Assembling an Archive of Terror: An interview with START director Gary LaFree

The earliest entry in the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) is the short version of a 1970 incident that led to the resignation of Cairo, Illinois, Police Chief William Petersen. Peterson gave his notice after a black separatist group fired “several bullets” at the police station, nearly missing several officers. Petersen said the town was a victim of guerilla warfare where firefighters were “shot by snipers as they risk their lives to protect life and property.” The next entry notes an attack on the Uruguay police, the next, a bombing at a utilities substation in Oakland, California. And the database continues through 2010, documenting the who, what, when, where, and how of thousands terrorist attacks worldwide.

Before 9-11, there was no comprehensive data on terrorist organizations and very little systematic data on what the government was doing to fight terrorism. Gary LaFree, director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, helped research and design the GTD, starting with data compiled by Pinkerton Global Intelligence Service in the 1970s and building an online library of more than 98,000 terrorist events from 1970 to 2010.

“Imagine trying to fight cancer without knowing how much cancer there is,” he said speaking at the National Institute of Justice 2011 Conference last June. LaFree hopes the database will help promote the study of terrorism as a science. Data for 2011 is being added now and will be released later this year. The database can be used to track patterns of attacks over time and the impacts of terrorist countermeasures.

LaFree spoke Wednesday with Security Management about the trials of being the nation’s premier archivist of terror.

What is one of the hardest parts of gathering information for the Global Terrorism Database?

Back in the old days when this started, [researchers] were working primarily on wire services like writers. I think there the biggest challenge was whether a minor incident in a remote area of Latin America or Africa got reported. What’s become a much bigger issue is that you get essentially news aggregators of all different types and different languages reporting the same event. So what we end up with is this whole batch of reports, often coming in in different languages. To try and disambiguate them so we’re not double counting them [is] actually very challenging.

We have about 8,000 cases a year of terrorism in the database. To get to those 8,000 we have to go through a lot of documents. We may have something like 100,000 possibilities that have to be sorted out.