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January 6, 2012

Stanford political scientist maps militant groups

Martha Crenshaw is building a searchable, online map in an attempt to overcome one of the biggest challenges to tackling terrorism: understanding the motivations, allegiances, shifting priorities and organizational structures of the dozens of militant groups around the world.

By Michael Freedman

A supporter of Indonesian militant cleric Abu Bakar Bashir wears a shirt with the image of Osama bin Laden, June 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

What's the difference between Hamas in Iraq, the Islamic Army in Iraq, and the Jihad and Reform Front? The three militant Islamist groups are based in Iraq, but they have different historical roots and leadership structures. And their goals and strategies do not necessarily align.

These differences highlight one of the biggest challenges to tackling terrorism: understanding the motivations, allegiances, shifting priorities and organizational structures of the dozens of militant groups around the world.

Groups with similar grievances and demographics sometimes merge with one another; other times they don't. Organizations that begin with one leadership structure might splinter or change over time, giving birth to a hydra of new militant groups that may themselves merge or diverge in new and unexpected ways.

To better understand how these organizations interact with each other and with governments, political scientist Martha Crenshaw is building a searchable, online map that shows the history and relationships among militant organizations.

This visual representation includes detailed descriptions of the groups, and shows dates of leadership changes, major attacks and the beginning and end of relationships with other militant groups.

The result, she hopes, is that policymakers, journalists, intelligence officials, scholars and others can begin to see the diversity among terrorist organizations and recognize that they may have a variety of goals, and historical and behavioral patterns.

A policymaker has "to realize that it's not just a bilateral relationship" between one country and a terrorist organization, said Crenshaw, a senior fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). "That group is part of a whole universe."

The "Mapping Terrorist Organizations" project is funded by a three-year $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation as part of the Department of Defense's Minerva Initiative.

So far, Crenshaw and her assistants have completed the Iraq section of the database and made it publicly available at They are almost finished with Somalia. They've begun work on Indonesia, and they're also working on mapping groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas, the Maghreb, Yemen, the Philippines, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Turkey, Colombia, Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

She is also creating a global picture of the al-Qaida network.

Crenshaw also has sketched out a diagram that looks like a circuit board of the incredibly complex relationships among known militant groups and their ties to charitable organizations and political parties in Pakistan since 1975.

In developing the maps, Crenshaw has realized she will need to consult with other scholars to gain a better understanding of the relationship between the militant groups and their regions and conflicts. So the next stage is to see if she can get a new Minerva grant to commission two dozen experts in various conflicts and regions of the world to do further analysis.

This new project would build on the mapping study and culminate in an edited volume, a policy workshop and ultimately a Stanford conference during which scholars would present a series of case studies on militant organizations.

The idea for the mapping project emerged from a study Crenshaw was working on in 2008, supported by the Department of Homeland Security, in which she tried to gain a better understanding of why the United States was being targeted by certain terrorist groups.

She noticed that groups that seemed to share characteristics, including animosity toward the United States, still behaved in different ways at different times. Some targeted the United States. Others didn't, she said, even though they were exposed to the same environmental pressures and constraints.

She realized that understanding the differentials in behavior meant looking at the micropolitics – how these groups emerged, splintered and sometimes recombined over time. She also noticed that scholars, journalists and policymakers were often looking for well-researched, up-to-date profiles of these groups, but that no one was providing them.

The studies that did exist tended to focus on rivalry and fragmentation among groups, but less on their cooperation and the diversity of kinds of rivalry.

One way to approach it, she thought, was to simply write a series of reports that would explore the interactions among various groups. A better way, though, was to express the data visually – more like a weather map – so it could be more quickly and easily understood.

"You have to be able to visualize things," Crenshaw said. "You can learn things more easily than if you were just looking at statistics."

One of the first steps was finding help for the more technical component – a job handled by Daniel Cassman, then an undergraduate in CISAC's honors program studying international relations and computer science. Cassman, now a Stanford Law School student, constructed the diagrams and the database. What had been a sketch of an idea was now closer to reality.

Crenshaw has since worked with more than a dozen undergraduate and graduate students, including Rachel Gillum, a doctoral candidate in political science and the project's chief editor and lead research assistant since 2010.

One of Crenshaw's goals is to give both academic and government researchers access to the data, so they can build maps and profiles that might be useful for their own purposes.

She said intelligence analysts could populate the profiles with classified information that is unavailable to her. She said the data will allow for a better understanding of how these groups "form, split, merge, collaborate, compete, shift ideological direction, adopt or renounce violence, grow, shrink and eventually decline over time."

That's key to explaining their behavior, she said – and to crafting an effective policy to combat them.

Michael Freedman is the public affairs manager for the Center for International Security and Cooperation.




Michael Freedman, CISAC: (650) 725-6488,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,

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