A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Response to mischaracterization of the Hot Spots Report

(Originally published July 5, 2012)

Current articles and postings on the Internet have mischaracterized the conclusions of the START report "Hot Spots of Terrorism and Other Crimes in the United States, 1970 to 2008," which was released in January. To be clear, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) does not classify individuals as terrorists or extremists based on ideological perspectives. START and the Global Terrorism Database, on which the Report is based, defines terrorism and terrorist attacks as "the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation."

The report is based on the key premise that the groups and individuals analyzed have actually carried out or attempted to carry out violent attacks in the United States for any political, social, religious, or economic goal. This is what qualifies them as terrorists, not their ideological orientation. The report then classified the violent perpetrators into ideological categories, including extreme left-wing, extreme right-wing, religious, ethnonationalist/separatist, and single issue.

The descriptions of these categories in the report do not suggest that an individual or group with one or more of these characteristics is likely to be a terrorist. It is an unfortunate reality that some individuals choose violence to advance what is often a Constitutionally protected belief held by law-abiding citizens. Additionally, several blogs reported incorrectly that the Hot Spots report cost $12 million. In fact, that figure represents the award from the Department of Homeland Security to found and operate the entire center for three years, including the Global Terrorism Database -- the largest, most comprehensive, unclassified tool of its kind.

Also, START was not chartered by the current administration, but in 2005 by then-Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. Below is a detailed response from the report's author, Gary LaFree, director of START.

First, at no point has any START study defined persons "suspicious of centralized federal authority" and "reverent of individual liberty" as terrorists. Instead, we assigned ideological classifications only to groups that have already carried out completed or attempted terrorist attacks.

This report is based on START's Global Terrorism Database which defines terrorism as "the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation." The GTD includes information from unclassified sources (mainly news media) on nearly 100,000 terrorist attacks that occurred worldwide since 1970. Whenever possible, the GTD includes information on the perpetrators of these attacks, primarily groups or organizations.

Last year, START completed a project called Profiles of Perpetrators of Terrorism in the United States (PPT-US) that involved data collection on the organizations that have carried out violent attacks in the United States, based on the GTD definition of terrorism. Additional information on PPT-US can be found here: http://ter.ps/zn. Part of the PPT-US data collection project involved classifying the 'dominant ideology' of these organizations (not individuals). The categories for 'dominant ideology' are:

  • Extreme Right-Wing
  • Extreme Left-Wing
  • Religious
  • Ethnonationalist/Separatist
  • Single Issue

Full definitions for these can be found in the PPT-US codebook, available on the 'Data and Analysis' tab of the PPT-US Dataverse page at http://ter.ps/zm. Again, it is critical to remember that these definitions are applied to organizations already identified as perpetrators of terrorist violence in the GTD. They are in no way used to define 'terrorists' themselves, either groups or individuals. This mischaracterization of our work is a logical fallacy on par with stating that because some apples are red, all things red must be apples. Second, the Hot Spots Report has been criticized by Internet sources for excluding terrorism cases from 1993.

When we began the Global Terrorism Database in 2002, we began with a prior unclassified data source that was missing 1993 data. We have never been able to completely restore these data. Hence, the Hot Spots Report is in fact missing 1993 data. Because the main purpose of the report was to conduct a county-level analysis of terrorism in the United States, we felt it best to leave out incomplete information?which was the case for the 1993 data. We should have made this clear in the report and plan to do so in any future publications. However, it is also true that the report is missing only one year in a 39-year series?less than 3 percent of the total.

Other 1970-2008 attacks identified by some Internet sources as missing from the report, including a 1994 van shooting, the 1997 Empire State Building shooting, and the 2002 El Al shooting are in fact included in the GTD and in the report.

We should also point out that at the time we did the analysis for the Hot Spots Report, the most recent GTD data that were available ended in 2008. This means that the report excludes several high profile attacks that occurred after 2008, including the 2009 Fort Hood attack and the 2009 Arkansas shooting. The first attacks is already in the version of the GTD on our website and the second one was added to the GTD last fall, and is slated to be included in our upcoming release of the data through 2011.

Finally, it is important to note that because the analysis in our report relied on ideology data from PPT-US, a group-level dataset, attacks are linked to ideologies when a specific group is attributed responsibility for an attack.

This means that Tables 1-7 in our report are based only on those cases where we are reasonably certain of the group or organization responsible for the attack. Attacks by unaffiliated individuals are less likely to be included in this particular analysis, simply as a consequence of the ideology data available at the time the report was written. To be clear, this is not due in any way to an inclination to define these attacks as 'not terrorism.' In addition, because the focus of this report is on concentrations of terrorism, we constructed these tables in such a way that all attacks that are not part of "hot spots" are excluded.

Although some readers incorrectly interpret these tables as reporting no other terrorism for those particular time periods/locations/ideology combinations, this is certainly not the case.

For a full explanation of the GTD's data collection methodology and inclusion criteria, users are welcome to visit the START website: http://start.umd.edu/gtd/using-gtd/.