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Mapping Terrorist Networks To Better Understand How They Operate

One of the projects spawned by the Department of Defense’s massive investment in the social sciences is an ambitious visualization of how militant groups operate and interact.

An ambitious Stanford University project is using government funds to create detailed graphic genealogies of militant organizations. The Mapping Militant Organizations project has now created more than a dozen detailed graphical analyses of militant and terrorist groups worldwide. Currently, only militant group information for Iraq has been made available, but other "maps" are in progress.

Funding for the project came from the Minerva Initiative, a controversial Defense Department and National Science Foundation project. The Minerva Initiative gives funding to academics in the social sciences to produce research that can be leveraged by the Defense Department. Anti-military academics have accused the initiative of using America’s universities to perpetuate warfare; however, Minerva is responsible for a variety of interesting projects. In total, the Minerva Initiative has disbursed $75 million in grants and funding to American anthropologists, economists, political scientists, and other academics.

Click to zoom.

From the map, you can see that the longest-running terrorist group in Iraq is the Islamic Movement in Kurdistan (IMK), which eventually—through a few different permuations—spawned Ansar al-Islam, which was who Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was associated with before he joined Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The blue lines mean an alliance; the yellow means a conflict.

According to principal investigator Martha Crenshaw, her project is based on the premise that "policy makers as well as scholars need to understand how these organizations relate to each other as well as to the government. We produce online interactive 'maps’ that are a combination of timeline and organizational diagrams. These visual representations are linked to detailed profiles of the groups in question."

The Mapping Militant Organizations project isn’t the prettiest social science website out there. The data is presented in a minimalist format that primarily uses HTML 5 and Java; the site’s layout and design would give a graphic designer nightmares. However, the information being presented is top notch—and it’s offered to the public through a novel visualization method that makes explaining complicated relationships easy.

A team of around 10 Stanford students (undergrad and grad) work on the project during the academic year, with a dedicated employee occasionally working full-time during the summer. The students come from a variety of backgrounds and often speak relevant languages. Crenshaw came up with the idea for the project when working on a research project on the reasons terrorists attacked American interests. The idea came up to track the trajectory of militant organizations over time and to visualize the relationships between them. For Stanford, the end result was a graphical relational database of Iraqi terrorism.

The Stanford research, which is under the supervision of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Center for International Security and Cooperation (who we’ve written about for their Empirical Study of Conflict project) is just one of several efforts to disseminate the relationships between terrorist organizations to a larger public. Jihadist and al-Qaeda fellow traveler Abu Walid al Masri created homemade flowcharts, which were later translated and distributed by Australian terror researcher Leah Farrall. Private firm IntelCenter (who were also featured here) has a handy side business selling wall-size organizational charts of militant groups such as al-Shabaab. A host of academics, government agencies, and military types also produce similar mapping products for distribution and sale.

Turning the activities of militant organizations into visual data also has unexpected benefits. As Crenshaw told Co.Exist, her research offered unexpected insights. "Although most scholars focus on how and why groups split into rival factions, it’s important not to overlook the possibility of cooperation and even mergers. The original Al Qaeda, after all, was the result of a merger. Although it is common wisdom that groups fragment under government pressure (and often government policy is aimed at this end), government actions can also cause them to coalesce. For example, if the government offers some form of participation in the political process, groups may band together to acquire a position of strength."