NCTC Terrorism Study: Huh??

Is it me, or is the much-touted study (requires Acrobat) by the National Counterterrorism Center just so deeply flawed that it’s beyond recovery??

I complained about the decision not to publish the study. Now, looking at it, I’d like to complain about the thinking behind the analysis that was presented.

Sadly, I can’t manage to copy the list of incidents to text so I could make a database of them, but a fast analysis shows that a substantial number of them (30%?? I haven’t yet had time to count, but if someone does, that’s be useful) are in Iraq.Now, according to the methodology page, events in Iraq or Afghanistan are only counted when a foreign national is involved and civilians, as opposed to combatants, are targeted. Seriously:

In the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan, it was particularly difficult to gather comprehensive information about all incidents. The distinction between terrorism and insurgency in Iraq is especially problematic because Iraqis participate in both the Abu Musab al-Zaquari terrorist network as well as the Baathist, former-regime-elements insurgency. As a result, the list of incidents provided here includes incidents involving non-Afghan/non-Iraqi civilians. By extension, some attacks involving non-combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the attack that led to the death of Department of State employee Edward Seltz, were excluded because the targets of the attack were combatants. We note, however, that because of difficulty in gathering data in Iraq and Afghanistan, the list may not be a complete account of all incidents involving non-Afghan/non-Iraqi civilians in those two countries.

I have a significant problem with this; it’s a simple one – we’re at war in Iraq (and to a much lesser degree in Afghanistan). It’s a war with an army that has adopted terrorism as a tactic, and that freely uses it when civilians are the only ones likely to be killed – as opposed to guerilla warfare against our or Iraqi armed forces, in which it is possible that civilians will inadvertently or carelessly be killed.

It’s insane to conflate these incidents and count them alongside acts of terrorism in the United Kingdom.

I’d love to find an actual database that this is based on that would allow you to query and count by country, among other things – this study lumps regions together, so that Iraq is lumped with Saudi Arabia and the West Bank – which represent different aspects of the same war, but could legitimately be used to measure the level of terrorist activity.

To use the level of terrorist attacks in Iraq as a global yardstick is like measuring gunshot deaths in France in 1941-42 and assuming that they represent a trend in the murder rate in Western Europe.

Note that my complaint isn’t based in a feeling that because terrorist attacks are more frequent, and so I believe the current policies may be wrong – it’s because this is crap data (or, more accurately, crap analysis of data), and as such makes it difficult to do the kind of hard thinking about policy that we need to keep doing.

17 thoughts on “NCTC Terrorism Study: Huh??”

  1. They should have found a way to classify the incidents more thoroughly, and then open-source the database so others could add what’s missing and look at the information in different ways.

  2. AL: you say:
    “events in Iraq or Afghanistan are only counted when a foreign national is involved and civilians, as opposed to combatants, are targeted.”

    When a group of applicants for positions with the Iraqi or Afghan forces is waiting in line, then, it’s civilians. I note this is often the object of terrorist/insurgent attacks.

    So I assume the applicants are counted as terrorist victims in case of an attack, while if they are in the forces they are not counted as victims of terrorism?

    From what I heard in an interview with a NYTimes reporter last weekend, it seems often the Iraqi terrorist/insurgent bombers hire locals, who are desperate for money, to plant IED’s for them. I guess then that that would not qualify as a terrorist attack?

    Statistics are always tricky. But when I see that figures on terrorist attacks are not being included in the state department report, it does look like those figures are being judged as not showing what this administration wants to show. This after all is the administration that pays reporters/commentators to support their proposals.

  3. Sigh. No, it’s not just you. Hardly. I read the thing (or tried, until I became so bloody frustrated I gave up) yesterday after reading a

  4. column
  5. at NRO by Andrew McCarthy on the report. In which, I might add, he says: ” Rep. Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, has fired off a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calling that contention “ludicrous.” When he’s right, he’s right.”

    The only nice thing here is seeing people on both sides of the political fence demanding some accountability and transparency from the government on this. That, at least, was heartening.

  6. I didn’t realize Bill Clinton was still in power…

    This after all is the administration that pays reporters/commentators to support their proposals.

    …oh, you mean his successor, who _also_ does this? I think the phrase is “welcome to politics.”

  7. _Joe_

    bq. _”The accompanying chronology should not be viewed as a complete accounting of global terrorist activity. The categorization and selection criteria specified to NCTC for filtering incidents were drawn from statutory language, traditional “Patterns of Global Terrorism” definitions, and past practices. The methodology used to generate this list of incidents, however, does not accurately capture the totality of terrorist incidents worldwide and could lead to anomalous and potentially inaccurate results”_

    bq. _”NCTC will therefore adjust and improve this methodology and follow this release with the distribution, in June 2005, of a more comprehensive dataset, with regular updates, to better inform the public. NCTC envisions an ongoing dialogue with experts inside and outside the government to further our collective goal of a meaningful compilation of terrorism data.”_

    I couldn’t use copy and paste but I believe I have quoted the document properly contained in the Forward text on page v.

    In other words Joe the forward admits the document is horse apples to start with. The only reason this document was produced and made available is to satisfy the letter of the law.

  8. AL:

    I had a brief debate with Larry Johnson on the Jawa Report here. My position was basically that:

    1. The inference that State is somehow avoiding empirical evidence related to its policies is not justified by what we know and what Larry has reported; and

    2. That the increase in attacks is not a meaningful indicator of whether we are “winning” the War on Terror or not, which is the inference he insists the data demand. In addition

    3. I also suggested that if the method used to identify a terrorist event were mis-specified, and that portion affected by the mis-specification was the one that increased during the period, then we may not actually be looking at an increase.

    Although the latter isn’t quite what you’re saying, it’s related in the simplistic sense that we have probably mis-specified terrorist attacks relevant to the real status of the war.

    If you’re right that 30% of the attacks are in Iraq, and the Counter-terrorism blog is correct that almost half occurred in Kashmir, then what we have are two localized conflicts accounting for 75% of the attacks in 2004, both of which are being lost by the terrorists. (Pakistan and India are close to agreement over Kashmir.)

    Just how does this translate into the conclusion that we’re losing the war?

    If we’d used the same sort of metric in WWII we’d have observed greater and greater losses with each passing year and a big bump in losses at the Battle of the Bulge and Iwo Jima, which was when we were actually closing on the enemy.

    Incidentally Princeton has a series of webcasts of its ongoing Colloquium on Public and International Affairs. If readers go to that link and scroll about halfway down the page there’s a description and several links to the video of a panel discussion entitled Measuring Success in Combating Terrorism. The speakers in that discussion include Larry Johnson, but they also include Raphael Perl from the Congressional Research Service and Peter Probst, a former CIA officer. It’s an excellent panel, and well worth the time spent to view it.

    My feeling is that if Larry Johnson had paid more attention to the other speakers on that panel, and especially Raphael Perl, we wouldn’t be having this debate with him. Perl is especially eloquent about the fact that we don’t currently have any metrics that can tell us not only whether we’re winning or losing, but the degree to which we’re doing either. And we need them.

    One of the biggest deficiencies is that we have no measure of the “quality” of the attacks, nor do we even bother to sort them by scale. In fact, we often don’t even distinguish between attacks that are carried out successfully and those that were pre-empted! But the greatest deficiency in our empirical analysis is that in a war which is less about battles and casualties than intangible perceptions and attitudes, we don’t bother to pay much attention to context. Hence we can look at an increase in the overall number of attacks and miss the fact that a vast majority of those incidents are taking place in locations where the terrorists are losing the war of ideas and where the political situation is being resolved against their interests.

    Incidentally, when are you guys going to post something about Jean R. Cobbs?

  9. bq. …oh, you mean his successor, who also does this?

    Yeah, hiring PR, who already supports you anyway in all these cases isnt the same as the ChiCom Military paying for the missle tech that is now aimed at us.

    Lets see that the China Military bribe money to the Clintonistas got them..

    Missle tech control authority removed from the pentagon and given to the commerce dept under Ron Brown, who then wrote wavers to tranfer our nuke missle tech to china. including MRVs.

    China bought the entire cruise missle plant in california, boxed it up, and the stuff is now making silkworm anti ship rockets aimed at preventing our carrier defense of the ROC.
    Control of the Panema Canal, etc.

    Course, thats not the same thing as the Hazel O Leary factor, putting the most fringe radical openly communist anti american knutjobs in charge of places like the DOE, who then throws open our secrets to empower our enemies because the USA needs a counterballance.

    USMC, yes, useless.

    The important work is that which helps us win, to the point where all is left arethe imports comming in to get their instant trip to Allah. and even that will dry up where there are no locals left to house feed and wire them up.

    We are getting lots more help there from the locals, who are becomming our eyes and ears.

    Terrorist activity is up everywhere, even in bangladesh, (because they support the jews I suppose) wonder how that factors in.

  10. Raymond, let’s not turn this into a debate about Clinton. Point was made, briefly but clearly, and was better left there given that the subject is the Terrorism “Report”.

  11. If a pdf is locked against copying from within it, you can print it and scan that.

    Not sure this is worth the effort, though. Seems like we’re back to CYA in the gummint.

  12. I never forget an old “New Yorker” cartoon from the 70’s.
    Two guys are standing in front of a gigantic computer.
    “The world is full of data, much of it yearning to be analyzed”.

    I might have added the word “correctly”.

  13. JK:
    Appreciate your reining in the militia, however, I’m not sure your comment answered my objection. As with:

    Peyton:

    With you, I see the same-o, same-o CYA action.

    And yes, I say ‘same-o, same-o’ from the Okinawan-American idion rather than today’s rendition of same-old, same-old.

  14. I was only here to rein in the militia – sometimes I’m just being a Marshal.

    For my money, asking the State Department to put together a terrorism report (at least, until it is fixed) is like asking for oil futures assessments from the Dept. of Agriculture. I can’t really be disappointed in this, because I would have had to expect better.

    Nothing short of open sourcing the database (which allows others to fix this from the ground up) would help.

  15. JK: Your point well taken. State isn’t the one with that jurisdiction, it should be the new intelligence uberdirector.

    Sorry you’re working on a day you should be enjoying a bit of peace.

  16. Peyton,

    You can also unlock the pdf. Don’t have a program for it but i know you can build xpdf without DRM.

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