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Probing the roots of terror

The attacks of 9/11 galvanized a phalanx of scholars to dissect terrorism from every angle. What they've learned so far may surprise you.

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It was a bright September day, yet Claude Berrebi felt unsettled, an odd mix of apprehension and exuberance familiar to new graduate students with a lot of decisions to make.

He was glad, though, to be sure of one thing: His doctoral research at Princeton University would focus on the economic impact of special-education programs. It was a solid subject, Mr. Berrebi knew, but it was to be a short-lived certainty.

While he was eating breakfast, an airliner struck a New York skyscraper 50 miles away - and then another. As he watched on TV, tears welling in his eyes, he began to think: What could he do?

For Berrebi and a growing cadre of academicians, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have acted as a catalyst, giving a new urgency to their research and steering them in unexpected directions.

Though American higher education sports a well-deserved reputation as aloof from current events, some say the ivory towers' research community this time is responding.

In the days and weeks since 9/11, what they have learned about the roots and branches of terrorist organizations has at times buttressed conventional wisdom - and more often defied it.

Who knew, for example, that so many terrorists came from the ranks of the middle class? Or that between 1980 and 2000 the annual rate of suicide bombings multiplied by more than 700 percent?

Early on, the university response was primarily cathartic: campus town-hall meetings, candlelight vigils, forums. Then came courses with "terrorism" in the title. Soon, government dollars began flowing

to hard-science labs on campuses to develop technologies for homeland security. More gradually, terrorism is gaining attention in the "soft sciences" - geography, psychology, economics, political science, history. The focus is the elusive "why" that explains the root causes of terrorism.

Clearly, most researchers have not altered their plans; they are locked into studies that took years to develop. Others have felt terrorism is not fundamental to their studies.


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