A comprehensive database of terrorist incidents within the United States aims to provide data to law enforcement, researchers, and the intelligence community.
One of the ironies of American terrorism research, according to Gary LaFree, director of National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, is that the least amount of attention has been focused on U.S. domestic terrorism. But that’s beginning to change with more than $500,000 in funding from the Human Factors Division of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T).
This past winter, START released a report that mapped terrorism hotspots inside the United States for four decades at the county level. The analysis—a product of a larger project that’s akin to an Amazon.com of information on extremist violence, terrorism, and counterterrorism in the United States—was groundbreaking.
“No one has ever looked at this for the United States: To what extent are events concentrated in a few cities? To what extent do you get differences in the ideological motivation of terrorists in different parts of the country?” notes LaFree. “And we’re finding strong effects there.”
START found that 30 percent of all terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2008 occurred in five jurisdictions, which are, in descending order: Manhattan, New York; Los Angeles, California; Miami-Dade, Florida; San Francisco, California; and Washington, D.C. It has also uncovered more recent hotspots—such as Maricopa County, Arizona; and San Diego, California—that flew under the radar.
While the frequency of terrorist attacks in the United States has fallen dramatically since the 1970s, they have become more lethal. The analysis also found that attacks by single-issue terrorists—motivated by concerns for animal rights or the unborn, for example—have spiked throughout the 2000s, while attacks by left-wing and right-wing terrorists haven’t been significant since the 1970s and 1980s, respectively.
Other discoveries included correlations between ideology and the location of attacks over time. “There are big regional differences,” notes LaFree. Al Qaeda-style events tend to occur in the Northeast; environmental events occur in the West; left-wing events take place in the East; and right-wing events are carried out in the Midwest and the West.
The hotspots report is one of the first products from an ongoing effort to build an integrated terrorism database for intelligence analysts, law enforcement, and researchers. Known as the Terrorism and Extremism Violence in the United States (TEVUS) project, the effort was directed by START and includes 16 university researchers across the country.