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Archive for September, 2011

Small Military Units: The First Line of National Defense

Monday, September 26th, 2011
One of the articles I find myself going back to time and again is Bob Scales’s Armed Forces Journal article on the importance of small military units in the kinds of “hybrid” conflicts that look to be the state of affairs for the next couple of decades.
As the makeup of small unit, localized, high-rhythm, rapidly-changing, and complex situations transforms from primarily COIN-based planning, operations and tactics to more of a mix of CT, CI and HVT, as well as adaptive COIN, the ability for these small units to discover and understand their local situation, and think through what they ought to do to “prevail” will become ever more important.
This always leads me to conclude that “learnings” (as distinguished from training and education) that can be effectively applied in high-rhythm and locally-unique combinations of phenomenon, all aspects of intervention working as a team to construct the most comprehensive and thoughtful picture of the situation in their locality, critical thinking that leads to specific efforts to enhance understanding and uncover unknowns, and a big-picture contextual understanding of how to gather the information that’s necessary to know “the story” of their circumstances, will grow more and more important.
Transferring the ability to “think through” what they’ve got and what to do, at the company captain and company intelligence resources level, that’s what needs to be the priority.  If each situation for each small unit in each locality is unique, you just have to conclude that gathering information, thinking about and understanding the situation, and independent decision-making will be keys to “success.” Technology is an important component of improving abilities, but it is an enabler of enhanced effectiveness, not the core of the answer.
Scales certainly has this view, as you will see from the article, which follows.
We’d like to hear from you about your perspective on Scales’s point-of-view, and the importance of small military units in the types of conflicts you see in our future.  Please comment on the Roundtable, at www.lsi-llc.com, or send me a note at john@lsi-llc.com, and I’ll share your ideas and views with our almost 5,000 readers.  And please pass these notes on to others you think ought to be included in our discussions, and we’ll add them to our weekly discussions.
Thanks.
John
 
Small Unit Dominance: The Strategic Importance Of Tactical Reform
BY MAJ. GEN. ROBERT H. SCALES (RET.)

Slightly more than 40 years ago my unit was butchered by elements from the North Vietnamese 29th Regiment at a mountaintop firebase overlooking the A Shau Valley. Nineteen of my 55 soldiers were killed or wounded severely enough to warrant evacuation. The loss was mainly my fault. I wasn’t new at the job. This was my fourth command so I thought I knew what I was doing. A much smarter and better trained and equipped enemy taught me that I did not.

The event made me promise that I would never go to war again No. 2 in a two-sided contest. It also burned into the depths of my soul several questions that have lingered and festered ever since. I asked why the most technologically advanced country on the planet was unable to make better weapons and equipment than the enemy. I asked why my soldiers were so poorly prepared physically, intellectually and emotionally for this fight. I asked why my experience as a combat leader could be gained only by spilling their blood.

BETTER BUT NOT DOMINANT

We are better now. Today, we have the best-trained soldiers and Marines in the world. Since 9/11, the ground services have made enormous strides in pushing the latest gear to soldiers in the field using the Rapid Fielding Initiative. We know that investments made recently to better equip soldiers are saving lives. In World War II and Vietnam, an individual infantryman cost about $1,900 to equip. The “ratio” of killed to wounded in small-unit action in both those wars was about 1 to 3.4. Investments in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased to $17,000 per infantryman. The killed-to-wounded ratio is now about 1 to 9, and the casualty rate has decreased from 3 percent to less than a third of 1 percent within close-combat small units.

Investments have been sufficient to make small units better. But occasional incidents in places such as Fallujah and Sadr City in Iraq and Forward Operating Base Keating and Wanat in Afghanistan make it evident that the American military hasn’t come as far as it should in its ability to dominate in the tactical fight. Failure to dominate at the tactical level to the degree we are capable is all the more incongruous because success in today’s “hybrid” wars is achieved by the patient and often dangerous application of force by thousands of mostly Army and Marine squads, platoons and teams. These small units patrol and operate principally from isolated outposts and forward operating bases, along primitive roads and trails, and among the people within villages and towns.

This incongruity is amplified with the realization that our tactical failures are nothing new. In World War II, infantry was the third most deadly job behind submarine and bomber crews. In a half century of wars fought after World War II (a period often termed “the American Era of War”), submarine and bomber crew combat deaths have dropped to virtually nil. Yet as a proportion of total combat deaths, infantry has increased from 71 percent in World War II to 81 percent in wars fought since. Thus four out of five combat deaths have been suffered by a force that makes up less than 4 percent of uniformed manpower within the Defense Department. Half of those deaths occurred while simply trying to find the enemy and almost all occurred within less than a mile of contact. In Afghanistan, 89 percent of all deaths occur in small units and more than 90 percent occur within 400 meters of a road.

The final incongruity comes with the realization that soldiers and Marines — those most likely to die — are, when compared with their colleagues from other services, often the very ones still least well-equipped and trained for their very dangerous calling. Since World War II, our air and sea forces have dominated in their respective domains; ground forces have not. Put aside the humanitarian aspect for a moment and consider the national strategic consequences of this cosmic incongruity. Our enemies from Lin Piao to Ho Chi Minh to Osama bin Laden all recognize that our vulnerable strategic center of gravity is dead Americans. Thus it comes as no surprise that the common thread among all of our enemies over the past half-century has been the imperative to kill Americans not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. So why don’t we do better at lessening our strategic vulnerabilities by doing a better job of preserving the lives of those most likely to die? The answers are many and complex.

A GENERATIONAL PROBLEM

While politicians and policymakers recognize the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, they tend to turn a blind eye toward the harsh realities of close combat. Familiar Beltway concerns such as winning against big-ticket adversaries, fighting in space, defending cyberspace, controlling the global commons and the challenges of a “whole of government” approach to strategy inevitably trump the more bloody and uncomfortable aspects of “intimate killing” at the small-unit level. The lingering dissonance between the Beltway and the tactical battle has been pervasive for decades and spans every political party and administration from Truman’s to Obama’s.

Too often those who don’t know war accept the industrial age view that soldiering is inherently more dangerous than other forms of combat. Likewise, policymakers tend to slight the tactical dimension by assuming that the American people will not allow another unpopular ground war. The assumption misses the point that in today’s wars the enemy chooses the time, place, duration, intensity and the dimension in which future conflicts are to be fought.

Americans seek to solve battlefield problems with technology. Technology is a vital ingredient in achieving success at the tactical level. But dominance on the tactical battlefield is achieved more by leveraging the human, social, cultural, behavioral and cognitive sciences as well as the physical sciences. The weapons acquisition community is still optimized to develop technologically sophisticated big-ticket systems using a process that often takes decades. The innovation cycle is much shorter at the tactical level, where our enemies intend to win and, all too often, are able to adapt to changes on the tactical battlefield faster than our centrally controlled acquisition system can respond.

Defense Department scientific communities have never made small combat units a priority for research and development at the national level. There has never been an attempt to achieve a “leap-ahead” advantage on the ground such as we achieved with stealth or precision in the air. Part of this neglect is due to the fact that small combat units do not employ capital-intensive material. For the most part, their effectiveness is amplified using small-scale devices, systems and weapons that are “hung” on soldiers and their leaders. This “Christmas tree” effect too often results in a one-off, incremental approach to developing leap-ahead technologies for equipping small units.

We still view the preparation of small units for combat as an industrial age process of mass production, even though we live in an era of boutique approaches to the training, selection, bonding and acculturation of very specialized fighting forces. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on instrumented training devices and simulators for aerial systems, yet too often small-unit leaders still must gain proficiency the old-fashioned way — in combat by shedding the blood of their soldiers.

Small-unit leaders are required to make life-and-death decisions in the heat of battle, a level of responsibility formerly reserved for officers several times their grade and experience. Yet our training and educational establishments have not been able to provide junior leaders with the intuitive, “in extremis” decision-making skills they need to prepare them for such responsibility. Our intelligence, surveillance and communications communities too often try to solve tactical problems using strategic systems and approaches. This cultural proclivity serves to inform and connect generals to their subordinates rather than provide soldiers and their leaders with the ability to maintain intimate “touch” with one another in the heat of battle and to provide them with information critical to their survival.

Senior leaders frequently excuse inadequacies at the small-unit level by proclaiming that they “give the field what it asks for.” But soldiers engaged in the day-to-day business of fighting are not always the best bellwether for determining what they need. Leaving future requirements to individual services and field commanders often results in a game of catch-up that follows rather than leads the initiatives of the enemy.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE

Experience in today’s wars has taught the lesson that the actions of small combat units have national strategic consequences. Therefore we must focus attention on how we fight at the tactical level of war as a national, not a service-specific, task. To that end, we should begin by asking the defense secretary to recognize and proclaim publicly that dominance on the tactical battlefield is an objective of importance to the nation — and to pledge the human and fiscal resources necessary to make our military as dominant on the ground as it is today in the air, in space and on the sea. The Defense Department leadership must develop the means to add a tactical perspective to strategic policymaking such that the needs of small units are exposed and addressed by DoD budgeting and policy-making staffs.

We must challenge the research-and-development communities to focus on the task of small-unit dominance by creating a national effort to that end. Such a program would seek to meld the physical and human sciences into a holistic effort. The administration should consider creating a single DoD-level small-unit senior executive steering group charged with the development of a multiservice program of small-unit training, doctrine and materiel development. This body would be led by representatives from the Army, Marine Corps and Special Operations Command as well as representatives from combatant commands and DoD research-and-development laboratories. A national effort to achieve small-unit dominance should be expanded well beyond the Defense Department to embrace a nationwide small-unit “community of practice” that brings together the best and brightest from academia, industry, the civilian law enforcement sector as well as public and private research-and-development institutions.

During the Vietnam War, the air services learned painfully the value of simulations as a means for “steepening the learning curve” in exercises like Top Gun and Red Flag. Yet after nine years of war, no effective simulation is available to perform the same life-saving function for small units. As a first priority, the Pentagon should immediately create a national-level small combat unit simulation and gaming effort managed by the ground services but funded by a separate (and fenced) line within the Defense Department. To assure that such an effort would survive internecine budgetary battles, legislation should be enacted that would set aside a percentage of all DoD simulations funding (say 20 percent) for small units and small-unit leader simulations.

Creating very high performing small units is as much a human challenge as a technological challenge. Thus this effort would seek to prepare small units for combat in a manner analogous to the way professional sports teams are recruited, selected, trained, acculturated, bonded and remunerated. Likewise, the medical and mental health communities must be challenged to develop a strategic scheme for selecting and inoculating small-unit individuals and leaders from the stresses of close combat.

Today, the services measure and report readiness by divisions and brigades. Experience in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that such measurements are too coarse. The services must be compelled to develop a single objective standard for assessing and measuring the performance of small units and small-unit leaders with the objective of verifying that no small unit is sent into combat unprepared.

In July, I watched the Afghanistan war documentary “Restrepo” play out on the screen and compared it to my experience decades ago: same type of unit (airborne light infantry), same lousy rifle (M16/M4), same helicopter (CH-47), same machine gun (M2), same young men trying to deal with the fear of violent death. Seared in my brain is the image of a young soldier at Fire Base Restrepo hacking away at hard clay and granite trying frantically to dig a fighting position. The U.S. is spending more than $300 billion on a new fighter plane. We haven’t lost a fighter pilot to enemy action since 1972. Why after nine years of war can’t we give a close-combat soldier a better way to dig a hole? For that matter, why do soldiers exiting fire bases not have some means of looking over the next hill? Why doesn’t every soldier have his own means to talk to his comrades by radio? Why can’t soldiers on a remote fire base detect an approaching enemy using sensors? Why can’t soldiers rely on robots to carry heavy loads and accomplish particularly dangerous tasks? I could go on, but you get the point.

These challenges can be met only by demanding that our national-level policy and planning staffs look at war from the ground up rather than the top down. What’s missing is not a lack of empathy or concern but the crushing imperative for our leaders to bridge the enormous cultural gap that has existed for two generations between the political and government elite and the soldiers they send to do the dirty task of intimate killing. Closing this cultural gap will take time to be sure. But if we are involved, as the Quadrennial Defense Review says, in a long period of persistent conflict, then we have an obligation to start now to change the culture. The Army and Marine leadership have done just about all they can within the narrow confines of their budgeting and weapons-buying authorities. It’s time for the country to pay attention and act. Our close-combat soldiers and leaders deserve nothing less.

Responses to Last Week’s Article “Drift Into Extremism: Immigrant Communities and Terrorism”

Monday, September 19th, 2011
We got lots of comments and perspectives on last week’s article, “Drift Into Extremism: Immigrant Communities and Terrorism.”  That article, by Dr. Adam Silverman, a Culture and Foreign Language Advisor at the Army War College, can be found on the Roundtable, at www.lsi-llc.com.
Here’s one of the very thoughtful responses to that piece:
“I would beg to differ that, ‘The comparative data on immigrant and ethnic communities clearly demonstrates that the children and grandchildren of immigrants have a very similar life course for drifting into illicit and illegal behavior.’  Statistics, and quantitative analysis, can always be shaped to support an argument, and I could offer an equally compelling argument of how many immigrant/expat communities have far greater percentages of success stories than the converse. 
“‘A related concern is the drift into extremism not of immigrants or expats (both Atta and Abdulmutallab, from well-off families, embraced violent, reactionary Islam while students in non-Muslim settings), but of young Muslims who reside in states that are majority Muslim.’ Muslims in Muslim states drift into extremism….to make the statement more obvious should we not say…..Extremists in various environments drift into extremism.  My generalization overstates a reality of human behavior.   Are we talking about Islamic states (is that an issue?), or we talking about Muslims in those states (another issue?), or the Islam (third issue?).   The fringe will always resort to extraordinary means, because achieving disproportionate results through calamitous actions can be useful to their desired end-state.”
“I have also seen how decision-makers are often so time-constrained that they become merely recipients of information.  If they have achieved this certain stature not by intellectual capacity, but rather longevity and some political cunning (ideally you want a healthy dose of all three), then the absence of the former, makes them prone to reckless action when they hear statements like the one above.”
“The article scratches the surface on issues that beg additional scrutiny.  This simplifies what I think is a larger issue:  what drives rational human behavior to such extremes?  The presumption here is that we have a standard for determining (at least on some type of fixed plane) left, middle, right.  These are social constructs that typically bring the mass of any collective into the middle yielding moderate behavior.  Even that term, ‘moderate,’ defines a norm with constraints that bound meaning.  OK, social scientist I am not, but let’s look at our own back yard for a second.  American voting history has typically demonstrated moderate tendencies ……the fringe are marginalized early in the process.   Radical behavior, manifested through terrorism is abhorrent.  Radical actions, manifested through political action, may have equally distasteful outcomes (over a decade of poor economic policy has now put us in a situation where poverty is on the rise and recession lingers).”
“Another point:  Take something that no ‘terrorism expert’ has yet to speak up on because it forces them to challenge every theory they have.  The infamous Arab Spring/Uprising/Awakening  has little to do with the terrorist cause.  The most ironic part of this, is that the foundation of AQ manifesto was premised upon (among other things) providing a voice and opportunity to all Muslims who were otherwise oppressed by their state structures.   So what they were trying to achieve was opportunity for all, but the vast majority of uprisers in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, and Syria…..do NOT cite AQ or UBL as the cause that offered them motivation to protest and plant the seeds for revolution.”
 
“Back to my question.  What drives people to this extreme behavior when the cause they are championing wasn’t even supported and reinforced by their constituents in those Muslim societies that the article talks about?”
The questions in this commentary are at the heart of our ability to anticipate, defuse and deal with many similar situations and localized conflicts in the 60+ very poor and poorly governed areas around our globe that many believe will be the norm over the coming decades.
In the coming week we’ll look at this central issue from two additional perspectives, one that puts threats in a different context relative to other types of disasters, and one that looks at military efforts to understand and “manage” instability and conflict at the very localized levels that may be the way we have to “deal with” them.
Lots to chew on here, so we’ll look forward to your comments and views, and share them with our 4,500+ readers.  Please contribute your comments on the Roundtable, at www.lsi-llc.com, or send me a note at john@lsi-llc.com, and we’ll use them to continue the discussion.
Best,
John

Comments On Last Week’s Note: The Self-Radicalized Terrorist Phenomenon

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

We got many comments on last week’s note.  Here are a few to give you some idea of the range of thinking:

” ‘Is it truly important to define the concept of ‘terrorists’ or ‘terrorism?’ ”  Or perhaps is this a significant point because government policies are developed as an adjunct to agreed upon definitions?  This can be a real dilemma for the policy-maker, for it is definitional concepts that establish the parameters by which counter-terrorist strategies, at both the national and international level, are developed.   Unfortunately the ability to build a consensus relative to these terms is an elusive proposition since there seems to be no precise or widely accepted definition beyond the premise that “terrorism is what the bad guys do.”   Much of the difficulty here stems from the fact that people tasked with defining terrorism often have a vested interest in either countering it or granting it an aura of legitimacy.  “Some governments label as terrorism all violent acts committed by their political opponents,” writes Brian Jenkins, “while anti-government extremists frequently claim to be the victims of government terror.”   For the purpose of this study the following definitions apply:
*       Terrorism: A purposeful use of politically, socially, economically or religiously  motivated violence, conducted by a non-state group.  The violence is symbolic in that the Proximate Target (the target of violence) can be separate from the Ultimate Target (the target of influence).   Terrorism is thus an alternative form of coercive diplomacy whereby the primary mechanism to influence the Ultimate Target is through the inducement of fear and anxiety.”

********************************

“This does beg a much longer discussion, no doubt, but as a quick summary reply only, the percentage of non-Muslim ‘terrorists’ out there today is minimal and any profiling effort must include this as a key element.  Only our politically correct insanity keeps us from doing it now.  I think if we broach the subject, we should be honest with ourselves and base our response on an unconstrained analysis of the threat.  We hamstring our own IPB by ruling out Islam as a (maybe THE) major factor in defining our current threat.”

**********************

” ‘Just because I say the terrorist’s words when I commit the crime, does that make me a terrorist instead of a criminal or a malcontent or a psychiatric case?’ “

“it depends on the underpinning motivation.  If it’s rooted in the perception that your act of violence will bring attention to and/or correct a perceived social/political injustice….then yes, you may well be a terrorist….in addition to being a criminal and a mal-content….or a psych case…… .”

*******************************

Drift into Extremism: Immigrant Communities and Terrorism

Originally published on http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2010/01/drift-into-extremism-immigrant-communities-and-terrorism-adam-silverman-ph-d.html.

Adam L. Silverman PhD[1]

Culture & Foreign Language Advisor

U.S. Army War College

“With the recent arrests of five young Muslim American men in Pakistan as part of an alleged attempt to take part in violence and terrorism on behalf of extremist Islam, the recent shooting at Ft. Hood by a Muslim American in the US Army, the interruption of a plot this past fall to create explosives out of common items such as hydrogen peroxide, and the failed attempt to use a crush detonator chemical explosive to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit, has once again led to a larger discussion about the radicalization of Muslims in the US and other countries; especially as it pertains to the threat from or countering of terrorism.[2]

 

 All of the individuals involved with these incidents were part of immigrant or expatriot communities: Pakistani, Afghan, Palestinian, Nigerian and as such share similarities with the men who perpetrated the London suicide bombings in July of 2005 and Muhammed Atta – the ringleader of the 9-11 cell.  Most, but not all, are second or third generation members of immigrant communities with the exceptions being the expats, such as Attah and the Nigerian underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

 

While it is refreshing to see the acknowledged experts on terrorism recognize that the perceptions of American actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other countries with majority populations are a contributing factor to the choices that these men have made, and that others will likely make, it is actually necessary to drill down further and try to focus on what may be setting the conditions that create susceptibility to these perceptions and attitudes.  Now that we’ve identified the drivers of the learning dynamic, the definitions that are favorable to engaging in extremist Islamic violence and terrorism and neutralizing of the prohibitions against it, we also need to identify the structural dynamic that is driving the learning process.

 

 The comparative data on immigrant and ethnic communities clearly demonstrates that the children and grandchildren of immigrants have a very similar life course for drifting into illicit and illegal behavior.[3]   Most first generation immigrants, unless they specifically relocate in order to engage in criminal and illegal activities (usually some form of organized crime or terrorism, and often directed at their own communities) or drift into it as a result of exposure as foreigners living abroad, do not have the time to offend, rather its their children and grandchildren who begin to drift into illegal activities.  While there have fortunately only been a small number of the members of these Islamic immigrant and expatriot groups who have drifted into extremism violence and terrorism, rather than more traditional forms of illegality, the pattern that is beginning to emerge seems to conform to that of other immigrant groups.

 

The significant difference is that when young second and third generation Muslim immigrants, as well as Muslim expats, drift, some of them are being captured by religious and educational institutions which have been specifically funded to promote the most extreme, reactionary, and violence justifying version of Islam available.  For instance, MAJ Hasan, the recently arrested Pakistani-American men from VA, and the 2005 London bombers – all 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants[4] conform to these patterns.  When they felt the competing demands of their immigrant subculture in conflict with the surrounding culture and subcultures, as well as their other social identities they resolved their identity and ideational conflicts by through adoption of the most extreme, reactionary, and violent offshoot of Islam.  MAJ Hasan was in correspondence with a reactionary cleric, as well as active on extremist websites.  The five young men from VA who are being extradited from Pakistan back to the US are alleged to have travelled to Pakistan for training, and the 2005 London bombers had flirted with extremist preaching in British mosques, one of their members had travelled to the Pakistan/Afghanistan region for training, and all were active on the extremist websites. 

 

A related concern is the drift into extremism not of immigrants or expats (both Atta and Abdulmutallab, from well off families, embraced violent, reactionary Islam while students in non-Muslim settings), but of young Muslims who reside in states that are majority Muslim.  A number of foundations and charities, primarily funded from Saudi Arabia[5], seek to spread the extremist, reactionary, and often violence promoting Wahabbi offshoot of Islam throughout both the Muslim and non-Muslim parts of the world through the establishment of mosques, madrassas, and mosque schools (kutbs).  As a result more and more young Muslim men are exposed to religious definitions favorable towards intolerance of other versions of Islam, let alone other religions, neutralizing to the prohibitions against violence, and to examples for imitation of martyrs whose violent behaviors and actions should be emulated.  When the legitimate and constructed grievances of these young men are added to the structural and learning environments a powerful set of drivers for negative violent extremism and terrorism are put into play.  There is little that the US can do to stop this dynamic, given that we are dependent on the Saudis, as a lynchpin of OPEC, for our energy needs.

 

The resolution to this social structural/social learning behavioral dynamic requires two reinforcing courses of actions.  The first is on the structural side and may in fact be the hardest part: better integration of Muslim immigrants into their new states and societies.  While the US has, historically, done a very good job of this, there have been serious setbacks due to reactions from the 9-11 attacks.[6]  The American record, however, is clearly head and shoulders above those of many European states in which the attempt to integrate immigrants from Muslim communities has taken exceedingly strident forms: the banning of head scarves in France, the new ban on minaret construction in Switzerland, and the ghettoization of many Dutch Muslims as just a few examples.  The American track record has always been better because America is not an ethnically homogenous society; our ideal, even if we do not always achieve it, is to accept those coming to seek a better life.  So the first recommendation is to zealously try to achieve that ideal of welcoming newcomers and integrating them. That said we, as Americans, seem to be recently loosing too many young Muslim immigrants to extremism.  While there is no quick or fast solution to this problem, the second thing that we do need to do is be vigilant about, is falling into the hysteria trap that we have seen sweep up many of our elected officials, media personalities, elites, and notables since the failed attempt to bring down that Northwest flight right before Christmas 2009.  Part of embracing the freak out always seems to include bizarre calls for more profiling, even though all evidence clearly indicates that profiling is no more than the cold reading that mentalists use in their stage shows[7], as well as the demands that we invade and attack even more Muslim countries and areas, and get tougher in dealing with Muslims.  These seemingly reflexive reactions by noted American leaders and commentators are seen by Muslims around the world and they provide free information operations and psychological operations for al Qaeda and other Muslim extremists by giving the truth to the lies that al Qaeda spreads about America and its intentions.”

________________________________

[1]  Adam L. Silverman, PhD was the Field Social Scientist and Team Leader for Human Terrain Team Iraq 6 (HTT IZ6) assigned to the 2BCT/1AD from OCT 2007 to OCT 2008.  Upon his redeployment to the US he served as the US Army Human Terrain System Strategic Advisor through June 2009.  The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the 2BCT/1AD, the US Army Human Terrain System, or the US Army.

[2]http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/12/us/12assess.html?_r=1&pagewanted=1&sq=scott%20shane&st=cse&scp=2, http://www.latimes.com/news/nation-and-world/la-na-us-radicalization7-2009dec07,0,7201060,full.story, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2009/1106/p02s16-usgn.html

[3] One of the best single volumes on this, one I used when I taught comparative criminology, is: Tonry, Michael H. Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration: Comparative Cross National Perspectives. University of Chicago Press

[4] The one exception here is of one of the 2005 London bombers who moved from Jamaica to England with his mother when he was a boy.

[5]http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/saudi/analyses/madrassas.html. Blanchard, CM. Islamic Religious Schools, Madrasas: Background. Congressional Research Service, 2007.

[6] It is hard to empirically determine just how much of an increase in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab behavior has risen since 9-11.  The data, as well as the discussion, has become a hotly contested political arena pitting groups like the ADL, SPLC, and CAIR on one side and a variety of neo-Conservative organizations, such as the American Forum for Truth Investigative Report (a Dr. Daniel Pipes offshoot organization) on the other.  I would refer everyone to the actual official data maintained by the US Government at: http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/hc2008/index.html.

[7]  http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/11/12/071112fa_fact_gladwell. This is perhaps the best, short (under ten pages), and easily accessible explanation and critique of the science of behavioral profiling I have come across.

Drift into Extremism: Immigrant Communities and Terrorism

Adam L. Silverman PhD[1]

With the recent arrests of five young Muslim American men in Pakistan as part of an alleged attempt to take part in violence and terrorism on behalf of extremist Islam, the recent shooting at Ft. Hood by a Muslim American in the US Army, the interruption of a plot this past fall to create explosives out of common items such as hydrogen peroxide, and the failed attempt to use a crush detonator chemical explosive to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit, has once again led to a larger discussion about the radicalization of Muslims in the US and other countries; especially as it pertains to the threat from or countering of terrorism.[2]  All of the individuals involved with these incidents were part of immigrant or expatriot communities: Pakistani, Afghan, Palestinian, Nigerian and as such share similarities with the men who perpetrated the London suicide bombings in July of 2005 and Muhammed Atta – the ringleader of the 9-11 cell.  Most, but not all, are second or third generation members of immigrant communities with the exceptions being the expats, such as Attah and the Nigerian underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

While it is refreshing to see the acknowledged experts on terrorism recognize that the perceptions of American actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other countries with majority populations are a contributing factor to the choices that these men have made, and that others will likely make, it is actually necessary to drill down further and try to focus on what may be setting the conditions that create susceptibility to these perceptions and attitudes.  Now that we’ve identified the drivers of the learning dynamic, the definitions that are favorable to engaging in extremist Islamic violence and terrorism and neutralizing of the prohibitions against it, we also need to identify the structural dynamic that is driving the learning process. 

 The comparative data on immigrant and ethnic communities clearly demonstrates that the children and grandchildren of immigrants have a very similar life course for drifting into illicit and illegal behavior.[3]  Most first generation immigrants, unless they specifically relocate in order to engage in criminal and illegal activities (usually some form of organized crime or terrorism, and often directed at their own communities) or drift into it as a result of exposure as foreigners living abroad, do not have the time to offend, rather its their children and grandchildren who begin to drift into illegal activities.  While there have fortunately only been a small number of the members of these Islamic immigrant and expatriot groups who have drifted into extremism violence and terrorism, rather than more traditional forms of illegality, the pattern that is beginning to emerge seems to conform to that of other immigrant groups. 

The significant difference is that when young second and third generation Muslim immigrants, as well as Muslim expats, drift, some of them are being captured by religious and educational institutions which have been specifically funded to promote the most extreme, reactionary, and violence justifying version of Islam available.  For instance, MAJ Hasan, the recently arrested Pakistani-American men from VA, and the 2005 London bombers – all 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants[4] conform to these patterns.  When they felt the competing demands of their immigrant subculture in conflict with the surrounding culture and subcultures, as well as their other social identities they resolved their identity and ideational conflicts by through adoption of the most extreme, reactionary, and violent offshoot of Islam.  MAJ Hasan was in correspondence with a reactionary cleric, as well as active on extremist websites.  The five young men from VA who are being extradited from Pakistan back to the US are alleged to have travelled to Pakistan for training, and the 2005 London bombers had flirted with extremist preaching in British mosques, one of their members had travelled to the Pakistan/Afghanistan region for training, and all were active on the extremist websites. 

A related concern is the drift into extremism not of immigrants or expats (both Atta and Abdulmutallab, from well off families, embraced violent, reactionary Islam while students in non-Muslim settings), but of young Muslims who reside in states that are majority Muslim.  A number of foundations and charities, primarily funded from Saudi Arabia[5], seek to spread the extremist, reactionary, and often violence promoting Wahabbi offshoot of Islam throughout both the Muslim and non-Muslim parts of the world through the establishment of mosques, madrassas, and mosque schools (kutbs).  As a result more and more young Muslim men are exposed to religious definitions favorable towards intolerance of other versions of Islam, let alone other religions, neutralizing to the prohibitions against violence, and to examples for imitation of martyrs whose violent behaviors and actions should be emulated.  When the legitimate and constructed grievances of these young men are added to the structural and learning environments a powerful set of drivers for negative violent extremism and terrorism are put into play.  There is little that the US can do to stop this dynamic, given that we are dependent on the Saudis, as a lynchpin of OPEC, for our energy needs.

The resolution to this social structural/social learning behavioral dynamic requires two reinforcing courses of actions.  The first is on the structural side and may in fact be the hardest part: better integration of Muslim immigrants into their new states and societies.  While the US has, historically, done a very good job of this, there have been serious setbacks due to reactions from the 9-11 attacks.[6]  The American record, however, is clearly head and shoulders above those of many European states in which the attempt to integrate immigrants from Muslim communities has taken exceedingly strident forms: the banning of head scarves in France, the new ban on minaret construction in Switzerland, and the ghettoization of many Dutch Muslims as just a few examples.  The American track record has always been better because America is not an ethnically homogenous society; our ideal, even if we do not always achieve it, is to accept those coming to seek a better life.  So the first recommendation is to zealously try to achieve that ideal of welcoming newcomers and integrating them. That said we, as Americans, seem to be recently loosing too many young Muslim immigrants to extremism.  While there is no quick or fast solution to this problem, the second thing that we do need to do is be vigilant about, is falling into the hysteria trap that we have seen sweep up many of our elected officials, media personalities, elites, and notables since the failed attempt to bring down that Northwest flight right before Christmas 2009.  Part of embracing the freak out always seems to include bizarre calls for more profiling, even though all evidence clearly indicates that profiling is no more than the cold reading that mentalists use in their stage shows[7], as well as the demands that we invade and attack even more Muslim countries and areas, and get tougher in dealing with Muslims.  These seemingly reflexive reactions by noted American leaders and commentators are seen by Muslims around the world and they provide free information operations and psychological operations for al Qaeda and other Muslim extremists by giving the truth to the lies that al Qaeda spreads about America and its intentions.


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[1] Adam L. Silverman, PhD was the Field Social Scientist and Team Leader for Human Terrain Team Iraq 6 (HTT IZ6) assigned to the 2BCT/1AD from OCT 2007 to OCT 2008.  Upon his redeployment to the US he served as the US Army Human Terrain System Strategic Advisor through June 2009.  The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the 2BCT/1AD, the US Army Human Terrain System, or the US Army.

[2]http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/12/us/12assess.html?_r=1&pagewanted=1&sq=scott%20shane&st=cse&scp=2, http://www.latimes.com/news/nation-and-world/la-na-us-radicalization7-2009dec07,0,7201060,full.story, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2009/1106/p02s16-usgn.html

[3] One of the best single volumes on this, one I used when I taught comparative criminology, is: Tonry, Michael H. Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration: Comparative Cross National Perspectives. University of Chicago Press

[4] The one exception here is of one of the 2005 London bombers who moved from Jamaica to England with his mother when he was a boy.

[5] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/saudi/analyses/madrassas.html. Blanchard, CM. Islamic Religious Schools, Madrasas: Background. Congressional Research Service, 2007.

[6] It is hard to empirically determine just how much of an increase in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab behavior has risen since 9-11.  The data, as well as the discussion, has become a hotly contested political arena pitting groups like the ADL, SPLC, and CAIR on one side and a variety of neo-Conservative organizations, such as the American Forum for Truth Investigative Report (a Dr. Daniel Pipes offshoot organization) on the other.  I would refer everyone to the actual official data maintained by the US Government at: http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/hc2008/index.html.

[7] http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/11/12/071112fa_fact_gladwell. This is perhaps the best, short (under ten pages), and easily accessible explanation and critique of the science of behavioral profiling I have come across.

We’d like to hear your comments and viewpoints, and to share them with out readers.  Please comment on the Roundtable at www.lsi-llc.com, or send me a note at john@lsi-llc.com.

Best,

John

My 9/11 Story Is A Positive One

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

We were fortunate to spend Friday and Friday evening with the families of the eight Naval Intelligence professionals who perished at the Pentagon.  We see them every year to remember their fallen family members.  The families are all good people.  They are people just like us, who forever will share a special bond.  They have become very important to us, dear friends.  In them, with each passing year, I see more of the good in them and the best of mankind.  They, too, are heroes.

God bless us all on this day.

John

Back To Work! The Self-Radicalized Individual Terrorist Phenomenon

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Well, Labor Day is behind us, and it’s time to get back to work, including discussing the important topics of the day.  One of those is the increasing numbers of individual terrorists, operating independently of any seeming communication or conversation with terrorist organizations except for an Internet connection and some of the same unhappiness and disenfranchisement that we have seen across “those places”, the 60+ very poor and unstable countries we usually associate with terrorist threats.
It looks, however, increasingly like “those places” are also “our towns”!  Fairfax, Spokane, Corvallis, Ft. Hood, Oslo, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Times Square, London, and more of our towns also are home to the young, unhappy, marginalized, maybe poor……candidates to strike out for a variety of reasons. I see us in the West sometimes calling them “misfits” and “criminals”, and not “terrorists”……is one man’s shooter or looter another man’s terrorist?
How hard it must be to accumulate enough data on an individual…..often one who may have never traveled, never owned a gun, maybe never even had a criminal record….to cause them to rise to the level where there is some evidence of tendencies that are precursors of violence, whatever its name?
If we profile everyone for indicators and steps toward potential to go terrorist, is it still profiling?
What’s really indicative of likely future terrorist tendencies, if I haven’t done anything yet?  How can we imagine all of the unimaginable possible terrorist acts and include that in our mining of individual’s lives to find the true indicators of future tendencies?  Is more of our population really ADHD now, for example, or has a similar percentage of our population always suffered, but we just didn’t know what to look for?
Just because I say the terrorist’s words when I commit the crime, does that make me a terrorist instead of a criminal or a mal-content or a psychiatric case?
Following are a couple of August articles that grapple with this topic.
We’d like to share your observations and ideas with our readers.  Please comment on the Roundtable at www.lsi-llc.com, or send me a note at john@lsi-llc.com, and we’ll publish them.Best,John
 
Fighting Grassroots Terrorism: How Local Vigilance Can Help
By Scott Stewart
August 3, 2011

In the wake of the  July 22 Oslo attacks, as I have talked with people in the United States and Europe, I have noticed two themes in the conversations. The first is the claim that the attacks came from an unexpected source and were therefore impossible to stop. The second theme is that detecting such attacks is the sole province of dedicated counterterrorism authorities.As discussed in last week’s Security Weekly, even in so-called unexpected attacks there are specific operational tasks that must be executed in order to conduct an operation. Such tasks can be detected, and unexpected attacks emanating from lone wolf actors can indeed be thwarted if such indicators are being looked for. Alleged Oslo attack perpetrator Anders Breivik reportedly conducted several actions that would have made him vulnerable to detection had the authorities been vigilant and focused on those possible actions.This is why it is critical to look at the mechanics of attacks in order to identify the steps that must be undertaken to complete them and then focus on identifying people taking such steps. Focusing on the “how” rather than the “who” is an effective way for authorities to get on the proactive side of the action/reaction continuum.Considering this concept of focusing on the how, one quickly reaches a convergence with the second theme, which involves the role and capabilities of dedicated counterterrorism resources. The primary agency tasked with counterterrorism in most countries tends to have limited resources that are stretched thin trying to cover known or suspected threats. These agencies simply do not have the manpower to look for attack-planning indicators — especially in a world where militant actors are increasingly adopting the leaderless-resistance model, which is designed to avoid detection by counterterrorism forces.

When these factors are combined they highlight the fact that, as the threat posed by militants adhering to the leaderless-resistance model (whom we frequently refer to as “grassroots militants”) increases, so does the need for grassroots defenders.

Grassroots Threats

As we noted last week, Breivik’s concept of self-appointed and anonymous “Justiciar Knights” who operate as lone wolves or in small phantom cells is not a unique concept. Breivik was clearly influenced by the militant-group case studies he outlined in his manifesto. In recent decades, governments have become fairly efficient at identifying and gathering intelligence on known groups that pose a threat to conduct violent attacks. This is especially true in the realm of technical intelligence, where dramatic increases have been made in the ability to capture and process huge amounts of data from landline, cellphone and Internet communications, but governments have also become quite adept at penetrating militant groups and recruiting informants. Even before 9/11, government successes against militant groups had led white supremacist groups and militant animal-rights and environmentalist groups to adopt a leaderless resistance model for their violent and illegal activities.

In the post-9/11 world, intelligence and security services have dramatically increased the resources dedicated to counterterrorism, and the efforts of these services have proved very effective when focused on known organizations and individuals. Indeed, in recent years we have seen a trend where jihadist groups like al Qaeda and its franchises have encouraged aspiring militants to undertake lone wolf and small cell activities rather than travel to places like Pakistan and Yemen to link up with the groups and receive training in terrorist tradecraft. For several years now, STRATFOR has emphasized the nature of this decentralized threat.

We see no sign of this trend toward leaderless resistance reversing in the near future, and our forecast is that the grassroots threat will continue to grow, not only from the jihadist realm but also from far-right and far-left actors.

Stretched Thin

As noted above, most counterterrorism intelligence efforts have been designed to identify and track people with links to known militant groups, and in that regard they are fairly effective. However, they have been largely ineffective in identifying grassroots militants. The focus on identifying and monitoring the activities of someone connected to a known militant group is understandable given that operatives connected to groups such as Hezbollah or al Qaeda have access to much better training and far greater resources than their grassroots counterparts. In general, militants linked to organizations pose a more severe threat than do most grassroots militants, and thus counterterrorism agencies focus much of their attention on the more potent threat.

That said, grassroots operatives can and do kill people. Although they tend to focus on softer targets than operatives connected to larger groups, some grassroots attacks have been quite deadly. The July 2005 London bombings, for example, killed 52 people, and Breivik was able to kill 77 in his twin attacks in Norway.

One problem for most counterterrorism agencies is that counterterrorism is not their sole (and in some cases even primary) mission. Often, such as the case with MI5 in the United Kingdom, the primary counterterrorism agency also has substantial foreign counterintelligence responsibilities. In the case of the FBI, it has not only counterterrorism and foreign counterintelligence missions but also a host of other responsibilities such as investigating bank robberies, kidnappings, white-collar crime, cyber crimes and public corruption.

The resources of the primary counterterrorism agencies are also quite finite. For example, the FBI has fewer than 14,000 special agents to fulfill its many responsibilities, and while counterterrorism has become its top mission in the post-9/11 era, only a portion of its agents (estimated to be between 2,500 and 3,000) are assigned to counterterrorism investigations at any one time.

Counterterrorism investigations can also be very labor intensive. Even in a case where a subject is under electronic surveillance, it takes a great deal of manpower to file all the paperwork required for the court orders, monitor the surveillance equipment and, if necessary, translate conversations picked up from the surveillance efforts and run down and/or task out additional investigative leads developed during the monitoring. Seemingly little things like conducting a “trash cover” on the subject (sifting through the trash a subject places out on the curb for evidence and intelligence) can add hours of investigative effort every week. If full physical and electronic surveillance is put in place on a subject, such a 24/7 operation can tie up as many as 100 special agents, surveillance operatives, technicians, photographers, analysts, interpreters and supervisors.

Again, given the potential threat posed by known or suspected al Qaeda, Hezbollah or, currently, Libyan government operatives, it is understandable why so many resources would be devoted to investigating and neutralizing that potential threat. However, the problem with this focus on known actors is that it leaves very little resources for proactive counterterrorism tasks such as looking for signs of potential operational activities such as preoperational surveillance or weapons acquisition conducted by previously unknown individuals. Indeed, this is a huge undertaking for agencies with limited resources.

Furthermore, in the case of a lone wolf or small cell, there simply may not be any clear-cut chain of command, a specific building to target or a communication network to compromise — the specialties of Western intelligence agencies. The leaderless-resistance organization is, by design, nebulous and hard to map and quantify. This lack of structure and communication poses a problem for Western counterterrorism agencies, as Breivik accurately noted in his manifesto. Also, since this grassroots threat emanates from a large variety of actors, it is impossible to profile potential militants based on race, religion or ethnicity. Instead, their actions must be scrutinized.

Grassroots Defenders

All grassroots militants engage in activities that make their plots vulnerable to detection. Due to the limited number of dedicated counterterrorism practitioners, these mistakes are far more likely to be witnessed by someone other than an FBI or MI5 agent. This fact highlights the importance of what we call grassroots defenders, that is, a decentralized network of people practicing situational awareness who notice and report possible indications of terrorist behavior such as acquiring weapons, building bombs and conducting preoperational surveillance.

Clearly, the most important pool of grassroots defenders is ordinary police officers on patrol. While there are fewer than 14,000 FBI agents in the entire United States, there are some 34,000 officers in the New York City Police Department alone and an estimated 800,000 local and state police officers across the United States. While the vast majority of these officers are not assigned primarily to investigate terrorism, they often find themselves in a position to encounter grassroots militants who make operational security errors or are in the process of committing crimes in advance of an attack, such as document fraud, illegally obtaining weapons or illegally raising funds for an attack.

In July 2005, police in Torrance, Calif., thwarted a grassroots plot that came to light during an investigation of a string of armed robberies. After arresting one suspect, Levar Haney Washington, police searching his apartment uncovered material indicating that Washington was part of a small jihadist cell that was planning to attack a number of targets. Hezbollah’s multimillion-dollar cigarette-smuggling network was uncovered when a sharp North Carolina sheriff’s deputy found the group’s activities suspicious and tipped off the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, thus launching the massive “Operation Smokescreen” investigation.

Traffic stops by regular cops also have identified several potential grassroots jihadists. In August 2007, two Middle Eastern men stopped by a sheriff’s deputy for speeding near Goose Creek, S.C., were charged with possession of a destructive device. Likewise, a traffic stop by a police officer in September 2001 in Alexandria, Va., led to an investigation that uncovered the so-called Virginia Jihad Network. At the time of the 9/11 attacks, the operation’s leader, Mohamed Atta, was the subject of an outstanding bench warrant for failing to appear in court after being stopped for driving without a license. More recently, in May 2011 we saw the New York Police Department disrupt an alleged jihadist plot. Then in June, the Seattle Police Department detected a plot that it thwarted with the cooperation of the FBI. Both of these plots were disrupted during the weapons-acquisition phase.

In some countries, networks have been established to promote this concept of heightened local-police vigilance and to provide training for officers and crime analysts. The U.S. government has established something it calls the National Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, which is an attempt to provide local police with training to optimize their situational awareness and to help them collect and analyze information pertaining to potential terrorist-planning activity and then to share that information with other agencies enrolled in the program. However, the initiative has only a handful of state and local law enforcement agencies participating at the present time.

But police are not the only grassroots defenders. Other people such as neighbors, store clerks, landlords and motel managers can also find themselves in a position to notice operational planning activities. Such activities can include purchasing bombmaking components and firearms, creating improvised explosive mixtures and conducting preoperational surveillance. On July 27, 2011, an alert clerk at a gun store in Killeen, Texas, called the local police after a man who came into the store to buy smokeless powder exhibited an unusual demeanor. They located the individual and after questioning him learned he was planning to detonate an improvised explosive device and conduct an armed assault against a local Killeen restaurant popular with soldiers from nearby Fort Hood. The clerk’s situational awareness and his decision to call the police likely saved many lives.

And it’s important to remember than an alert street vendor was the first person to sound the alarm in the failed May 2010 Times Square bombing attempt, and it was a concerned family member who provided authorities with the information to thwart a planned November 2010 attack against a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon.

Ordinary citizens exercising situational awareness can and have saved lives. This reality has been the driving force behind programs like the New York Police Department’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign. This program was subsequently adopted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a means of encouraging citizens to report potential terrorist behavior.

There is one other factor to consider. As we have previously discussed, counterterrorism spending comes in a perceptible boom-and-bust cycle. Next month will mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Since those attacks there has not been a successful large-scale terrorist attack on U.S. soil. This, along with the budget problems the United States is facing, will increase the current downward trend of counterterrorism funding in the United States and accentuate the need for more grassroots defenders.

When Social Media Mining Gets It Wrong

Big problems could be ahead if we rely on conclusions drawn from individuals’ social-networking data.

A complex picture of your personal life can now be pieced together using a variety of public data sources, and increasingly sophisticated data-mining techniques. But just how accurate is that picture?Last week in Las Vegas, at the computer security conference Black Hat, Alessandro Acquisti, an associate professor of information technology and public policy at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University, showed how a photograph of a person can be used to find his or her date of birth, social security number, and other information by using facial recognition technology to match the image to a profile on Facebook and other websites. Acquisti acknowledges the privacy implications of this work, but he warns that the biggest problem could be the inaccuracy of this and other data-mining techniques.Acquisti says that his current work is an attempt “to capture the future we are walking into.” In this future, he sees online information being used to prejudge a person on many levels—as a prospective date, borrower, employee, tenant, and so on. The Internet, he says, could become “a place where everyone knows your name”—a worldwide small town that won’t let you live anything down.Beyond the obvious concerns about strangers knowing more than ever about you, Acquisti worries about what will happen when the technology makes mistakes. “We tend to make strong extrapolations about weak data,” says Acquisti. “It’s impossible to fight that, because it’s in our nature.”A number of companies have already begun using social media to measure and track reputation. The Santa Barbara, California, company Social Intelligence, for example, performs social-media background screenings on prospective employees, promising to reveal negative information such as racist remarks or sexually explicit photos, or positive information such as signs of social media influence within a specific field. Other companies, such as Klout, track users’ level of social influence, allowing advertisers to offer special rewards to those with high scores.But Acquisti’s research demonstrated the pitfalls of placing too much relevance on social networking data. His team took photos of volunteers and used an off-the-shelf face recognizer called PittPatt (recently acquired by Google) to find each volunteer’s Facebook profile—which often revealed that person’s real name and much more personal information. Using this information, the team could sometimes figure out part of a person’s social security number. They also created a prototype smart-phone app that pulls up personal information about a person after they are snapped with the device’s camera.In their experiment, the team was able to match about one-third of subjects to the correct profiles. From there, they made other predictions. Seventy-five percent of the time, they correctly predicted subjects’ interests. They correctly predicted the first five digits of volunteers’ social security numbers about 16 percent of the time given two tries. (Accuracy increased with more attempts.)But this means that two-thirds of the time, they did not identify people correctly. And those who were correctly identified were still incorrectly matched 25 percent of the time to particular personal interests, and more than 80 percent of the time to the wrong social security number.Acquisti expects facial recognition technology to continue improving in coming years, and he asks what will happen once it is considered good enough to be trusted most of the time. It could be nightmarish for those who are misidentified. “There’s nothing that we, as individuals, can control,” he says.Other researchers are exploring the reliability of mining social data. At Defcon, a hacking conference in Las Vegas last weekend, a group called the Online Privacy Foundation presented results of its “Big Five Experiment,” a study that aimed to match volunteers’ personality traits to qualities on Facebook profiles. After administering a personality test to volunteers, they mined profiles to identify key characteristics.The Online Privacy Foundation researchers found a positive correlation between people whose personalities tended toward openness and those whose Facebook profiles were loaded with more information: longer lists of interests, longer bios, and more discussion of money, religion, death, and negative emotions. They also found a positive correlation between “agreeable people”—defined as “being compassionate, cooperative, having the ability to forgive and be pragmatic”—and Facebook statuses that were written in longer sentences, that discussed positive emotions, or had relatively more comments, friends, and photos. However, in both cases, the correlations were relatively weak.The researchers conclude that a Facebook profile is hardly a reliable source of information. “The key point is to remember that this is a bet,” says the foundation’s cofounder Chris Sumner. “The message is that, yes, there is a link, but don’t use it on its own for critical decisions.”Acquisti and Sumner say that new government policies may be needed to protect individuals from excessive data mining and from the misuse of their information. This could involve setting standards of accuracy for organizations to abide by. “The defining question of our time,” Acquisti says, “is how do we, as a society, deal with big data?”

Copyright Technology Review 2011.