The Terrorism and Foreign Fighters Database, contains comprehensive information about court verdicts for domestic terrorism in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. It also includes verdicts from the trials of people accused of going abroad to fight for the so-called Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria and for pro-Russian separatist forces in the conflict in Ukraine. The database utilises BIRN’s experience of covering terrorism trials in the Western Balkans and includes photographs and videos as well as a resource centre that offers video explainers and PDF booklets on how to report on violent extremism and terrorism.
The project had several important impacts on different levels. Primarily, this was the first time a comprehensive database containing all court verdicts for terrorism and fighting on foreign battlefields was developed for the entire Western Balkan region. Thus its role in informing the public and stakeholders was valuable. Additionally, it revealed how differently countries in the region are tackling terrorism and fighting in Syria or Ukraine. The database revealed for example, how certain countries, in which Muslims were minority, such as Serbia, are taking a much harsher stance on prosecuting fighting in Syria compared to fighting in Ukraine. Thirdly, the database proves as a valuable tool to combat misinformation, as many right wing politicians in the region and even Western Europe, have used fake information to try and claim that the “threat” of Jihadism in the Western Balkans was larger than in fact data shows. Fourthly, the database also contains a resource centre which assists young journalists to learn how to use data in reporting about terrorism and fighting on foreign grounds. Finally, the database provides a platform for future research, as we have seen it quoted by experts who are comparing sentences in the region to that in other parts of the world.
The Terrorism and Foreign Fighters Database was built following the traditional 3-tier architectural pattern, including the front-end display tier (React/Next.js), application tier (Express.js and Node.js), and database tier (mySQL). The application tier exposes a CMS web application for entering data. Next.js was picked for it’s server side rendering feature, which enables better SEO support as well as faster load times. Node.js allows for building fast, scalable network applications, and offers benefits in performance as well as faster development. MySQL is a widely used, fully featured, free-to-use, open source database. The entire system is running in a kubernetes cluster hosted on the Google Cloud Platform, which supports high availability and scaling.
What was the hardest part of this project?
There have been several problematic parts. Firstly, the database was developed in the pandemic, which in the Western Balkans, meant courts were not open or transparent and BIRN journalists had to spend significant time to gather all information necessary to develop the database. Secondly, it was important to make it comparable and easily manoeuvred which was not easy for such a large amount of data. Thirdly, much of the verdicts were delivered in PDF format and some were anonymised, which made them difficult to incorporate in the database, so BIRN journalists utilised their analytical knowledge of cases to insert all necessary data.
What can others learn from this project?
Other journalists can learn how to use raw data, like court verdicts, to develop a multilayered database, which actually informs the public and also assists in breaking down narratives of right wing politicians. Young journalists can use the resource centre to educate themselves on how to use data in reporting about violent extremism and terrorism and how to avoid traps of reporting in a sensationalist manner.