Interactive website tracing 'terrorist family trees' to be launched

By the end of the year, scholars of security studies will be able to use a new website to learn how terrorist and militant organizations evolve over time and how they collaborate with--and compete against--one another.

"Mapping Terrorist Organizations," an interdisciplinary online project headed by CISAC Senior Fellow Martha Crenshaw, will focus initially on providing detailed, annotated information on militant and terrorist groups operating in Iraq since 2003, Pakistan and Afghanistan--areas of current policy concern for the United States. Future plans involve expanding research to include groups in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and the United States and, if time and resources permit, to include major historical groups such as the Russian revolutionary movement.

The three-year project is funded by a $500,000 grant awarded to Crenshaw last fall by the National Science Foundation. It is part of the Department of Defense's Minerva Initiative launched in 2008 to support "research related to basic social and behavioral science of strategic importance to U.S. national security policy."

"No such study exists in the literature of terrorism," Crenshaw wrote in a report on the project. "Evolutionary mapping can enhance our understanding of how terrorist groups develop and interact with each other and with the government, how strategies of violence and non-violence are related, why groups appear and disappear, and how opportunities and constraints in the environment change organizational behavior over time." Furthermore, Crenshaw noted that visual mapping of highly complex, shifting information is likely to stimulate new observations that might otherwise have been overlooked."

Student involvement

Daniel Cassman, a 2010 CISAC honors graduate in political science and computer science, is building the site, which will contain interactive timelines, family trees and detailed group profiles. Cassman's programming--developed specifically for the website--will allow scholars to better understand and analyze patterns and structures of violent and non-violent opposition groups in multiple contexts.

At a June 1 meeting of a half dozen students working on the project, Crenshaw said one of the most challenging problems facing researchers is documenting how terrorist organizations evolve over time. With no official sources to rely on, Crenshaw's team spent the last year combing through government documents and academic research, autobiographies, newspaper reports and even jihadist websites-many of which disappear as quickly as they pop up. Crenshaw acknowledges that "precision in this field is elusive" even though the project emphasizes using documented primary sources. Students working on the project include Christy Abizaid and Sadika Hameed, 2010 graduates of the International Policy Studies master's program, and undergraduates Rob Conroy, Asfandyar Mir and Ari Weiss. CISAC staff member Julia McKinnon is assisting Crenshaw as well.

"We're keenly interested in changes in the sizes of groups," Crenshaw said. "That's one of the hardest things to figure out." It also is difficult to know when a group dissolves, becomes dormant or morphs into something else, she said. To obtain as complete a profile as possible, the website will include information about failed and foiled plots, as well as successful attacks, she said.

Charles Nicas, a student in International Policy Studies and Public Policy, said he joined Crenshaw's project to learn more about militancy and terrorism in South Asia. "The U.S. presence in Afghanistan and the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country mean that the U.S. will be involved in this region...for a long time," he wrote in an email. "The complexity of the situation takes a lot of research to understand."

Nicas's area of work focuses on sectarian groups in Pakistan, mainly Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and its offshoot Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), both virulently anti-Shia groups. Nicas said SSP was founded in 1985 with state support and spawned LeJ in the mid-1990s. The groups are based in Punjab province in eastern Pakistan but had a significant presence in neighboring Afghanistan during Taliban rule. Both have become increasingly allied with militant groups in the border region, including al-Qa'ida, and are part of an umbrella group known as the Punjabi Taliban. "I've been surprised to learn how far back the roots of this problem go, which makes the challenge of effectively countering it especially daunting," Nicas said.

Terrorist organizations profiled

In addition to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Crenshaw's website will feature profiles of the following groups:

  • 1920s Revolution Brigades
  • Mujahideen Army
  • Islamic Army in Iraq
  • Ansar al-Islam
  • Al-Qa'ida in Iraq

Group profiles include the following attributes:

  • The group's name, including pseudonyms and name changes
  • A history with a timeline, including whether the group is active, dormant or disbanded
  • The group's goals/ideology
  • Key leaders
  • Group size (by date)
  • Resources in the form of money and weapons
  • Outside intervention and influence
  • Dates of first and last known attacks
  • Targets
  • Area of Operations
  • Tactics
  • Political activities (by date)
  • Key operational experiences (by date)
  • Known splinter groups (by date)
  • Relationship to other groups (by date)
  • Relationship with surrounding population/popular support
  • Defining characteristics/Major events