'Terrorist Facebook' – the New Weapon Against al-Qa'ida
Social networking is not just for the MySpace generation. Intelligence agencies are adopting a controversial new technique to identify terrorist masterminds
Intelligence agencies are building up a
Facebook-style databank of international terrorists in order to sift
through it with complex computer programs aimed at identifying key
figures and predicting terrorist attacks before they happen.
By analysing the social networks that exist between known terrorists, suspects
and even innocent bystanders arrested for being in the wrong place at the
wrong time, military intelligence chiefs hope to open a new front in their "war
The idea is to amass huge quantities of intelligence data on people - no
matter how obscure or irrelevant - and feed it into computers that are
programmed to make associations and connections that would otherwise be
missed by human agents, scientists said.
The doctrine is already being actively pursued in Iraq and Afghanistan where
thousands of people have been arrested and interrogated for information that
could be fed into vast computerised databanks for analysis by social network
In addition to information gleaned from interviews with suspects captured in
the field, intelligence agencies are also mining the vast amounts of
telecommunications data collected from emails and telephone calls with the
same surveillance technology. In the US alone, hundreds of millions of
dollars are being spent on developing the data-mining techniques.
"Facebook and Google are doing social networking, which is the technology
for helping you find out who to talk to and for finding out what your
friends know about a person," Professor Carley said. "What social
network analysis is about is giving me the whole of the 'Facebook-style'
data and saying that I'm going to analyse it mathematically to tell you who
the critical people are," she said.
The doctrine, however, has been criticised as time consuming, wasteful and
counterproductive. Critics have also suggested that it has led to gross
violations of human rights, with hundreds and possibly thousands of innocent
people being detained and interrogated for longer than necessary to provide
social network information.
In its most extreme form, the doctrine has led to what is known within US
military circles as the "mosaic philosophy". The philosophy behind
the mosaic theory is that a piece of intelligence data may not mean anything
to the interrogator or even the person who is being interrogated but it can
suddenly seem relevant and crucial when placed as a "tile on the mosaic,"
It has led, the critics argue, to the arrest and interrogation of many
thousands of innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan in the hope of gleaning
any titbits of intelligence that could be fed into computers programmed with
"It's not a new philosophy, but computers and data processing have given
it a new impetus and a new emphasis," said Professor Lawrence
Wilkerson, a retired US Army colonel and former chief of staff to the US
Secretary of State Colin Powell until 2005. "You fuse little bits and
pieces of information, which to the interrogator in the field are basically
meaningless, but they come in and you put them together to paint this bigger
picture," said Professor Wilkerson, who is critical of the doctrine.
"[The mosaic philosophy] is not incredibly well-known. It's arcane, it's
esoteric, it's limited to a very few people," he told The Independent.
Joseph Margulies, professor of law at Northwestern University in Chicago, who
has studied the mosaic philosophy in relation to the detainees at
Guantanamo, said that the technological and mathematical developments in
social network analysis go hand in glove with the rationale behind the
mosaic theory. "The former feeds on the latter. It's the myth that the
computer can know everything, the belief in the omnipotent algorithm,
encouraging you to embrace for longer than necessary the mistakes of the
mosaic theory," Professor Margulies said.
And the collation of vast databanks has another downside. "It also has
the potential to bury you in inane data, where quantity is substituted for
quality," Professor Margulies said. Nevertheless, senior intelligence
officials as well as academic experts in social network analysis believe
that terrorist cells can be monitored effectively by the techniques,
especially in theatres of conflict such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dr Ian McCulloh, a US Army major at West Point Military Academy in New York,
said that he has used social network analysis to work out relationships
between the many hundreds of videos of American deaths filmed by insurgents
"The rationale for how they were related is classified so I can't give
away methods [but] the interpretation was that the cluster of videos were
likely to have been done by the same group... It allowed us to look at the
structure between terrorist groups and actual attacks," he said.
Dr McCulloh is collaborating with Professor Carley on "metanetwork"
analysis, a more sophisticated form of social network analysis. He hopes to
be able to monitor terrorist networks in real time and detect any changes to
indicate that an attack is imminent.
"Before a terrorist event is going to occur there is usually a change in
that organisation as it begins to prepare and plan and resource the event.
In that context I can monitor a network in real time and monitor the change
in behaviour before an event occurs," Dr McCulloh said.
"Social network analysis is to old-fashioned detective work what
statistics is to intuition. It's applying mathematical rigour to what people
have done before," he said.
"It's already taken off in the military structure. Where it's going to go
or how successful it's going to be, I'd be hesitant to say. Social network
analysis is included in the counter-insurgency document of the US Army. It's
in the vernacular and military intelligence people are using it," Dr