University at Albany

They’re BAAD

Victor Asal and Karl Rethemeyer, co-directors of the Project on Violent Conflict (PVC) at Rockefeller College, are taking the study of terrorism and counterinsurgency strategy in new and innovative directions. The two have joined forces to study terrorist networks and create a novel way to look at the habits and methods of organizing adopted by terrorist groups.

Kamiar Alaei Kamiar Alaei
R. Karl Rethemeyer Victor Asal

Asal, a political scientist whose work focuses on the choice of violence by nonstate organizational actors as well as the causes of political discrimination, and Rethemeyer, noted for his research in the area of social networks and their impact on social, political, and policy processes, are a force to be reckoned with as a research duo. The two are members of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) — a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence — and have conducted research on a number of critical security issues, including chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks, suicide terrorism, the propensity of terrorist organizations to attack civilian targets, and counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their work has been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the National Science Foundation, and the Office of Naval Research.

And to think it all started over pizza one day at a little deli around the corner from Rockefeller. “Karl and I were both new faculty,” recalls Asal. “I invited him to lunch at Sovrana’s. He told me he studied how people interact through social networks. I told him I studied how people kill each other and discriminate against each other. I said I was doing research and thought this alliance stuff made a lot of sense. I asked him if he wanted to work with me on it and he did.” Thus began a decade-long friendship which has blossomed into an extraordinarily productive partnership as well.

“Victor is the one that really knows about why people are in conflict with one another — how contentious politics work and why people engage in politics that go beyond what we think of as normal,” explains Rethemeyer. “He has a tremendously deep knowledge of individual terrorist movements and organizations across time and over the last 20 years. I’m interested in how people or organizations relate to one another and how those relationships matter with respect to what the person or organization does. What is the range of activities and choices that are available based on the nature of whom you know and what you know from them?”

The marriage of the professors’ specialties has produced a number of interesting offspring. One particularly exciting and transformative outcome is BAAD, the Big Allied and Dangerous Project. “I think BAAD is one of the most important intellectual contributions that we’ve made,” says Rethemeyer. BAAD includes a comprehensive and unique database of terrorist organizational characteristics and the researchers’ efforts to link that data to prominent event, insurgency and country-level characteristics datasets. BAAD enables Asal and Rethemeyer to draw a visual nexus of terrorist organizations around the globe. “We’re seeking to map all the organizations that are involved in terrorism in order to see what the fundamental overall patterns are that influence their behavior,” says Rethemeyer. “For instance, I can look at a map and see that there are only a few steps — socially speaking — between, say, Al-Qaeda and another organization. Some of those organizations realize that; most don’t. By creating a visualization we point out these potentials, these points of alliance, these possibilities that are sometimes being realized and may be realized in the future by those that actually participate in these networks. It tells you something about how the future may be different than the present. These are things we’ve not been able to see before.”

The project’s value to security professionals and policymakers is evident. In addition, students stand to benefit greatly from having access to BAAD. “They actually have the data resources to go out and do their own discovery without spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars,” says Rethemeyer. “If my students leave class knowing more about the world and more about how to analyze the world,” adds Victor Asal, “that makes me very proud.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 Rockefeller College News Magazine.