Know your terrorist
OKC institute offers in-depth, online look at terrorism
By Henry Schuster
Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those. His column will return the week of June 28.
This flag lists the names of thousands of Americans killed by terrorists and now hangs from the MIPT library's ceiling.
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OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma (CNN) -- Out the window, you can see the 168 empty chairs that bear witness to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. Downstairs, you can tour the museum that captures the terror that happened here on April 19, 1995.
Inside this room, however, is a different memorial -- the library at the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism -- which is on its way to housing one of the nation's largest collection of material about terrorism.
But you don't need to be in Oklahoma to visit this library. Information on thousands of terrorist groups and individuals can be accessed at any time, and from anywhere, online at the Terrorism Knowledge Base (www.tkb.org). Funded largely by federal grants, the MIPT is a private, nonprofit organization founded in 1999, four years after Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Office building. Its goal: to prevent future attacks like the one in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people.
You don't see many people at the MIPT, except during conferences and seminars. Rather, the institute strives to hold down overhead, says MIPT's Chip Ellis, and allocate money for other priorities -- chief among them, running three Web sites.
Lessons Learned, created with the Department of Homeland Security, facilitates information sharing between first responders. Responder Knowledge Base aims to be a Consumer Reports-style resource for those on the front lines looking for equipment and information about grants.
But Ellis says the Terrorism Knowledge Base is the institute's calling card. Designed for everyone from anti-terror specialists to common citizens, it breaks down terrorist-related information by country, region, group or incident, dating back almost 40 years.
"In an information age, fighting terrorism means sharing knowledge," says Ellis. "We're allowing unprecedented access ... This is so revolutionary. Most of this type of information has never been assembled before or [had been] held behind closed doors."
An online database
Let's say you want to know more about the arrests in Lodi, California, that took place last week. Some of that you will find on publications like CNN.com. (Full story)
At www.tkb.org, you could dig deeper into the background of Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, who ran the training camp where Hamid Hayat allegedly said he trained. And you could find more about the various groups Khalil has been associated with, including al Qaeda.
"By bringing together some of the best resources, we hope we will be able to raise the level of understanding and discussion. That could mean better policy and more informed real world actions," says Ellis.
While the State Department was responding to criticisms that it had undercounted the number of attacks in its Patterns of Global Terrorism report, the MIPT was negotiating to secure the data that went into that document. In a month, that information -- collected by the National Counter Terrorism Center -- will be on the home page of www.tkb.org, says Ellis.
Sorting through mounds of information, researchers have found that terrorist incidents -- even when you exclude September 11 -- have become more lethal in recent years, Ellis adds.
Besides such singular insights, Ellis says the historical data offers valuable perspective.
"It lets you see how little impact terrorism has ... how so many terrorist groups fade away. The vast majority of terrorism is domestic, small-scale and not necessarily life-changing or nation changing."
Constant reminders of terror
So far, journalists, emergency responders, students and teachers, along with government intelligence analysts, have used the Web site, according to Ellis. But besides gathering information, some users have relayed "tips through the system about certain groups and actions," says Ellis. While noting the MIPT isn't "in the law enforcement business," he says such data is passed along to authorities.
The system is open, with no tracking software on it, says Ellis. And nothing on the site would help any terrorist group.
This effort to educate others about terrorism is not just an online exercise. The shelves of MIPT's Oklahoma City library include hard copies of books and papers, thousands of them.
If the view from the window and museum downstairs weren't enough, one gets another stark reminder of terrorism's reality by glancing up at the reading's room vaulted ceiling.
What you see is an American flag constructed out of almost 4,000 hand-sewn squares of cloth.
Started by a woman named Elizabeth Barnes after the September 11, 2001, attacks, the squares feature the names of those victims, as well as other Americans killed in terrorist attacks since 1970. They include sailors slain in the 2000 USS Cole attack, Marines killed in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, and those who died in the first World Trade Center attack.
Ellis knows that other names, of some slain in Afghanistan and Iraq, should be added to the flag. Regardless, he hopes to keep their memories alive -- and prevent having to add even more names -- through the Terrorism Knowledge Base and other MIPT ventures.
"It is about not needing more flags," he says.
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