Improving Policy by Compiling Terrorist Databases

“I wanted to learn more about different world regions because a big problem in policy-making stems from not knowing enough about the places and people that it affects. Collecting and reading through data has been a good way to expand on what I know,” says Margaret Habib.

Habib, a rising third-year in the College, is majoring in Public Policy and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Since last fall, she has worked with the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST)’s Data Collection Team.

Habib attributes her interest in international relations to her childhood curiosity and education. “Growing up, I was interested in how policies were made and why certain ones that seemed good for everyone didn’t pass; it all seemed so simple. I took a history class where I learned about the Skyes-Picot Agreement, a plan to divide the Middle East which could possibly be traced back as a root of many of the problems going on in the region today because creating new borders and imposing beliefs on people shows how little they knew about the region” she says.

“It’s important to be informed and learn about different regions,” Habib adds.

CPOST’s research lab model supports multiple faculty projects researching both domestic and international security with large teams composed of dedicated graduate and undergraduate students. This summer, Habib and other research assistants have focused on maintaining and renewing the comprehensive data in the Suicide Attack Database, a searchable database of all global suicide attacks with information on location of attacks, targets, biographical characteristics of attackers, causalities, and other systematic details.

As a team supervisor, Habib produces and manages projects for the team’s research assistants, and makes sure data collection occurs in a smooth, standardized manner.

“We collect data tracking these attacks in almost real time. Some of the things we look for are the role of the attack, the effectiveness, and who claims or denies responsibility for an attack. We’re in the process of creating a new database that tracks relationships between different militant groups; do they have any enemies or allies? We also track the groups over time to gain a better understanding of umbrella organizations or splinter groups. The goal is to be able to find connections through all of this,” Habib says.

Collecting the data can be tedious and requires digging through various online sources. The team builds off of other databases such as ProQuest, looking for reputable information from trusted, global news outlets such as BBC Monitoring. Using information from their own database, they are able to see where attacks occur frequently and monitor sites from those areas. Another source they consider is Twitter, where different people will publish claims to an attack or other information on behalf of a group. In order to input a new attack, it must be verified by two independent news sources.

“Our database has a way of monitoring violence over time, and we have indicators that we look for in order to determine if groups will become more active or violent. These indicators can help in prevention, so that’s why it’s important to collect and monitor all of this information.”

Habib hopes to stay in a similar field of work after college, adding “the work here attracts a lot of interesting people and personalities; any type of work in policy, foreign policy, or even in a think tank, would be rewarding.”