LOWELL – A team of UMass Lowell students, graduates and researchers working to stop young people from joining terrorist organizations has been awarded $1 million from the U.S. Department of Justice to support that goal.
Operation 250 – named for the number of Americans believed to have left the U.S. to join the Islamic State group (ISIS) when the venture launched in 2016 – was created by UMass Lowell students to teach youths, parents and educators how to recognize and avoid falling prey to radicals’ recruitment methods.
Originally, the UMass Lowell students behind the project built Operation 250 as an educational website while they were interning in UMass Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies (CTSS) for Assistant Prof. Neil Shortland, the center’s director. Today, it is a full-fledged nonprofit organization that educates the public about the dangers behind terrorist recruitment through its website, educational materials it provides to teachers and visits by its team members to schools and community groups.
Over the next two years, the $1 million grant from the Department of Justice will allow Operation 250 to expand and evaluate how effective it is in educating its various audiences.
Shortland will lead that study with Jason Rydberg, also an assistant professor of criminology at UMass Lowell.
“The two main goals of Op250 are increasing safety and decreasing risky decision-making online. Ultimately, we want a program that we can take anywhere,” Shortland said
Tyler Cote, an Operation 250 co-founder and 2017 UMass Lowell graduate, now works full time for the nonprofit as its director of education. He said the DOJ grant will help the organization ramp up its efforts.
“Now we can develop everything we’ve done tenfold. Most importantly, the grant involves us in going into classrooms, interacting with students, teachers and our community partners.” said Cote, a Clarksburg native who double-majored in criminal justice and political science as a member of UMass Lowell’s Honors College.
Other UMass Lowell alumni who helped launch and remain involved in Operation 250 include Jaime Keenan of Westford, Jonas Pierribia of Lowell and Danielle Thibodeau of Methuen. Nicolette San Clemente, a business administration major from Northborough who is Operation 250’s director of operations, headed its incorporation as a nonprofit and this summer, led a workshop in internet safety for Boston teens with Cote.
During the course of their research, Operation 250 team members will test how effective their educational materials are on hundreds of students at a Massachusetts high school. The team will then follow up and compare the online behavior of those who participate in Operation 250’s educational sessions to a group that does not receive the training.
The DOJ award is just the latest recognition for the organization. Last year, Operation 250 was a winner in a national competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that recognizes college students’ best new ideas in how to counter terrorism. Also in 2017, Operation 250 took home the top prize in UMass Lowell’s DifferenceMaker Program, through which students gain entrepreneurial skills and launch ventures in business and the community.