The RDWTI defines and categorizes terrorist attacks in order to help analysts, policymakers, and practitioners understand general trends in the threat. A unique feature of the RDWTI concerns the care and consistency with which the definitions of domestic and international terrorism have been maintained throughout the life of the database. This means that RDWTI results are narrowly focused on true incidents of terrorism, as opposed to incidents that might better be classed as other types of crime.
Of course, the concept of "terrorism" is subject to differences of interpretation and perspective: nations, government agencies, and individuals often have quite different definitions of the term. For the RDWTI, RAND has defined terrorism by the nature of the act, not by the identity of the perpetrators. Specifically, terrorism is violence calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm to coerce others into actions they would not otherwise undertake, or refrain from actions they desired to take. Acts of terrorism are generally directed against civilian targets. The motives of all terrorists are political, and terrorist actions are generally carried out in a way that will achieve maximum publicity.
- Example: Though all terrorist acts are criminal, not all crime is terrorism. Accordingly, the RDWTI does not include basic criminal acts, even if they are perpetrated by a terrorist organization: Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) attacks against civilians are included, but not drug-trafficking activities.
- Example:The RDWTI only includes attacks against military targets if such an attack makes a broader political statement: exchanges of fire between al-Fatah and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in border areas between Israel and the Occupied Territories are not included, but the RDWTI does account for incidents like the attack against the USS Cole in Yemen.
The RDWTI incorporates two earlier RAND databases, the RAND Terrorism Chronology Database and the RAND-MIPT Terrorism Incident Database. The RAND Terrorism Chronology Database recorded international terrorist incidents that occurred between 1968 and 1997. International incidents are defined as attacks committed by someone other than a citizen of the country in which the attack occurred, or those requiring attackers to cross international borders. The RAND-MIPT Terrorism Incident Database records domestic and international terrorist incidents from 1998 to 2008. Ongoing data collection also includes both international and domestic terrorism incidents.