The Data Collection Challenge: Experiences Studying Lone-Actor Terrorism

In March 2011, during my tenure at ICST, DHS awarded our research team a one-year project to build a database on the antecedent behaviors (those occurring prior to an individual carried out an attack) of lone-actor terrorists from scratch. The project aimed to explore lone-actor terrorism from both individual and event-driven perspectives through several rigorous data-driven analyses. This included synthesizing research on analogous cases of lone actors, creating a typology of lone actors, and cataloging their pre-attack behaviors.

We identified multiple benefits of this research for informing the development of operational considerations. First, it would provide the first empirically grounded, methodologically rigorous, multidisciplinary, and multi-level analysis of lone-actor terrorism from open source data. Second, it could provide an empirical basis—derived from analogous cases and detailed case studies—for identifying recurring pre-attack behaviors. Finally, it could inform security planning through providing an empirically informed understanding of the behaviors associated with and leading up to lone-actor terrorist attacks. It is hoped that reflections on the project as outlined in this chapter will not only provide additional transparency to our research process (as we hope to make the data fully available soon), but also guidance for future researchers setting out on similar data collection endeavors.

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