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New Online Tool Helps Analysts Understand Terrorist Networks, Behavior Over Time

New Online Tool Helps Analysts Understand Terrorist Networks, Behavior Over Time Homeland Security TodayA new online platform called Big Allied and Dangerous (BAAD) allows access to a dataset that helps explain how terrorist organizations function, network and behave over time.

Funded by the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate’s Office of University Programs, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) this week launched  BAAD, the underlying database for which was created and is maintained by the Project on Violent Conflict at the University at Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy.

BAAD is meant to enable a better understanding of how terrorist organizations network and function over time, and features updated, vetted and sourced narratives and relationship information and social network data on 50 of the most notorious terrorist organizations in the world since 1998, with additional network information on more than 100 organizations.

START said, “The data allow analysts, scholars and the public to investigate trends in organizational attributes and how these correlate with issues such as lethality, target selection and use of CBRN weapons. The social network data also characterizes relationships between violent non-state organizations as well as relationships between countries and violent non-state organizations.”

“For instance,” START said, “a quick search for Al Shabaab reveals a detailed full profile: quick facts – year founded (2006), number of fatalities (1,663), ideology (religious) – and an interactive social network diagram demonstrating its alliances with Al Qaeda and affiliated movements, Boko Haram and Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).”

The new tool can aid the homeland security enterprise, said Karl Rethemeyer, Interim Dean, Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, University at Albany-SUNY, one of the leaders of the BAAD research team which plans to expand the database and online platform to include more than 600 terrorist organizations.

By making this data freely available online, START aims to create a resource for all those interested in understanding terrorism.

“The BAAD Web portal provides an important new resource for understanding the life course of terrorist organizations and the nature of connectivity between terrorists,” Rethemeyer told Homeland Security Today, noting that, “Unlike other data sources, BAAD was built as a longitudinal dataset so that it is possible to simultaneously see the evolution of organizational ideology, strength, territorial control, drug trafficking, lethality and network connectivity.”

Rethemeyer said, “The network visualization tool allows users to see the local network around a specific organization and the connections between those peers. Users will have a better understanding of how any single organization is part of broader patterns and networks. Finally, the tool will grow in usefulness as the team at the University at Albany’s Project on Violent Conflict continues to gather information on over 500 terrorist entities that are not currently available in our first data release and add information about terrorist organizations for the years 2013 and 2014."

Rethemeyer said analysts can use this as a starting point (or beyond) to better understand terrorist organizations.

He explained that, “The BAAD portal includes thoroughly sources profiles on 50 organizations with dozens more to be added in the coming months. Each conclusion and finding in the profiles is backed by linked sources. Analysts do not have to take our word for it – they can consult the reports, papers, articles and websites that informed our judgments and conclusions. Analysts can ‘spider’ out from our sources to additional information quoted in those works about the organizations they wish to study.”

“The network visualizations also help to place each organization in a broader operational context – that is, the operational context of the terrorists,” Rethemeyer stated. “What peer organizations might an organization seek out? What relationships might form in the future but are missing today? Analysts can also use the yearly visualizations to look for patterns. For instance, does it appear that counter-terrorist activity in a country or region actually reduced the number of relationships reported in future years?”

Continuing, Rethemeyer told Homeland Security Today that, “The BAAD Web portal is a living and growing resource. The University at Albany’s team of student coders and professional editors are currently working to finalize data for more than 500 additional organizations. As waves of data mature new organizations and network links will be added. We expect to add dozens of narratives over the next 6 to 9 months. The BAAD team is also interested in collaborating with agencies and organizations on development of additional variables, new narratives on organizations of interest and analysis of the underlying data.”

Rethemeyer said the “dataset is unique in that it provides a yearly snapshot of both organizational and network data … We believe that this dataset will help policymakers identify key factors to monitor and provide researchers with new opportunities to understand how the behavior of terrorist organizations changes over time.”

“We are hoping that this becomes a touchstone for organizational-level data in the same way [START’s] Global Terrorism Database [GTD] is for incident-level data,” START Communications Director Jessica Stark Rivinius told Homeland Security Today.

Indeed. “By continuing to generate and update these organizational-level profiles and data, the BAAD team and START can ultimately create a touchstone for organizational-level data, serving as a clearinghouse in the same way that START’s Global Terrorism Database does for incident-level data,” said START Executive Director William Braniff. “As most people think of terrorism through the lens of the organizations that commit these acts, BAAD provides an important public good – a starting point on which further analysis can be based.”

The other research team leader, Victor Asal, Chair of the Department of Public Administration and Policy and Associate Professor of Political Science, said, “The dataset arose from our desire to move the quantitative analysis on terrorist behavior from the country-level to the organizational-level cross-nationally so that we could better explain and predict why some organizations are so much more dangerous than others.”

BAAD is drawn entirely from publicly available, open-source materials. These include electronic news archives, existing data sets, secondary source materials such as books and journals, and legal documents. All information contained in the dataset reflects what is reported in those sources.

Entities included in BAAD are defined as those organizations that have:

  • Committed at least one terrorist attack as defined by START’s GTD criteria between 1998 and 2012, and/or;
  • Used, attempted to use, or pursued a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapon at least once between 1998 and 2012, as recorded by START’s Profiles of Incidents involving CBRN by Non-state Actors (POICN) dataset as having, and/or;

“Our work is helping to identify key factors that enable and motivate dangerous behavior by terrorist organizations like use of chemical weapons,” Asal said. “We are also examining whether counterterrorism efforts by governments around the globe are actually working. BAAD is the first dataset that makes it possible to ask questions about both of these issues using cross-national data.”

In addition to funding provided by DHS, the BAAD dataset and platform development, funding was also provided by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Office of Naval Research, National Science Foundation and the University at Albany’s Faculty Research Awards Program.

START is supported in part by DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate through a Center of Excellence program based at the University of Maryland.

 

 

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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