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Locating Extremists Where They Strike: The Influence of Ideology and Geography on Terrorist Target Selection

Locating Extremists Where They Strike: The Influence of Ideology and Geography on Terrorist Target Selection

Isabel Bielamowicz and Kayla Groneck

This is a brief summary of a 14-week research project we designed and carried out, the purpose of which was to identify the relationships between geographic location, ideological affiliation, and physical target for cases of politically motivated violence coded in the tPP dataset. We contended that population density will be reflected in clusters of attack locations, and that higher population urban hubs will likely have greater diversity of both ideology and target type, with more obvious trends being revealed in lower population regions. Furthermore, we proposed that leftist-affiliated attacks and prosecutions will see a higher concentration on the West and East coasts with targets focused on private sites; whereas rightist-affiliated attacks and prosecutions will see greater presence in the South and the Midwest, with target type focused on religious institutions, federal sites, and individual person(s). Additionally, we hypothesized that Salafi/Jihadist/Islamist attacks will be nearly exclusive to population-dense, urban areas with target type focused on federal sites and public sites.

Methodologically, descriptive statistics were employed to reveal that over half of our selected sample is composed of rightists acting uniformly across the United States; with leftists acting predominantly in the West, targeting private sites almost exclusively; and Salafi/Jihadist/Islamists acting across the spread of the country, but most commonly in high-density areas. We found that mapping through GIS software augmented our statistical findings by visualizing the spread of attacks and prosecutions in our dataset by ideological affiliation. Based on our findings, we concluded that geography is helpful in defining political violence in the United States to the extent that it has strong correlations to the ideological affiliation of a defendant. Ultimately, this relationship between geography and ideology and the relationship between ideology and target type culminate in an understanding of the geographical spread of target selection employed by delineated ideologies across the United States for political violence attacks and prosecutions.

The following datatable shows the two most frequent physical targets selected by the four most common ideological affiliations found in our selected sample (N611 set), divided by circuit court regions. The most prominent findings of this research are that rightist attacks and prosecutions composed over 50% of our sample; Salafi/Jihadist/Islamists were over four times more likely, than is proportional to the population, to attack and be prosecuted in the 2nd circuit; and leftists were most likely to attack and be prosecuted in the 9th circuit.

Because this research is based on the tPP dataset, which tracks prosecutions rather than attacks, it would be negligent not to mention that many of the cases included in the N611 set have multiple co-defendants for singular events. Without this clarification, some data points may be misleading. As it stands, our hypotheses regarding this research were predominantly correct for geographic concentrations of ideology and the most frequent target types selected by the most prominent ideological affiliations within the given dataset. Conclusively, the most prevalent ideological affiliations (composing >10% of the N611 dataset) for attacks on physical targets within the United States which have resulted in prosecutions are as follows: Rightist: government-focused, Rightist: identity-focused, Leftist: eco-animal focused, and Salafi/Jihadist/Islamist.

The geographic sprawl of these ideologies across the United States varies categorically based on a set of factors including population density, spatial and temporal considerations, and target type.

This research identifies the relationships between geography, ideology, and target type as related to political violent attacks and prosecutions, and ultimately concludes that ideology has a stronger direct relationship to physical target selection than geography. The extent to which the geographic sprawl of persons having shared ideological affiliation that motivated political violence is not predictive of future attacks or prosecutions; however, it is indicative of trends that may continue in the future. Trends in geographic concentration of ideologies are very useful as they aid both in understanding patterns in selection frequency of classifications of physical targets and in predicting – to a degree – the regions in which certain physical target classes are most at-risk or in which regions individuals of certain ideological affiliations are likely to be indicted for targeting them.

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