Tufts University

High Stakes

Jebsen CenterWhen it comes to fighting terrorism, The Fletcher School's Jebsen Center for Counter-Terrorism Studies emphasizes predictive strategies over preemptive action.

"Imagine tomorrow, a nuclear device goes off in Cincinnati, Ohio." The frightening scenario is posed by Brig. Gen. Russell Howard (Ret.), whose Fletcher School office is full of papers and mementos from his 37 years of Army service. "Within 15 minutes, on one of three thousand Al Qaeda websites, they take responsibility for the attack. How do you retaliate?"

The question is one of the most challenging facing governments around the world today--how can you retaliate against an almost invisible opponent?--and there is no clear sense of how to answer it. "That," says Howard, "is why we have this center."

That center is The Fletcher School's Jebsen Center for Counter-Terrorism Studies, which Howard has directed since its inception in 2005. He previously directed the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy at West Point, which he launched in 2003.

The Jebsen Center distinguishes itself by a philosophy that maintains counter-terrorism should be predictive, preventive and preemptive, with the latter being a last resort. While Howard admits that prediction is a more difficult and potentially more risky approach, he believes it to be a valuable one.

"You can use soft power," he says. "You don't necessarily have to use military force to take care of the underlying causal factors of terrorist activity, so you don't have to be preemptive."

"I've always thought you should apply theory to practice in about everything I've done, which by the way is a Fletcher motto."

— Brig. Gen. Russell Howard (Ret)

Howard became interested in counter-terrorism studies after commanding a small counter-terrorist unit in the Pacific in the early 1980s. Howard wanted to complement his on-the-ground experience with a theoretical background, so he pursued graduate degrees in subjects ranging from Asian studies to public administration. He even took classes at Fletcher.

"It closed the loop on what you were doing, why you were doing it," says Howard. "You needed to know what the rationale of a terrorist was before you could teach people how to avoid becoming the hostage of a terrorist, and then what to do if you were. I've always thought you should apply theory to practice in about everything I've done, which by the way is a Fletcher motto."

The Jebsen Center came to Tufts as a result of a chance early-morning encounter in March 2005 at Boston's Logan Airport between Howard and his friend Richard Shultz, a professor of international politics at Fletcher who is now an advisor to the Center. Jan Henrik Jebsen, a Norwegian businessman and philanthropist, wanted to fund a study of counter-terrorism and wanted Howard to direct it. Jebsen provided a three-year, $1.5 million grant to launch the Center that fall.

Jebsen Center

Brig. Gen. Russell Howard (Ret)

Though it is relatively new, the Center is already making an impact. Dr. Zachary Abuza (MALD'94, PhD '98), a professor of political science at Simmons College in Boston, says it has shown prescience on issues such as women in terrorism and counter-terrorism in Africa. By supporting "niche work in understudied areas," he says, the Jebsen Center will continue stay ahead of the game.

"They're not going to be adding value to anyone by being a reactive think tank like all the others," says Abuza, an expert on Southeast Asian politics and a senior fellow at the Center. "I think Gen. Howard and the staff there are trying to think about what's down the pike, what aren't we thinking about."

'We're playing chess, they're playing poker'

The Jebsen Center's predictive approach has been apparent in its conferences, the most recent one a Feb. 28-29 event entitled "Countering Terrorism in Africa Through Human Security Solutions." Previous conferences such as "Women and Al Qaeda" and "Islam in Democratic Societies" reflect the Center's focus on issues in need of increased attention.

To that end, research--particularly field research--is at the heart of the Jebsen Center. Current projects include evaluating the social factors behind why people become suicide terrorists, as well as studying left-wing groups in Germany and radicalism in the Middle East. The Jebsen Center has supported nearly three dozen researchers to date who, according to Howard, "certainly have a better idea and a more realistic view of today's terrorism and what could potentially be done about it." (continued)

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Web Communications

Photos of Howard by Alonso Nichols for University Photography. Other images by Istockphoto.

This story originally ran on Mar. 10, 2008.