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New project explores the relationship between belief and action of terrorist groups

Database will systematically document groups' ideological principles

In July 2014 START Investigators Dr. Gary Ackerman and Dr. Assaf Moghadam began a project that had been brewing in their minds for a while. The Terrorist Ideology Project (TIP) seeks to do what no one has done before: systematically code ideological tenets of extremist groups in order to create data that reflects the relationship between a terrorist organization’s beliefs and actions.

“People were using a very crude conception of ideology,” Ackerman said. "You were getting one of two different types of things happening. Some researchers were doing quantitative analysis and were simply labeling a terrorist group with just a single ideological label. Across studies, researchers were getting very different findings for whether ideology mattered. At the same time, a different set of researchers were doing very in-depth looks at how particular ideologies influenced a group’s behavior, but these monographs weren’t usually comparable across ideologies.”

The goal of TIP is to bridge this gap, creating a system that identifies specific attributes of extremist ideologies while still remaining applicable to a broad range of ideologies.

The first part of the project was to conduct, with the help of several interns, a comprehensive literature review to ensure that there was not an existing system with the same purpose as TIP and to identify elements to include in a workable “terrorist ideology” schema. The researchers also began to synthesize an overarching definition of “ideology” that could be applied to all terrorist actors.

Once this was completed, the interns were tasked with “hard-testing” the coding system. They each researched an obscure ideology (not necessarily of a terrorist group) and compiled information to see if it could be coded effectively using the new system.

“What holds for the obscure ideologies will hold for the more studied ones,” intern Daniel Lebowitz said.

“I’ve been researching the ideology of an obscure supremacist group that claims divine leadership and has engaged in violence, for example,” said fellow intern Arwin Rahi.

The next step of the project will be to identify terrorist ideologies for examination, and then compile collections of primary sources that can be used to code them. Then, the coding system and source collections will be distributed to experts on the respective ideologies. These experts will use the system to code for the specific characteristics of each ideology. 

The Terrorist Ideology Project is in a pilot phase, but if the first round of coding yields consistent results, the project investigators will seek funding to code additional ideologies.

TIP is a deliverable of the project “Ideologies and Motivations of Terrorist Organizations,” supported by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s Office of University Programs.  

Ackerman is the director of START’s Unconventional Weapons and Technology division, as well as the former director of the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies. Moghadam is an associate professor at the Interdisciplinary Center and Director of Affairs at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.