March 7, 2010

DID THEY CHECK HIS PAGE ON CORPSEBOOK?:

Searching for Saddam: Why social network analysis hasn't led us to Osama Bin Laden. (Chris Wilson, Feb. 26, 2010, Slate)

Network diagrams helped pin down Saddam Hussein after only nine months on the run. Osama Bin Laden, meanwhile, has evaded capture for more than eight years since the United States invaded Afghanistan.

The American military's challenge in chasing Bin Laden isn't directly analogous to what it faced in Iraq. For one thing, fighting an urban insurgency requires an entirely different strategy than picking through the caves of Tora Bora and the mountainous membrane between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But there may be another reason the blueprint for tracking down Saddam doesn't easily graft onto the hunt for Bin Laden: Unlike the insurgency in the early days of the Iraq war, al-Qaida is no longer a real network.

That's the opinion of Marc Sageman, a terrorism expert and former member of the CIA who served in Afghanistan for several years. Sageman, the author of Understanding Terror Networks and Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century, argues that the still-ongoing quest for Osama Bin Laden has worked by one metric: It has effectively relegated Bin Laden to the role of a figurative leader. As the title of his second book implies, Sageman argues that al-Qaida is no longer the structured organization it was before Sept. 11. In fact, he prefers the term "blob" to "network," seeing al-Qaida and its affiliates as a loose, amorphous collection of terrorist organizations who act without central command.

Sageman is a natural skeptic who insists that counterterrorism scholarship is reliant on anecdotes rather than data. When I showed him a copy of the Saddam network, he was dismissive, saying he needed more information about how it was compiled. Under Sageman's "blob" theory, connections between players in terrorist groups evolve far too rapidly for a network diagram to keep up with. Expressing all relationships in terms of nodes and edges, he further argues, cannot account for the nuances of how people are really connected. Sageman believes social network analysis might be useful for drawing conclusions after the fact, when information about a terrorist group is more complete. He remains unconvinced of its utility as a battlefield tool.

While Sageman is one voice in a crowded field of terrorism experts, his point about the pace at which networks shift is a valid one. In Tikrit, players were captured, killed, and replaced at a low enough rate that the network was able to cohere. The churn rate is likely much higher in an extremist group like al-Qaida.

Saddam Hussein's network was also fairly rigid: The connections the dictator made throughout his decades in power were not going to disappear overnight. But unlike an insurgency based on Iraq's ancient tribal traditions, al-Qaida has the ability to shift its structure. "In its third decade, under severe pressure, [al-Qaida] has evolved into a jihadi version of an Internet-enabled direct-marketing corporation structured like Mary Kay, but with martyrdom in place of pink Cadillacs," Steve Coll wrote in The New Yorker in January. "Al-Qaida shifts shapes and seizes opportunities, characteristics that argue for its longevity."


The dead don't network.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 7, 2010 5:50 PM
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