Threat assessment

terrorists have found ways to coordinate across national borders; can project leaders?


When the European Parliament approved legislation in mid-April to green-light the Passenger Name Record (PNR) project, many heralded it as a step forward in the European Union's push to counter terrorist attacks. The PNR initiative, which enables intelligence agencies to collect and share personal information of European flight passengers, is just one of a spate of counterterrorism data projects proposed or underway. The deadly attacks in Paris and Brussels in November and March, respectively, highlighted the need for governments to coordinate across borders.


“The Counter Terrorism Group's virtual network could minimize the space in which terrorists hide and make tracking easier.”

—Ewan Lawson, Royal United Services Institute, London, England

In the U.S., the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) completed a project to build a database of all terror incidents. The Counter Terrorism Group, an independent body of European agencies chaired by the Netherlands, is slated to complete a data network project in July that will enable 30 countries to share counterterrorism information. “The Counter Terrorism Group's virtual network could minimize the space in which terrorists hide and make tracking easier,” says Ewan Lawson, senior research fellow for military influence, Royal United Services Institute, London, England.

Such data projects aim to help counterterrorism organizations keep pace with transnational militant groups such as the Islamic State. Yet despite a surge in initiatives to better share data and link intelligence systems across borders, experts warn that true progress could be frustratingly slow, as project leaders contend with bureaucratic obstacles and IT challenges.

The Counter Terrorism Group project tackles the latter challenge by improving a common database approach. Networks built around a “pull” model require users to perform specific searches (or pulls) for information. “If the network is built so that data relies on pull, which is generally the simpler model, then it requires the user to know the right question to ask to retrieve valuable information,” Mr. Lawson says.


Belgium soldiers patrol Brussels after a terrorist alert.

Knowing the right questions can be difficult, so the new project's database automatically pushes information to relevant counterterrorism agencies. While it's more difficult to design and manage, it could deliver more value. But even with better IT infrastructure in place for collecting and sharing sensitive data, securing buy-in remains an outsized challenge. “A lot of it comes down to trust,” Mr. Lawson says, “and that often takes a combination of time and an imperative to cooperate.”

Looming terrorism threats would seem to compel full cooperation between intelligence agencies, but these organizations can have deeply entrenched notions that information shared is information made vulnerable. “One wonders if Paris and Brussels won't be enough to start to change that culture, but nation-states don't surrender their sovereignty over national security very easily,” says William Braniff, executive director, START, College Park, Maryland, USA.

Transparency was baked in from the beginning of START's database project: Intelligence agencies, military groups and researchers alike can download not only the data but also the project's codebook, which makes gathering data more efficient by explaining the exact requirements for coding certain incidents. It's now the largest such data set in the world, spanning more than 140,000 terrorism incidents dating back to 1970. Government agencies around the globe tap into the database to study terrorism networks, analyze attacks and strengthen their prevention and response plans.

The project team also included a variable to track incidents in which there's a lingering doubt whether terrorism was actually at play. This allows counterterrorism analysts to take as narrow or broad a definition as they need to. “When you're talking about economic data or demographic data or labor data, there are some pretty finely tuned instruments to measure these things. That is just not the case in terrorism,” says Mr. Braniff. At least, not yet. —Kate Rockwood

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