Terror groups are often decentralised, so mapping their social networks is akin to deciphering “a big spaghetti picture”, says Roy Lindelauf of the Royal Dutch Defence Academy, who develops software for intelligence agencies in the Netherlands. It turns out that the key terrorists in a group are often not the leaders, but rather seemingly low-level people, such as drivers and guides, who keep addresses and phone numbers memorised. Such people tend to stand out in network models because of their high level of connectedness. To find them, analysts map “structural signatures” such as short phone calls placed to the same number just before and after an attack, which may indicate that the beginning and end of an operation has been reported.
The capture of Saddam Hussein in 2003 was due in large part to the mapping of the social networks of his former chauffeurs, according to Bob Griffin, the chief executive of i2, a British firm which developed the software used in the manhunt. Senior members of the Iraqi regime were mostly clueless about the whereabouts of the former president, says Mr Griffin, but modelling the social networks of his chauffeurs who had links to rural property eventually led to the discovery of his hideout, on a farm near his hometown of Tikrit.
Where is network analysis headed? The next step beyond mapping
influence between individuals is to map the influences between larger
segments of society. A forecasting model developed by Venkatramana
Subrahmanian of the University of Maryland does just that. Called SOMA
Terror Organization Portal, it analyses a wide range of information
about politics, business and society in Lebanon to predict, with
surprising accuracy, rocket attacks by the country’s Hizbullah militia
Attacks tend to increase, for example, as more money from Islamic
charities flows into Lebanon. Attacks decrease during election years,
particularly as more Hizbullah members run for office and campaign
energetically. By the middle of 2010 SOMA was sucking up data from more
than 200 sources, many of them newspaper websites. The number of sources
will have more than doubled by the end of the year.
Once these societal networks of influence can be accurately mapped,
they can be used to promote the spread of particular ideas—those that
support stability and democracy, for example. Last year America’s army,
which jointly funds SOMA with the air force, began disbursing about $80m
in five-year research grants for network analysis to promote democracy
and national security.
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