Data Journalism Awards Featured Winner: Terrorists for the FBI


The winners of the 2012 edition of the Data Journalism Awards were announced on 31 May during a ceremony held at the News World Summit in Paris. In this series of posts we will present each of the winning projects and and honorable mentions to understand their relevance to the field of data journalism and provide an overview of the tools and methods used by participants.

The winning project to be showcased here, Terrorists for the FBI, achieved first place under the category Data-Driven Investigations, National/International category. To see the jury comments click here.

Short video presenting the story behind the Terrorists for the FBI investigation

Conspiracy theories – for real

Mother Jones reporter, Trevor Aaronson found that subsequent to 9/11, the FBI built up a network of 15.000 domestic informants - many of whom were tasked with surveilling and infiltrating Muslim neighborhoods and institutions. As part of this 18-month project, Mother Jones exposed the driving force behind these terrorist conspiracy plots. They discovered that nearly half of the 508 federal terrorism convictions involved the use of informants, many of whom were incentivized by money.

Another major finding was when Nick Baumann, another Mother Jones reporter, uncovered a secret program to have American citizens detained and interrogated by despotic foreign regimes. As a result, the US government confirmed for the first time that domestic law enforcement authorities have a program in place which requests the detention and interrogation of American citizens by overseas regimes.

Uncovering the facts and presenting the story


Terrorism cases state by state

In order to prove that domestic informants do in fact exist, a pattern needed to be established - so a system was set in place. Aaronson spent the next few months researching more than 500 cases in order to build a database that would illustrate exactly how frequently informants were used in terrorism investigations and what role they played. The story began with the case of Gulet Mohamed, a Virginia teenager who, whilst detained in Kuwait, managed to call a New York Times reporter. Mohamed alleged that he was being held and brutally interrogated at the FBI’s behest. The story died down when Mohamed was released, however Baumann didn’t let go. Instead he discovered a series of similar cases, which finally confirmed a pattern.

The investigation heavily relied on federal court records and the database was built from scratch using available court records and information from primary sources. The reporter and a research assistant spent hundreds of hours combing through case files and assembling the database. The team used MySQL and Excel for the first build; as well as Drupal for the online database. 

The investigation also relied on interviews with current and former FBI agents and the use of internal FBI files. In addition, lawyers who defended accused terrorists provided information about their cases. In many cases, the court records were available online. But in other cases, Aaronson had to obtain the records from individual courthouses nationwide or one of the national archive warehouses. Another obstacle was the fact that the federal government does not promote its use of informants. Thus the only way to determine whether an informant was used in a case was to read through the records and find the information buried within.

The unearthed data was presented through charts, graphics, and videos. In an interactive online package, users could search and sort terrorism suspects and check how often they were convicted of lesser charges. Users could also review internal FBI documents, watch surveillance videos, and decode counterterrorism jargon. This project took approximately one year from concept to publication and the core team consisted of five people, plus another dozen team members from the editorial web team.

Screenshot of searchable terror trial database

The challenges

In the competition entry the team behind the project explains: "The FBI is a notoriously secretive organization. As a result it took months of meetings and introductions to put together enough FBI sources to tell the story with authority. The primary challenge was to find the necessary information buried in thousands of pages of court records. Secondly, the information was never in the same place in every court file and thus required weeks of document review. Now the database is available to everyone in searchable form from the Mother Jones’ website."

Advice for aspiring data journalists

"All the information needed is out there; it just needs to be put together. In fact there are many stories like this waiting to written—where a trend can be explained by collecting information no else has assembled. Very few journalists have the time to pursue them today, which makes them all the more critical."


The Data Journalism Awards is a Global Editors Network initiative supported by Google and organized in collaboration with the European Journalism Centre. Please visit the Data Journalism Awards website for the full list of winners.