THE MAGAZINE

New Life for Terror Databases

By Joseph Straw

In 1970, when terrorism was still a new concept to much of the world, RAND Corp. scholar Brian Michael Jenkins began cataloging on 3x5-inch index cards open-source data about attacks. They would eventually form the think tank’s Terrorism Chronology.

The chronology would move to an early searchable electronic database at RAND in the 1980s, then to Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, and later to Oklahoma City’s Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT).

Beginning in 2004 at MIPT, RAND’s data, along with a database of FBI-prosecuted U.S. cases and a third dataset on roughly 400 terrorist organizations, would form the MIPT’s Terrorism Knowledge Base (TKB).

Together, the TKB’s assemblage of 29,000 incidents, 900 group profiles, and more than 1,000 individual biographies became a highly valued—and free—searchable resource for scholars and professionals around the globe.
But early in 2008, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) pulled funding for the project, and the TKB was shut down. Since then, neither RAND’s data nor MIPT’s information has been available to the public.

While DHS ended its funding of TKB, it continues to fund another terrorism database, the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) at University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), which is one of DHS’s national centers of excellence.

START Director Gary LaFree explains that the GTD was established in 2001 with two datasets. One is a legacy database taken over from the Pinkerton Global Intelligence Service. That database covered 1970 through 1997. The second is START’s internal research database, beginning with incidents in 1998 and now covering through 2004.

While START’s in-house research focused only on terrorism, Pinkerton’s data included all types of crime and violence that could affect the company’s clients. START is sorting through the data collections so that it can launch a unified GTD, perhaps by early 2009, incorporating MIPT’s datasets on FBI cases and terror organizations.

RAND originally planned to resurrect the Terrorism Chronology as a resource that would be open only to internal use and individual research on a case-by-case basis. But the company is now considering subscription-based access, says RAND international policy analyst R. Kim Cragin, who manages the database.

Whether any RAND data will be available on the new GTD remains to be seen. LaFree says START expects to offer whatever RAND data was part of the TKB up to its closure in March of 2008, while Cragin says START is not supposed to make RAND data public.

The extent to which START’s GTD will be judged a worthy successor to the beloved TKB will depend on how easy it will be to search and use. Brian K. Houghton, an international business professor at Brigham Young University Hawaii, recently eulogized TKB, in particular its Web-based ease of access to information, in the journal Perspectives on Terrorism. Houghton told Security Manage- ment that the TKB “as it was will never be re-created.”

LaFree, however, notes that different researchers have different opinions about the accessibility of data. TKB’s quick-reference interface did not, for example, allow creation of what academics call “rectangular files,” basically custom spreadsheets of desired data.

Where available, GTD offers a higher degree of granularity, LaFree says. While the Terrorism Chronology classifies attacks based on 15 characteristics, GTD offers up to 120 specific data points.

In its current form, GTD is already the most downloaded criminology database in the United States, as ranked by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, LaFree says.

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