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(left to right) Ryan Rubio '12, Barak Mendelsohn, Rupinder Garcha '13, Margaret Schaus and Rob Williams '12 are part of the team that created the new Global Terrorism Research Project website.
(left to right) Ryan Rubio '12, Barak Mendelsohn, Rupinder Garcha '13, Margaret Schaus and Rob Williams '12 are part of the team that created the new Global Terrorism Research Project website.

Indexing Al-Qaeda

In the decade since 9/11, efforts to identify and analyze terrorism networks, and find ways to predict where they might strike next, have increased around the world.  Now, an enterprising team of Haverford College student researchers, led by Assistant Professor of Political Science Barak Mendelsohn, has developed a new tool that could aid that work.

In early September, the group launched The Global Terrorism Research Project website.  Three years in the making, the site includes an extensive resources section that compiles links to books, journal indexes, news, blogs, research portals and other useful websites on terrorism and international security. But the centerpiece of the site, and what makes it a particularly valuable destination for those studying terrorism, is its unique Al-Qaeda Statements Index, a collection of more than 300 statements issued by the group dating back to 1994 that the site’s creators have indexed based on critical key words and phrases, as well as relevant context. The Statements Index allows visitors to the site to see, for example, how many times Al-Qaeda’s leaders have declared the U.S. “an enemy of Islam,” in what context they have mentioned the group Hamas, and what they have said, specifically, about Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries.

“The Index allows you to do something that couldn’t be done before,” says Ryan Rubio ’12, a political science major who handles web design and administration for the site. “It allows you to drill down and analyze the collection of statements as a whole. It can help researchers to see trends and identify if the Al-Qaeda rhetoric is shifting or if their organizational strategy is changing.”

According to Mendelsohn, whose book Combating Jihadism was published in 2010, the new website has one of the largest collections of translated Al-Qaeda statements in the world that are in a uniform format and easy to search. “We have very good research tools that the students built based on a really clear reading of all the statements,” says Mendelsohn. “The site is an amazing team effort and a testimony to the extraordinary ability of our students.”

The teamwork started back in 2007 when Mendelsohn first arrived at Haverford and began teaching his “Evolution of the Jihadi Movement” course. To help scout websites and gather resources for the course, he enlisted the help of Margaret Schaus, bibliographer and reference librarian at Magill Library. “We also started collecting Al-Qaeda statements and then it became a natural thing that the library would help [Mendelsohn] preserve them,” says Schaus, who has played an important role in the creation of the Global Terrorism Research Project website.

Mendelsohn’s students soon got involved and began work on a terrorism database (the forerunner of the new website) meant to support the courses he was teaching, which included “The War on Terrorism” and “Introduction to Terrorism Studies.” Mendelsohn credits Nicholas Lotito ’10, now in the  Ph.D.  program in political science at Columbia University, with completing the database, which launched in 2009.

The Global Terrorism Resource Database, as it was called, also included the original version of the Al-Qaeda Index, which was created by Nick Sher ’10, who is now at Stanford University working towards a Ph.D. in political science.  The Index began attracting attention soon after its launch. Mendelsohn recalls going to an American Political Science Association conference and learning that people from other colleges and universities were already using it.  Even the Congressional Research Service, he says, was familiar with it.

But another of Mendelsohn’s students, Rose Mendenhall ’10, a political science major with a minor in computer science, had an even more ambitious vision for the Al-Qaeda Index. “Rose was the one who took this project to the next level,” says Mendelsohn. “She took my “Introduction to Terrorism Studies” class, and she came to me and said, ‘I do computer science and I saw the database. I think we can make it better.’ ”

“The [Index] would not have been nearly as textually granular if Rose had not figured out how to do it and why it was important,” agrees Schaus.

“Rose laid out an amazing theoretical framework for what it could be and should be,” says Rubio, who took over the project from Mendenhall, who plans to attend law school next year. “I can’t give her enough credit. She had the big ideas and did the hard work.” In fact, Mendenhall, focused her senior thesis on the project. That thesis, titled Al Qaeda’s Who, What and Why: Database Applications for the Al-Qaeda Statements Index, won Haverford’s Herman M. Somers Prize in Political Science.

“What is fascinating to me is how collaborative this project has been,” says Rubio.  “We’ve gone through three generations of Haverford students who have worked on this and we’re already hiring the next generation. We have had the Library involved at a fundamental level. And Haverford’s Instructional and Information Technology Services department has been great about making time for us and making sure we get what we need.”

With the help of funding from the Provost’s office, which has supported the project since its inception, Rubio worked on campus through the summer building the website and refining the Index. Working alongside Rubio were fellow student researchers Mathew Cebul’13, Rupinder Garcha ’13 and Rob Williams ’12, who, often gathered around a table in Zubrow Commons, did the actual indexing of the Al-Qaeda statements.

“They are trained as readers, and they have been working with the team for a while,” says Rubio. “They have read journal articles. They know about the people who are making these statements and how they understand the world. This allows us to look past the surface of the document. We can take a passing reference or a euphemism and know what they are talking about.”

Building the Index was a complex and sometimes frustrating process, says Schaus. “Websites with Al-Qaeda statements have been shut down, news sources have heavily abridged the statements—sometimes without indicating the edits—and videos of speeches do not include transcripts.” In a serious blow, the Open Source Center, a U.S. government agency that provides translations of terrorist statements through its World News Connection subscription service, made a decision to restrict access in June 2009. The Center, which had provided many of the translated statements in the Index, now only allows government employees and contractors with security clearances to see the statements it gathers.

While Schaus makes every effort to locate open access sources for the Al-Qaeda statements the project indexes, to fill the gap left by the Open Source Center decision, Magill Library sought a subscription to SITE Intelligence Group Monitoring Service, a website focused on terrorism research. “When I contacted them, they were extremely surprised,” she says of SITE, whose more typical clients are think tanks, government agencies and corporations. “They had no pricing model for a college and had no idea how to give us access. But they agreed and have been very helpful.”  However, due to license restrictions, users of the website outside of Haverford cannot see SITE’s documents in the Al-Qaeda Index.

The Global Terrorism Research Project website and its Statements Index is already being talked in the blogosphere, says Rubio. “The author of a blog call Jihadology just tweeted us to his followers,” he says.

While Mendelsohn credits his students and their Magill Library collaborators for the success of the project, they demur. “It’s Barak’s knowledge and expertise and his ability to inspire students that are the key factors here,” says Schaus.

“I have an enormous amount of respect for Professor Mendelsohn,” says Rubio. “He is very supportive of his students, and he is very inspirational when he is talking about this material. He can get you excited about anything.”

Going forward, Mendelsohn hopes to secure sustained funding for the project to help support the work required to keep the website updated and to add new Al-Qaeda statements to the Index. “We need to hire students to replace Ryan and Rob, who are graduating this year,” he says. “And we hope to also expand the team and expand our coverage.  Students have already contacted me about joining the team, so there is real enthusiasm.”

Also enthusiastic is Head Librarian of the College Terry Snyder. “This website offers users timely and important information about a subject so critical to understanding key contemporary issues in the world,” says Snyder.  “Given the significant opportunity for students to engage with these critical global issues, the Library is pleased to sustain and preserve the project for the benefit of future scholarship, and we eagerly anticipate exploring its further expansion.”

--Eils Lotozo

Prof. Anita Isaacs (Political Science) and students cross Founders Green after class.

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