Online project maps militant groups

STANFORD (US) —A new online mapping project clarifies the complex relationships among terrorist organizations around the world.

What’s the difference between Hamas in Iraq, the Islamic Army in Iraq, and the Jihad and Reform Front? The three militant Islamist groups are based in Iraq, but they have different historical roots and leadership structures. And their goals and strategies do not necessarily align, say researchers at Stanford University.

These differences highlight one of the biggest challenges to tackling terrorism: understanding the motivations, allegiances, shifting priorities, and organizational structures of the dozens of militant groups around the world.

The project is developing a series of interactive diagrams that “map” relationships among groups and show how those relationships change over time. The user can change map settings to display different features (e.g. leadership changes), adjust the time scale, and trace individual groups. At present, only the map of Iraq is available for public view, but maps of Italy, Colombia, Somalia, Algeria, Yemen, Israel-Palestine, Turkey, and Pakistan are in progress. The Iraq map shows both groups internal to Iraq and regional or global groups with activities in Iraq (the map can be adjusted to show “domestic” and “external” interactions). (View map online.)

Groups with similar grievances and demographics sometimes merge with one another; other times they don’t. Organizations that begin with one leadership structure might splinter or change over time, giving birth to a hydra of new militant groups that may also merge or diverge in new and unexpected ways.

To better understand how these organizations interact with each other and with governments, political scientist Martha Crenshaw is building a searchable, online map that shows the history and relationships among militant organizations.

This visual representation includes detailed descriptions of the groups, and shows dates of leadership changes, major attacks, and the beginning and end of relationships with other militant groups.

The result, she hopes, is that policymakers, journalists, intelligence officials, scholars, and others can begin to see the diversity among terrorist organizations and recognize that they may have a variety of goals, and historical and behavioral patterns.

A policymaker has “to realize that it’s not just a bilateral relationship” between one country and a terrorist organization, says Crenshaw, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). “That group is part of a whole universe.”

So far, Crenshaw and her assistants have completed the Iraq section of the database and made it publicly available at

They are almost finished with Somalia. They’ve begun work on Indonesia, and they’re also working on mapping groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas, the Maghreb, Yemen, the Philippines, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Turkey, Colombia, Northern Ireland, and elsewhere.

Mapping al-Qaeda

She is also creating a global picture of the al-Qaeda network.

Crenshaw also has sketched out a diagram that looks like a circuit board of the incredibly complex relationships among known militant groups and their ties to charitable organizations and political parties in Pakistan since 1975.

In developing the maps, Crenshaw has realized she will need to consult with other scholars to gain a better understanding of the relationship between the militant groups and their regions and conflicts. So the next stage is to see if she can get a new Minerva grant to commission two dozen experts in various conflicts and regions of the world to do further analysis.

This new project would build on the mapping study and culminate in an edited volume, a policy workshop, and ultimately a Stanford conference during which scholars would present a series of case studies on militant organizations.

Seeing is understanding

The idea for the mapping project emerged from a study Crenshaw was working on in 2008, supported by the Department of Homeland Security, in which she tried to gain a better understanding of why the United States was being targeted by certain terrorist groups.

She noticed that groups that seemed to share characteristics, including animosity toward the United States, still behaved in different ways at different times. Some targeted the United States. Others didn’t, she says, even though they were exposed to the same environmental pressures and constraints.

She realized that understanding the differentials in behavior meant looking at the micropolitics—how these groups emerged, splintered, and sometimes recombined over time. She also noticed that scholars, journalists, and policymakers were often looking for well-researched, up-to-date profiles of these groups, but that no one was providing them.

The studies that did exist tended to focus on rivalry and fragmentation among groups, but less on their cooperation and the diversity of kinds of rivalry.

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