used to describe phenomena that are highly concentrated in time and space. Between 2015 and 2016, LaFree published seven refereed research articles, co-authored two books, and wrote five book chapters. Continuing his momentum, LaFree has published two books so far this year with another book and three book chapters forthcoming. As if that were not enough, he has also returned to the classroom this spring semester.

It has been 12 years since LaFree last taught undergraduates in a formal classroom setting. This semester, he is teaching 25 UMD juniors and seniors in a seminar in Criminology and Criminal Justice called “Causes and Consequences of Terrorism.”

“It felt like the right time to get back in the classroom,” LaFree said. “I have been able to continue working with undergraduate students through START’s flagship internship program, but there is something special too about teaching a course and introducing students to new concepts and ways of thinking.”

The course approaches terrorism from a criminological perspective and covers major theories of radicalization, terrorism and political violence, in addition to trends and patterns of worldwide terrorism.

A lot has changed since he last taught. Technology now plays an even larger role in the classroom setup and all of his students take notes on laptops. LaFree is appreciative of how these changes are shaping his teaching. He is able to incorporate more journal articles than he could in the past, giving students an in-depth look at research that supplements the larger picture provided by textbooks.

LaFree also bridges the gaps between in-depth research and big picture studies in his recent publications. With “Putting Terrorism in Context: Insights from the Global Terrorism Database,” which he co-authored with Laura Dugan and Erin Miller, he emphasized in-depth statistical analysis.

While the GTD book plays to his statistical side, his new book with Martha Crenshaw, “Countering Terrorism” addresses big picture policy issues.

“We have made great strides in how we understand and research terrorism, but there is still more to be done to understand and advance the study of counterterrorism,” LaFree said. “Our goal was to push for defensible science and transparent research that could benefit policymakers working on counterterrorism efforts.”

For those aspiring to follow in LaFree’s footsteps, he recommends taking the time to become an expert in one specific area. In his 40 years of experience researching violent crime, homicide and terrorism, he has done almost all his work using three databases, most recently the Global Terrorism Database (which he founded with Laura Dugan). He said it has been advantageous to spend time getting to know the data and fields thoroughly. He also emphasized the importance of face-to-face interaction.

“While technology has been great for research and learning in so many ways, it’s still important to get out from behind your computer and talk to people,” LaFree said. “So many collaborations have been inspired by a conversation over coffee or a random interaction at a conference or workshop.”

Looking to the future, LaFree is pursuing several projects at the moment, including a project on the impact of global warming on piracy and another on the religiosity of groups and their support (or lack thereof) of violence.