Are Network Analysis Techniques Successful in Iraq?

In his new book, The War Within, the Washington Post's Bob Woodward claims that breakthrough techniques used to "locate, target and kill key individuals in extremist groups" helped turn the tide against insurgents in Iraq last year. In an interview last night on CBS's 60 Minutes, Woodward shies away from disclosing any details about these techniques--1:32 in--for fear of compromising special operations. But he likens the "special capability" to the introduction of the tank and the airplane in combat:

In September 2006, I wrote about new network analysis capabilities being developed for the intelligence community in an article entitled "Modeling Terrorists." In it I highlighted the work of several groups:

[Prof. Barry] Silvermanâ''s group [at the University of Pennsylvania] focuses on individual agents, but other modelers take a more organizational approach, simulating large-scale social networks on supercomputers and churning out trillions of bytes of data. Models built by Edward MacKerrow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Charles Macal at Argonne National Laboratory, Alok R. Chaturvedi at Purdue University, Desmond Saunders-Newton at BAE Systems, and Kathleen Carley at Carnegie Mellon University use thousands or millions of relatively simple agents to examine how networks form and mutate, how individuals communicate, and who leads and who follows. Carleyâ''s programs, which process real data, stand out for their ability to help analysts imagine how a terrorist network might adaptâ''or notâ''after its leader is killed or captured.

Such work, concentrated in the United States and sustained by tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in funding by various intelligence organizations, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, points to a new era in training and intelligence analysis. The experts developing these systems are reticent about exactly how their programs are being used. But outside observers say it is a good bet that software designed to identify the critical people in a terrorist organization will be usedâ''if it hasnâ''t been alreadyâ''to draw up lists that prioritize which people should be killed or captured so as to do maximum damage to the organization.

There is, of course, no way to know whether Woodward was referring to these kind of social simulations and network analysis techniques. But the recent decrease in violence in Iraq coupled with Woodward's assertions suggest that if nothing else, U.S. intelligence has some new, very accurate arrows in its quiver. And at the very least, these sorts of research projects have contributed to a better understanding of how networks such as Al Qaeda in Iraq function.

Although it is virtually impossible for people outside the military and intelligence communities to assess the real impact of social network analysis tools on counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq, we know that they are being used there as part of the effort to break up networks that build and deploy IEDs, as Spectrum executive editor Glenn Zorpette points out in his current article in Spectrum, "Countering IEDs":

Attacking the network boils down in part to analyzing social networks, collecting and analyzing intelligence, and persistently surveilling places. It has been a difficult challenge, depending as it has on wildly incongruous data, tips, and reports from surveillance systems, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, and from local people suspicious of activity in their neighborhoods. â''Itâ''s a challenging new frontier,â'' says [Colonel Barry L.] Shoop. â''Combining an ­understanding of the psychology and sociology of terrorist networks with probabilistic modeling, complexity theory, forensic science, pattern recognition, and data mining to predict human behavior is new.â''

These techniques are so new that it's a good bet that targeted networks haven't figured out ways to counter them. Yet.

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