Since 2014, researchers at the University of Nebraska at Omaha have collected more than 7.2 million social media posts from al-Qaida, the so-called Islamic State and other extremist groups operating around the world.
Accompanying those posts are often instruction manuals written in English, with directions on how to build an explosive device, conduct a low-tech terrorist attack, or to conceal one’s activities online.
It’s a technique Gina Ligon, an associate professor of management at UNO, calls “malevolent innovation,” or the creation of increasingly novel techniques designed to raise the profile of an extremist group or to inspire attacks in their name.
Terrorist groups have weaponized social media against Americans — even Nebraskans living in the most rural reaches of the state, Ligon said — by reaching them where they live.
Ligon said while researchers have spilled barrels of ink describing the phenomenon, their work hasn’t always reached the eyes and ears of the men and women charged with preventing those attacks from occurring on American soil.
Through the efforts of the National Strategic Research Institute, set up by the University of Nebraska to offer its suite of academic research capabilities to U.S. Strategic Command, the work of Ligon and others has been elevated.
After 17 years of studying violent and extremist organizations, Ligon said only after NU established its University Affiliated Research Center had she briefed the National Security Council, Joint Chiefs of Staff and Department of Homeland Security on her work.
“Having this partnership allows researchers at the University of Nebraska to showcase our researchers in ways we wouldn’t have access to without it,” Ligon said on Wednesday. “It allows us to get our findings into the hands of war fighters who need it and can do something about it.”
The National Strategic Research Institute announced the renewal of its five-year contract with the Air Force on Wednesday, signaling a $92 million investment from the Department of Defense into research being done across NU.
"This is a recognition from the highest levels of government that we are doing a timely, relevant and vital research in the national interest," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Bob Hinson, who has led the research institute since its inception in 2012.
"It is a signal that the Department of Defense trusts the University of Nebraska to do some of the nation's most important work, ultimately keeping our men and women in uniform safe," he added.
The work covers a broad scope of topics all under one umbrella: combating weapons of mass destruction.
To that end, nearly 250 faculty, researchers and students have worked on 84 institute projects since its founding, leading efforts to develop a life-saving treatment for individuals who have suffered traumatic lung injuries, advancing methods for detecting explosive compounds to better protect military and civilian lives, and producing training modules for personnel deployed to infectious disease hotspots around the world.
Mario Scalora, a professor of psychology at UNL, has studied the shift in threat deterrence, which during the Cold War involved dissuading opponents' aggression toward American interests and encouraging restraint during times of conflict, to a more complicated model that has to account for non-state actors.
"It has to broaden to accommodate and address a wide array of potential threats and actors, both internally and internationally," he said.
As part of research institute, Scalora and colleagues consult STRATCOM military planners on evidence-backed behavioral science to assist them in their decision-making processes as they monitor threats all around the world.
Hinson said while some of the $92 million grant will continue the work of Ligon and Scalora, "it also opens the aperture a bit for new research opportunities."
As one example, Dr. Ken Bayles, the University of Nebraska Medical Center's associate vice chancellor for basic research, said NSRI is now in a position to push a new paradigm for antibiotic development in the U.S.
The institute gives researchers "a seat at the table at the federal government level," and the leverage the contract renewal gives the institute will allow Nebraska researchers to collaborate with government and pharmaceutical companies to develop new treatments for diseases.
"You haven't seen anything yet," Bayles said.