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Why Do Terrorists Target Colleges and Universities?

There are multiple theories for why campuses are being targeted.

The attack at the Ohio State University (OSU) campus on November 28, 2016 was not the first incident at a U.S. college or university classified by federal officials as being caused by radically inspired Islamist extremism. However, the attack using a car and knife as weapons reflected the latest terrorist strategy resulting in 12 victims directly injured by the attacker, among them students, faculty and staff.

In 2014 the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database noted the growing number of educational institutions worldwide that have been targeted in terrorist attacks over the previous 10 years. (See Terrorist Attacks Targeting Educational Institutions Worldwide, 1970-2013 chart above.)

The following year the BBC reported that, “Terror attacks on schools and colleges around the world have risen to higher levels than at any point in more than 40 years.”

According to another report by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), more than 3,400 terrorist attacks targeting educational institutions took place in 110 countries between 1970 and 2013. Top leaders in the FBI have issued warnings that schools and universities in the United States were vulnerable as soft targets for terrorism. The big question is, why?

Counterterrorism experts have put forward several reasons why terrorists of any stripe might target higher education institutions. Here are some of those theories.

1. Colleges and universities are iconic symbols of education, democracy and a free society. They represent and preserve culture and diversity in many forms. According to Jake Flanagan’s Why Terrorists Target Schools and Universities, outside of the United States, attacks aim to impede education and independent thought, counter religious activity perceived as a threat to ideology and preserve the status quo. Western style of education in the minds of some groups in the Middle East represents the domination of colonialism and channels for Christian religious proselytizing. According to Why Terrorists Attack Education by Naveed Hussain, this stands in contrast to the accepted Quranic-based schools in those areas of the world.

2. Colleges and universities are rich targets with infrastructure, research labs, medical facilities, art collections and historic buildings. High concentrations of faculty and students in outside venues occur at regular intervals during class changes.

3. Likewise, campuses host mass gatherings for sporting events, commencements, concerts and political events. Interruption of any of these would garner immediate and wide spread media attention for a cause.

4. Most campuses are open or have less security measures, making them ideal soft targets. It was a chance combination of circumstance, policy and training that caused Officer Alan Horujko to be at the right place at the right time to quickly resolve the attack on the OSU campus. For several years now, the OSU police division has the lowest ratio of armed, sworn police officers to students compared to benchmark and peer institutions, reports OSU’s The Lantern. There is no substitute for having an armed police officer nearby when a violent situation unfolds.

5. The number of foreign students attending U.S. colleges and universities is at an all-time high, reports the Los Angeles Times. China, India and Saudi Arabia send the most students, and those from Iran increased by about 8 percent from the year before with the highest U.S. enrollment of Iranian students in three decades.

It would be difficult to determine how many students are legal permanent residents such as the OSU attacker Abdul Razak Ali Artan, who was a Muslim, Somali refugee.

Of concern to some is the process for accepting foreign nationals into a U.S. university and how they are vetted. Once accepted, what support and services are offered on campus to assist foreign students with adjusting to American culture?

What systems are in place to assure they remain in school under terms of their visa, and what is the response if they become disenfranchised?

This is part of a larger article titled What Does Terrorism Look Like on a College Campus.

Rick Amweg and Paul Denton are staff consultants with Security Risk Management Consultants, LLC (SRMC) in Columbus, Ohio. Amweg served as the director of public safety administration and assistant police chief with OSU’s department of public safety, the director of campus safety and security for the Ohio board of regents, and executive director for the State of Ohio center for P-20 safety and security. Denton served 28 years with the Columbus division of police and in 2006 was appointed chief of OSU’s police division.

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