Faculty Focus: Professor Fights Terrorism With Research, Collaboration
By Ashley Kilday, Contributing Writer
UHD Professor of Political Science Dr. Leena Thacker-Kumar recently finished a prestigious year-long fellowship working at the Bureau of Conflict Prevention and Stabilization within the U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington, D.C. This fellowship was granted by the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), a non-partisan think tank dedicated to informing the public about the foreign policy choices facing the U.S. and the world. The CFR fellowship is competitive and is offered to a few tenured faculty members who have demonstrated a track record of scholarly work on issues related to peace and security. The fellowship gives the faculty an opportunity to close the gap between their research and practical policy making.
According to Thacker-Kumar, “The fellowship was a chance to broaden my perspective on conflict mitigation, violence prevention, and peace building, and to connect my research to policy making. My research has focused on understanding the various facets of international terrorism and radicalization, including drivers of conflict and extremism, money laundering, terrorist financing, and counter-terrorism policies.”
During her fellowship, Thacker-Kumar worked on several projects building on her previous work on the Middle East to understand the drivers of conflict and violent extremism. One project related to the Global Fragility Act (GFA) in coastal west Africa, where the focus is on working with countries that were not in total turmoil but at an inflection point. This act provides funding for 10 years to five countries or regions that address and help mitigate the root causes of instability before the country faces a crisis. GFA “is a break from how the U.S. has previously conducted foreign policy. This is more of a proactive than a reactive strategy,” Thacker-Kumar said.
Another project Thacker-Kumar worked on was related to a relatively new Congressional initiative on atrocity prevention. “One of the keys to prevention and mitigation is understanding the drivers of violence.” she said. Thacker-Kumar noted that her project used feedback from those directly involved and impacted, saying that the programs are crafted after they “spoke to people who were in these countries to find out what issues they saw and how they felt we could best change things. It’s really a process of co-creation and talking to those on-mission in the countries,” she said.
The fellowship has been a great experience for Thacker-Kumar. “Working across agencies and attending interagency meetings (State Department, Department of Defense) provided invaluable exposure to the complex and intricate nature of policy-making and policy implementation” she said.
It not only furthered her research but also allowed her to leverage this experience for the benefit of her students and classroom teaching. “When I bring this experience into the classroom, I encourage my students to apply for internships because these experiences could be catalysts for their careers. I incorporate my experience into my lectures by giving my students real-world examples of policy implementation. I can see the lightbulbs going off as they make the connection. I’ve been exposed to a wider range of topics and areas, like Asia and Africa, and I think my students will benefit from understanding the process of policy-making and policy implementation,” noted Thacker-Kumar.
As for her current research work, Thacker-Kumar shared that she has received a grant to work on understanding the role of women in extremist organizations. Women are often thought of as victims of terrorist organizations, forced into joining and portrayed as having no agency. New research reveals an alarming trend of increasing numbers of women joining these organizations, and far from being incidental, women are often a mainstay in these groups. Yet there is real gap in the literature in understanding this trend, according to Thacker-Kumar. “This was clear in my research as well as in my conversations with the Department of State, USAID, United Nations, and the Asser Institute in The Hague, where officials and researchers pointed out that further research in this area is needed. Women often join extremist organizations willingly and play several key roles, including as recruiters, propagandists, organizers, and fundraisers,” she explained. Her paper on this subject has been accepted for presentation at the American Political Science Association.
Thacker-Kumar believes that understanding global affairs is key to understanding and being an effective participant in a democracy. “You can see the transnational nature of many of the issues we face in the U.S. Some issues that will become central relate to cyber security, artificial intelligence, media, migration and internally displaced people as well as climate change,” she said, referencing the nexus of conflict and climate change as seen with the severe droughts in Western Africa that have displaced millions of people. “All this puts more and more strain on the limited resources these countries have and a need for other countries to step in to help. Countries tend to look inward, but you cannot solve these problems by looking inward. We need to come up with a collective way to deal with these issues,” she said.
Despite the challenges, Thacker-Kumar is excited about her projects and her research. “The fellowship was a unique and transformative experience, and I’ve brought a lot back to share with the University and at conferences. I’m excited to see where it leads me next."
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates more than 15,000 students, boasts more than 64,000 alumni, and offers 46 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities & Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences & Technology. For the fourth consecutive year, U.S. News & World Report ranks UHD among universities across the nation for Best Online Criminal Justice Programs (No. 27 and No. 15 for Veterans) and Best Online Bachelor’s Programs. UHD has the most affordable tuition among four-year universities in Houston and one of the lowest in Texas. U.S. News ranked the University among Top Performers on Social Mobility and awarded UHD a No. 1 ranking as the most diverse institution of higher education in the southern region of the U.S. The University is noted nationally as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, Minority-Serving Institution, and Military Friendly School. For more on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit www.uhd.edu.