Martha Crenshaw awarded $500,000 to study terrorist patterns

Martha Crenshaw, a senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), has been awarded $500,000 by the National Science Foundation to identify patterns in the evolution of terrorist organizations and to analyze their comparative development.

The three-year grant is part of the Department of Defense's Minerva Initiative launched in 2008, which focuses on "supporting research related to basic social and behavioral science of strategic importance to U.S. national security policy."

Crenshaw's interdisciplinary project, "Mapping Terrorist Organizations," will analyze terrorist groups and trace their relationships over time. It will be the first worldwide, comprehensive study of its kind-extending back to the Russian revolutionary movement up to Al Qaeda today.

"We want to understand how groups affiliate with Al Qaeda and analyze their relationships," Crenshaw said. "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 persist or disappear, and how opportunities and constraints in the environment change organizational behavior over time."

According to Crenshaw, it is critical to understand the organization and evolution of terrorism in multiple contexts. "To craft effective counter-terrorism strategies, governments need to know not only what type of adversary they are confronting but its stage of organizational development and relationship to other groups," Crenshaw wrote in the project summary. "The timing of a government policy initiative may be as important as its substance."

"Mapping Terrorist Organizations" will incorporate research in economics, sociology, business, biology, political science and history. It will include existing research to build a new database using original language sources rather than secondary analyses. The goal is to produce an online database and series of interactive maps that will generate new observations and research questions, Crenshaw said.

The results, for example, could reveal the structure of violent and non-violent opposition groups within the same movements or conflicts, and identify patterns that explain how these groups evolve over time. Such findings could be used to analyze the development of Al Qaeda and its Islamist or jihadist affiliates, including the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, she said.

The findings may also shed light on what happens when a group splits due to leadership quarrels or when a government is overturned, Crenshaw said. "Analysis that links levels of terrorist violence to changes in organizational structures and explains the complex relationships among actors in protracted conflicts will break new ground," the summary noted.

Extensive information on terrorist groups already exists, but it has been difficult to compile and analyze. Despite such obstacles, Crenshaw said, violent organizations can be understood in the same terms as other political or economic groups. "Terrorist groups are not anomalous or unique," she wrote. "In fact, they can be compared to transnational activist networks."

Crenshaw should know. Widely respected as a pioneer in terrorism studies, the political scientist was one of a handful of scholars who followed the subject decades before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. She joined CISAC in 2007, following a long career at Wesleyan University, where she was the Colin and Nancy Campbell Professor of Global Issues and Democratic Thought. In addition to her research at Stanford, Crenshaw is a lead investigator at START, the Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

End goal

Crenshaw wants to use the findings to better analyze how threats to U.S. security evolve over time. "Terrorist attacks on the United States and its allies abroad often appear to come without warning, but they are the result of a long process of organizational development," she wrote. "Terrorist organizations do not operate in isolation from a wider social environment. Without understanding processes of development and interaction, governments may miss signals along the way and be vulnerable to surprise attack. They may also respond ineffectively because they cannot anticipate the consequences of their actions." The project seeks to find patterns in the evolution of terrorism and to explain their causes and consequences. This, in turn, should contribute to developing more effective counter-terrorism policy, Crenshaw said.

Conflicts to be mapped

  • Russian revolutionary organizations, 1860s-1914.
  • Anarchist groups in Europe and the United States, 1880s-1914. (Note: although the anarchist movement is typically regarded as completely unstructured, there was more organization than an initial survey might suppose, and the transnational dispersion of the movement is frequently cited as a precedent for Al Qaeda.)
  • Ireland and Northern Ireland, 1860s-present.
  • Algeria, 1945-1962 and 1992-present
  • Palestinian resistance groups, 1967-present.
  • Colombia, 1960s-present.
  • El Salvador, 1970s-1990s
  • Argentina, 1960s-1980s
  • Chile, 1973-1990
  • Peru, 1970-1990s
  • Brazil, 1967-1971
  • Sri Lanka, 1980s-present
  • India (Punjab), 1980-present
  • Philippines, 1960s-present
  • Indonesia, 1998-present
  • Italy, 1970s-1990s
  • Germany, 1970s-1990s
  • France/Belgium, 1980-1990s
  • Kashmir, 1988-present
  • Pakistan, 1980-present
  • United States, 1960s-present (especially far right movement)
  • Spain, 1960s-present
  • Egypt, 1950s-present
  • Turkey, 1960s-present
  • Lebanon, 1975-present
  • Al Qaeda, 1987-present