It’s not so ISIS: The complex shape of terrorism and its ideological roots, visualized through data


Topic and perspectives

Facing the complex and controversial phenomenon of terrorism, the first challenge for any data analyst is to define what kind of story to tell, what specific perspective to adopt and where to focus the narration.

In our project, It’s not so ISIS, we decided to ‘cluster’ the huge number of terrorist groups by three core sources or ideologies that could be defined as religious, political and ethnic. Given this classification scheme, our objective was to illustrate three narrative threads:

  • how and where terrorism evolved through time
  • the main terrorist groups
  • the type and number of people that they have victimized


This project was aimed at a broad, non-technical audience. For this reason, we adopted a linear storytelling style, with alternating text explanations and data visualizations guiding the reader throughout the narration. The visualizations were designed to be tools for exploring and interacting with the narration, providing an intuitive way to understand the complex dynamics underlying the data.

Our website is organized into five sections: introduction, places, groups, victims and media.

The initial section contains a general overview of the phenomenon and an explanation on the approach we took for our analysis. The subsequent sections provide different perspectives on the same set of data: where the terrorist attacks occured, the responsible group, and their victims.

In order to visually identify the three main ideological roots, and make them intuitive and clear throughout the narration, we decided to use three different colours. Using variations of the primary RGB colors, we hoped that they could be seen as the decomposition of the colour black. In this way, the colours represent three different faces of the same phenomenon.

The first visualization that we used is called a bump chart. We used this chart to display the number of attacks from 1998 to 2015 by ideological root. In this visualization, we wanted to focus the attention on two periods, prior to and post 2007, distinguished by a sudden change in the trends, in particular, an exponential growth in the number of attacks after 2007. This visualization gives a general overview of the trends before we examine the data in further depth.


The data we used comes from merging two existing datasets created by START (national consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, from the University of Maryland):

  • the GTD (Global Terrorism Database)
  • BAAD2 (The Big, Allied and Dangerous)

The GTD data contained a row for each terrorist attack from 1970 to 2015, and a extensive number of variables, including information about the time, place, terrorist group, weapons used, number of victims, type of victims, and so on, for each attack. After verifying the reliability and correctness of the dataset, we cleaned and filtered the data, reducing the number of variables, in order to focus only on the most important ones for our research.

We merged the GTD data with the BAAD2 dataset, which provides information on the main ideologies driving each terrorist group.


In the ‘places’ section of the website, we analyze the worldwide distribution of terrorist attacks from 1998 to 2015. The goal of this analysis was to understand and visualize the countries that are most frequently attacked, in terms of the number of victims and number of attacks, as well as the evolution of these numbers through time.

The main visualization in this section is the world map.

We decided to visualize the distribution of the attacks using a world map. Doing so, let us show the number of victims per terrorist attack grouped by country, as well as allowing the reader to compare the two historical periods identified in the trend overview: from 1998 to 2006, and from 2007 to 2015.

We decided to use a bubble chart to display the number of victims, with clear relative proportions. In order to visualize the bubble chart on the map, we used Carto, a software that allows to create geo-located visualization using json data.

We cleaned and filtered the data in order to create two different datasets for the two different time periods and the software provided us the first drafts of the visualizations.

We then modified these drafts using Adobe Illustrator, creating the two overlapping layers on a fixed background map. The challenge of this process was to create an intuitive and clear overlapping, allowing the reader to compare the data as well as filter them. For this reason, we decided to use two linear textures with opposite orientation, which creates a pattern when overlapped.

Terrorist groups

After examining the geographical visualization of terrorism, we wanted to focus on the protagonists of those attacks: the terrorist groups. Which are the main groups? What ideological roots could be considered more dangerous in terms of numbers of victims and attacks?

In order to visualize a general answer to these questions we decided to use an interactive bubble chart.

The main reason for using this kind of chart was to maintain a visual coherence with the other visualizations. Here again, we used the three main colours to distinguish the three ideological roots and the dimension of the bubbles to represent the number of victims per terrorist group.

The draft of this visualization was created using RawGraphs, an open source web application for the creation of static data visualizations. The initial visualization produced by RawGraphs was modified using Adobe Illustrator in order to change the colours and the distribution of the bubbles. The visualization was made interactive using Javascript. In this case, the interactivity of the visualization was designed to be an tool for exploration; in fact, it allows the reader to navigate among the bubbles and visualize the number of victims and the extended name of the groups.

After this first general visualization, we decided to focus our attention on the most dangerous groups, as measured by the number of their victims. We created a flowchart that shows the countries that are attacked most frequently by these groups, as well as the kinds of weapons most frequently used. This visualization is interactive, allowing the user to filter the information. Again, the colours refer to the three ideological roots of the groups.

The creation process for this visualization was the same of the previous one - starting with RawGraphs, we edited the visual layout using Adobe Illustrator and coded the interactivity with Javascript.


Finally, we wanted to understand the victims of these groups. We visualized different types of information using our data on the victims, such as number, and demographics.

We analyzed the number of people killed from 1998 to 2015 and categorized this into the two periods identified from before, using two different visualizations. The first one is a scatterplot, the goal here is to show the distribution of the attacks throughout time, organized by the most dangerous groups and their ideological roots.

The second visualization is an alluvial chart. In this visualization, we decided to focus the attention on categorizing the targets of the attacks. Again, we focused on the ten most dangerous groups. The flows’ dimensions refer to the quantity of people killed, while the colours are always associated with the three ideological roots. The bar graphs displayed under the flow charts show the total percentage of victims per target, coloured by ideological roots.


The goal of our final section was to compare the patterns we extracted from the data to terrorism narratives presented by the media. In particular, we examined the amount of news coverage given to each terrorist group.

The title of our project, It’s not so ISIS, refers to our willingness to deeply engage with this complex phenomenon through data, and explore beyond the narrative offered by media and mainstream communications. With our project, we are not providing a single definitive answer but revealing a multiplicity of perspectives and angles through which we can examine the phenomenon of terrorism. We hope our work continues to invite further investigations.

About the article author

Giulia Zerbini is a Communication Designer, based in Milan and Boston, as well as a Master Candidate at Politecnico di Milano and Visiting Researcher at Harvard University. Passionate about using visualizations for discovering patterns in data and communicating information in intuitive terms to a broad audience. Background in Ux/Ui and Graphic Design. Illustrator in spare time. Website here.

About the project authors

This is a team project created by Francesco Cosmai, Giacomo Flaim, Francesco Giudice, Barbara Nardella and Giulia Zerbini as part of a capstone Master project at Politecnico di Milano, supervised by Density Design Lab.

Professors: Paolo Ciuccarelli, Marco Fattore, Stefano Mandato, Michele Mauri, Salvatore Zingale.

Teaching Assistants: Angeles Briones, Tommaso Elli, Michele Invernizzi, Azzurra Pini.

Explore the project here.