Reporting on national security issues may arguably be one of the most difficult beats for a journalist, but there’s expert analysis and a trove of data to be found at several university research initiatives.
One is a University of Maryland research center that focuses on studying terrorism. The initiative, known as START (Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism) features a searchable database of articles from more than 50 academic and research institutions, as well as homeland security agencies, on a range of security-related topics.
“This is not your standard academic project,” said START director Gary LaFree. “We try to push everything out to the public and make it user-friendly. Journalists are among our main users, especially for the Global Terrorism Database (GTD).”
The GTD calls itself the world’s largest, most comprehensive open-source database on international and domestic terrorism events, with information on over 150,000 terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2015.
The Departments of Defense and Homeland Security are major users of the START website, which gets “millions of web viewers per month,” according to LaFree.
The database could prove particularly useful for journalists looking to provide context and statistics to stories about terrorism and national security policy. For example, an infographic released by START in January identified 109 jihadist-linked plots to use violence against the United States between January 1993 and February 2016. Of these, only 13 were completed successfully.
Other significant findings compiled by START, which could prove relevant to journalists covering national security policy, include:
Most perpetrators of these plots were American citizens or residents (75 percent); few returned foreign fighters were among them (3 percent); and there were no refugees.
Lone wolves were rare – only nine plots in 20-plus years were orchestrated by someone acting alone.
About 25 percent of the plots could credibly be linked to a known terrorist organization.
There is also a fact sheet on the number of American deaths in terrorist attacks between 1995 and 2015.
In a February 2017 story, The Washington Post used a START study to negate the notion that Islamic extremism is more of a threat than homegrown extremist movements.
Citing a START analysis, the Post reported, “Of the 66 criminal justice/military homicides perpetrated by al-Qaida and its associated movement and far-right extremists from 1990 to 2015, 54 of those deaths — more than 80 percent — came at the hands of the far right.”
“An example of this would be an anti-government extremist who hunts down a police officer because his ideological beliefs demand that he fight back against the government, particularly law enforcement,” the Post story noted.
Other publications featured by START examine the recruitment and radicalization of U.S. far-right terrorists, terrorism issues in Europe, and helping survivors and families affected by terrorism, among other topics.
Users will also find a link to a free online course, “Understanding terrorism and the terrorist threat,” that begins March 13.
For those looking for other academic resources to complement their reporting on security policy, another valuable resource is the Center on National Security (CNS) at Fordham Law School. The initiative bills itself as “the preeminent source of legal analysis and statistical data on terrorism prosecutions in the U.S.”
One of the highlights: a case-by-case look at ISIS prosecutions within the United States from March 2014 to June 2016. Journalists can find detailed information from these cases including citizenship, gender, personal history and interpersonal networks.
The CNS also has a searchable database on terrorism prosecutions in the U.S., which is not public, but journalists can contact staff at the CNS with specific search questions. The database monitors “the progress of terrorism cases through the U.S. judicial system and looks at radicalization trends, legal strategies and sentence issues for those accused of terrorism-related crimes,” according to its website.
Based on information from this database, the CNS will create fact sheets on issues like foreign fighter cases, FBI informant cases, biographical details on terrorism defendants and sentencing patterns. Its latest report, ISIS Cases in the United States, was published in July 2016.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via The U.S. Army.