Social networks, Saddam and crime

Last week Slate ran a 5 part series about the hunt for Saddam Hussein with a focus on how social network analysis eventually led to his capture.  It’s an interesting story and worth you time but it got me thinking about the role of intelligence in both the military and civilian spheres over the past few years.

Back in 2003 when I first got to Afghanistan the Army had difficulty getting its head around the environment it found itself in.  It knew what kind of war it wanted to fight but fate wasn’t shaping up to be accommodating.

In fact, one of the first missions I was tasked with upon arriving at Bagram Air Field was identifying the potential avenues of approach from enemy attacks.  I was stunned at the request since, based upon how the request was framed, the underlying assumption was that Bagram was vulnerable to an attack by a large, mechanized force (a la the 40th Army).  It was a long, hard road to get people to understand that the threat would not come from a motorized rifle division but rather from a few guys on foot with some rifles, an RPG and maybe a homemade bomb.  And for those guys the term ‘no go’ terrain didn’t apply in too many places.

And, of course, when you’re oriented to fighting a conventional, set piece battle you tend not to be too worried about the connections and personalities of local leaders, influential members of the community and others.  As a result, there was really no appreciation for or systematic examination of the social environment in which we operated.

It seemed clear at the time that the military could learn some really important lessons from law enforcement at the time.  The ideas of community policing and the way the regular beat cop develops an understanding for his/her area of operations could have provided us with a great deal of information about the various people we were interacting with on a daily basis and who clearly were much more savvy than we were about understanding who actually had influence and wielded power.

As the article points out, the military isn’t ‘there’ yet in terms of fully incorporating social network analysis into its intelligence work, let alone its operational planning, but I suspect the tide has turned and it’s now law enforcement who can learn things from experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.  As you get beyond crimes of impulse and opportunity you start seeing networks becoming involved in all sorts of criminal activity which is often either overlooked, ignored or when the subject of investigation, rarely dealt with decisively precisely because analyses aren’t done to make sure the networks are seriously disrupted.  In that regard, law enforcement is similar to the military circa 2003:

…the American military perpetually refights “the last war we liked.” In that model, the enemy is always organized in a hierarchy…

Similarly, law enforcement likes to fight criminal networks that resemble it.  Nice, neat hierarchies with clear rankings and divisions of labor and responsibility.  Even when they don’t exist you’ll see agencies try to cram networks into those sorts of organizations.  Just look at about any press conference after an arrest of street gang members.  You’ll see an organizational chart in the background that could have been lifted from the board room of a corporation with various ‘generals’, ‘captains’, etc. in neat boxes.  Reality tends not to be so neat, however.

Peter over at he Ministry of State Failure has his own commentary on these articles which is worth your attention as well.  I think he hits on the difference between 2003 (when law enforcement could be the teacher) and today (when law enforcement could be the student) in terms of using social network analysis:

…using scientific (and not merely intuitive) network analysis, calculating “betweenness” of nodes for example, not just doing what even ordinary policemen do all the time when connecting the dots (when they also, at least instinctively, apply the concept of networks), was important to: 1) avoid casualties in unproductive raids; 2) speeden things up.

Law enforcement relies very much on the instinctive use of network analysis.  It seems to reject (with a mystifying degree of intensity) the idea of a systematic approach to this sort of thing as irrelevant and too academic.

I do disagree with Peter on one point however:

The use of network theory, gaining knowledge about networks that can help destroy them, still fits a military-centred approach to world politics “bloody” well. Hunting down network members in often lethal raids may seemingly substitute for persuasion, and more carefully devised, long-term-oriented policies.

That’s just not right.  In fact, I’d argue that network theory may enhance persuasion efforts and longer term policies.  If I want to influence an outcome (organizational, political or military) a good network analysis may tell me that my efforts shouldn’t necessarily focus on the person at the top of the pay scale or organizational chart but rather on someone with the right connections.

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