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Study finds southern Illinoisans have experiences that could lead to domestic terrorism

Political science professors Laurie Rice and Suranjan Weeraratne present their study's findings on Monday, Feb. 12 on Southern Illinois University Edwardsville's campus.
Howard Ash
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Marketing and Communications
Political science professors Laurie Rice and Suranjan Weeraratne present their study's findings on Feb. 12 on Southern Illinois University Edwardsville's campus.

A study by political scientists at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville found that southern Illinois residents reported higher levels of experiences shared by domestic terrorists than the national average.

The study found that people in southern Illinois reported higher levels of adult bullying and life difficulties, like losing a job or relationship. The higher incidence of the two potential risk factors could make people more likely to become radicalized and commit domestic terrorism, said Laurie Rice, an SIUE professor who is one of the study's authors.

“There's some things that give us a lot of pause and concern: There are the presence of clear risk factors, and there are people in our communities that support violence,” Rice said. “On the other hand, we do have some protective factors working in our favor that help prevent the likelihood of violence, and we can work to build those further.”

The research also found that southern Illinois residents are more likely to interact with their peers than people in other states, which could help prevent domestic terrorism. But the researchers say the study points to the need for people to speak up about what they see in their communities.

“If you see something, I think it’s beholden upon all of us to say something — even if you’re not 100% sure,” said Suranjan Weeraratne, also an SIUE political science professor and study co-author.

Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships, the professors surveyed 750 residents across 41 counties in the southern part of the state from last April to June. The researchers also surveyed 2,000 residents in other states.

The study found that more than 7% of respondents reported regularly experiencing adult bullying, compared to nearly 4% people in other states. More than 16% reported regularly experiencing achieving life difficulties, compared to about 12% in the other U.S. states.

One graphs show how southern Illinoisans reported experiencing more bullying that others in different U.S. states. A second graph shows how those who report adult bullying are more likely to support targeted violence.
Laurie Rice and Suranjan Weeraratne
The SIUE professors surveyed 750 residents across 41 counties in the southern part of the state from last April to June. The researchers also surveyed 2,000 residents in other U.S. States.

“That is a little concerning,” Weeraratne said. “But it also gives us a blueprint for action because we know that there is a segment of the population who are facing all kinds of challenges.”

Risk factors are not necessarily predictive, the professors said, meaning many community members may have these characteristics but pose no threat of terrorism or targeted violence.

Other potential risk factors include residents being excluded in their community, having mental health problems or committing crimes.

Illinoisans south of Springfield also reported slightly higher rates than those in other states of being exposed to extreme content online — like hate speech and conspiracy theories — which can lead others down the path to radicalization.

A higher portion of southern Illinoisans are more likely to have social interaction with their peers. That’s what the researchers call a protective factor, something that helps prevent a person from becoming radicalized. Other protective factors include having self-esteem and access to resources that would address trauma and mental health issues.

“We have clear data, clear evidence in southern Illinois, that the more social interaction that you have, the more you'll get exposed to different viewpoints, different perspectives — and your whole outlook on life might change accordingly,” Weeraratne said.

Between 15% and 20% of respondents in southern Illinois reported that making threats against elected officials or the opposing political party and violence to achieve a political ideology are justifiable, according to the study. The national average is similar, the professors said.

People in southern Illinois also reported seeing more homophobia and white supremacy in their communities than the national average, the professors said. But they reported less misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia than people in other states.

The professors said they suspect there would have been more anti-Semitism and Islamophobia reported had they started their research after the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

Federal officials have observed a growing number of domestic terrorism events over the past 15 years.

Violence motivated by race or ethnicity makes up the greatest share of those events, at 35%. Anti-government or anti-authority violence is the second-largest category at 32%, according to data compiled by the federal Government Accountability Office.

Academic research regarding domestic extremism shows that communities that experience such an event often later learn that people close to the perpetrator had suspicions. In 80% of domestic terrorism cases, the suspects broadcast their intent prior to committing violence, according to the National Institute of Justice.

“If people are proactive when they hear something that's concerning, we can help keep our community safer,” Rice said.

There are local organizations like the Center for Racial Harmony in Belleville and Edwardsville Unity that can help educate their communities about nonviolent beliefs, she said. Life After Hate, a Milwaukee-area nonprofit, helps the families of those who’ve become radicalized and transition members of extremist groups away from them.

The professors will deliver another public presentation on SIUE’s campus from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. March 19 in Student Success Center Room 0200. They also plan to present their findings to local law enforcement.

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.