Interview with START Director, Gary Lefree
03/08/2012 -The earliest entry in theGlobal Terrorism Database (GTD) is the short version of a 1970 incident that led to the resignation of Cairo, Illinois, Police Chief William Petersen. Peterson gave his notice after a black separatist group fired “several bullets” at the police station, nearly missing several officers. Petersen said the town was a victim of guerilla warfare where firefighters were “shot by snipers as they risk their lives to protect life and property.” The next entry notes an attack on the Uruguay police, the next, a bombing at a utilities substation in Oakland, California. And the database continues through 2010, documenting the who, what, when, where, and how of thousands terrorist attacks worldwide.
Before 9-11, there was no comprehensive data on terrorist organizations and very little systematic data on what the government was doing to fight terrorism. Gary LaFree, director of theNational Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, helped research and design the GTD, starting with data compiled by Pinkerton Global Intelligence Service in the 1970s and building an online library of more than 98,000 terrorist events from 1970 to 2010.
“Imagine trying to fight cancer without knowing how much cancer there is,” he said speaking at theNational Institute of Justice 2011 Conference last June. LaFree hopes the database will help promote the study of terrorism as a science. Data for 2011 is being added now and will be released later this year. The database can be used to track patterns of attacks over time and the impacts of terrorist countermeasures.
LaFree spoke Wednesday with Security Management about the trials of being the nation's premier archivist of terror.
What is one of the hardest parts of gathering information for the Global Terrorism Database?
Back in the old days when this started, [researchers] were working primarily on wire services like writers. I think there the biggest challenge was whether a minor incident in a remote area of Latin America or Africa got reported. What’s become a much bigger issue is that you get essentially news aggregators of all different types and different languages reporting the same event. So what we end up with is this whole batch of reports, often coming in in different languages. To try and disambiguate them so we’re not double counting them [is] actually very challenging.
We have about 8,000 cases a year of terrorism in the database. To get to those 8,000 we have to go through a lot of documents. We may have something like 100,000 possibilities that have to be sorted out.
Who is the database mainly compiled for and how has that changed over time?
Mostly it is paid for by Homeland Security and in the early days we had funding from the Department of Justice. At the top of our customer list is anybody working in the government, but along the way, we get something like two million hits a month on the database, so I think its use has expanded well beyond the government. We’ve been trying to develop ways to make the database more user friendly for rank-and-file police officers, people working in fusion centers, and people working as analysts in the government.
However, there is a lot of research going on. One of our main objectives is to encourage the development of the scientific study of terrorism. We are rapidly becoming a major database for that. Our database is archived at the University of Michigan. For a while we were the most downloaded database in their archive involving violence and crime.
We also take very seriously our role in trying to provide an objective account to the media and to ordinary citizens. We get everybody from the New York Times to students writing a high school paper contacting us about the Web site.
Are you still coming across data from 1970-2010 that isn't in the database?
All the time [and] in several different ways. Whenever we encounter a big trove of data that someone makes available to us or we discover on our own, we go through those data and vet them to see if there are any additional cases. For example, a while ago a guy who was the head of the United Nations terrorism and drug enforcement retired from his job and nobody in his bureaucracy was interested in this terrorism data he had been collecting. It was especially rich in data from Africa. We said, “We’ll take it” and we put a bunch of people on it and ransacked the data for cases that we might have missed. We found quite a few.
Having the data online is like a wiki in a sense. If we get something wrong, we have lots of critics out there to tell us about it. Recently we did this big story on hot spots of terrorism in the United States, a county level study of terrorism. I got a caller from a Midwestern state and this caller was bent out of shape because we missed a local terrorism case. We started digging around and sure enough we had missed it.
We’ve had people who have called and said “I was in the Golan Heights in 1975, and there’s an incident here and I know for a fact this is wrong” -- that [kind of] inside information. Well our problem there is that our advisory board from the get go has always taken the rule that we don’t just change things because people say we got it wrong. We have to find a source that confirms it. So what we’ll do is increase the hunt if someone tips us off to something.
Have you ever been contacted bygroups listed in the database that have said, “We’re not terrorists”?
Yes, we have had that happen. I think the PKK in Turkey, for example. Those come up occasionally. The State Department has occasionally used our database to determine whether a particular group should be considered a terrorist group. It’s tricky because you have groups like the IRA (Irish Republican Army) and the ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom)and others where you have people who have once been in terrorist organizations now with government jobs and running for office, so obviously groups change over time. One generation’s terrorist group could be a legitimate political party at a later time. We don’t take people off just because they’ve changed. We might not count them as a terrorist organization going forward if they’re not committing violent acts, but we don’t take them out for the past.
I think this is one of the advantages that we have as a research organization over a government agency. We sometimes make decisions about including things that probably at a particular point in time may not be politically popular with everybody, but we try to stick by scientific, objective standards. We’re not worried about being reelected basically.
What are some of the basic criteria for an event to be included as a terrorist attack in the database?
Well when the database started it was information collected by the Pinkerton Global Intelligence Service, starting back in the 1970s. They hired ex-military intelligence officers to do it, so naturally enough they used the military definition of terrorism – which is a pretty good one. It’s essentially nonstate actors who use violence or the threat of violence for a political purpose. That excludes state terrorism, which is a whole big issue that we don’t touch. We get criticized for that sometimes. It also excludes ethnic cleansing, unless there’s a clear political motive behind it. Sometimes we add those but not always.
Over the years, with our advisory board, we have added additional requirements. A good example of this is the military. Some people argue that attacks on the military are never terrorism. We don’t take that stance. We include, for example, the USS Cole attack. We include attacks on the military if the military is attacked, there’s a clear political message, it’s by a nonstate actor, and the group was not at war. We also include attacks against humanitarian groups. So if the military is there as a part of humanitarian action, for example the United Nations, and they’re attacked by nonstate actors, we would include those as well.
More on the requirement in detail can be foundhere. The complete database can be downloaded and filtered for organizations looking for attacks that fall into certain parameters.Would individual IED attacks in Iraq or Afghanistan be considered a terrorist attack or would that be considered combat?
It would more likely be considered combat, but we do have a number of them [in the database]. If the target appeared to be civilians, if there was any indication of a political motive, for example, but we certainly don’t include all IEDs. Places like Iraq and Afghanistan after 2003 are a kind of nightmare for these sorts of databases because there’s so much violence. There’s so much going on that being able to separate straight military casualties, from collateral damage, from ordinary violence, from people seeking revenge is very difficult – sometimes impossible. That’s probably the single most challenging issue. (NOTE: The DoD has recorded more IED attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan than the GTD has entries.)
We’ve tried to use the database to do some work on IEDs and one of the ironic problems started in about 2004 when the term IED became popular. If someone walks past a restaurant and throws a grenade, then it’s not an IED attack because the grenade was manufactured to do exactly what it did. We would only say it’s an IED if someone attached that grenade to a cell phone or maybe a timing device – something improvised about it. We can separate those out pretty well in the old cases, but now the media tends to use the term IED for everything.
Do you include school shootings?
We go round and round on school shootings. Many of them, we do not. We actually had a big debate with our advisory board about this. We ended up including Columbine. Why? Nonstate actors. Violence. And in the investigation that ensued, these kids did have these admittedly crazy, political messages all over the place. They were looking for major changes in society. For other school shootings, if we find no political motive at all or if someone is trying to commit suicide by police, we don’t include those.
Is there anything that stands out to you about the upcoming 2011 data?
This isn’t specific to 2011, although I think it’s something that will be clear in 2011, specific to the United States, we’re getting fewer and fewer what we would call kinetic attacks and more and more failed plots. I think this is in large part because law enforcement has changed its orientation. The FBI is so proactive that we’re getting so many foiled and failed attacks. We started a separate database to pick them up because our database doesn’t include the foiled plots.
Would recent plots where theFBI supplied would-be terrorists with fake explosives or inoperable weapons be included?
No we don’t. We get those that have failed, but the ones you mention, hadn’t even gotten to the failure stage. There has to be that kinetic action. Someone has to have gotten far enough along to be trying to carry it out.