Isolating Terrorist Cells as a Security Countermeasure

It's better to try to isolate parts of a terrorist network than to attempt to destroy it as a whole, at least according to this model:

Vos Fellman explains how terrorist networks are "typical of the structures encountered in the study of conflict, in that they possess multiple, irreducible levels of complexity and ambiguity."

"This complexity is compounded by the covert activities of terrorist networks where key elements may remain hidden for extended periods of time and the network itself is dynamic," adds Vos Fellman, an expert in mathematical modeling and strategy. The nature of a dynamic network is akin to the robust Internet but contrasts starkly with the structure of the armed forces or homeland security systems, which tend to be centralized and hierarchical.

Vos Fellman has used network analysis, agent-based simulation, and dynamic NK Boolean fitness landscapes to try and understand the complexities of terrorist networks. In particular, he has focused on how long-term operational and strategic planning might be undertaken so that tactics which appear to offer immediate impact are avoided if they cause little long-term damage to the terrorist network.

Vos Fellman's computer simulations of terrorist networks suggest that isolation rather than removal could be the key to successfully defeating them.

Posted on September 27, 2010 at 12:00 PM • 35 Comments

Comments

RHSeptember 27, 2010 12:22 PM

He seems to argue both sides. He argues that the terrorists are not hierarchical like our military, and then argues that the best way to kill them is to find the 'hubs' and attack them. Isn't that sort of the definition of hierarchical?

HJohnSeptember 27, 2010 12:42 PM

@RH: "He seems to argue both sides. He argues that the terrorists are not hierarchical like our military, and then argues that the best way to kill them is to find the 'hubs' and attack them. Isn't that sort of the definition of hierarchical?"
________

It does appear a contradiction in those terms. But I believe what he is saying is that there can be cells (hubs) trying to help with an overall terrorist objective but that isn't under the direct command of an "official" terrorist structure.

Perhaps it is a "hub" in terms of software like LimeWire, Kazaa, Tor, etc., where one gets involved in the function but isn't under direct command. (This analogy is imperfect as well.)

Michael AshSeptember 27, 2010 12:49 PM

Hubs don't imply hierarchy. Think of groups of friends. There's that one guy who knows a million people and is in with a bunch of groups, then there are others who mainly circulate within one group. That one guy would be a "hub", but he's not in charge of anything.

HJohnSeptember 27, 2010 12:54 PM

@Michael Ash: "Hubs don't imply hierarchy. Think of groups of friends. There's that one guy who knows a million people and is in with a bunch of groups, then there are others who mainly circulate within one group. That one guy would be a "hub", but he's not in charge of anything."
________

Good analogy.

DanielSeptember 27, 2010 1:02 PM

One problem might be that "tactics which appear to offer immediate impact" would be very tempting from a CYA/theater/PR perspective, while behind the scenes disruption would not.

Andre LePlumeSeptember 27, 2010 1:09 PM

And this is new, how? Didn't Ross Anderson and company present on this 3-4 years ago at WEIS? For that matter, how the heck can one even parameterize a model of network disruption without solid empirical data about the network one seeks to disrupt (or does Fellman have such data)?

Sasha van den HeetkampSeptember 27, 2010 1:10 PM

In the vein of the old adage: it's better to allow a bit of crime, so that you can understand your enemy rather than the futile to attempt to destroy it and thereby creating invisible enemies.

For example, the Dutch government tolerates some offenses, such as tolerating possession -including limited sale- of small amounts of marijuana, and by doing so they can manage (regulate) the situation better. They then know who is who and this way you let the landscape organically give form to itself while still maintaining oversight. If you enforce the law to it's extreme, it simply goes underground and probably flourish even better than before.

Because if policing and enforcing laws really helped, then why is crime on the rise?

if attacking other nation states really helped, then why is the ideology of terrorism flourishing?

So the understanding of the landscape is vital to intelligence. infiltrating communities, local groups is essential. it takes less manpower, and you can weed out the problem at the root: before it can flourish.

So yes, this is the way to create a proper policy instead of the perilous machinations of war that doesn't solve the root cause, but actually enforces an antagonist mindset in future terrorist whose got their whole family blown to bits.

No surprise then, that terrorism was on the rise after the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. A new generation of terrorist are now groomed on ideology of destruction.

Sow, reap.

BF SkinnerSeptember 27, 2010 1:11 PM

@HJohn "Good analogy. "

Identifying the concentrations should also allow more significant disruptions. Take out that million knowing guy who connects the groups and you can, at the very least, remove their ability to coordinate with other cells.

Is it time to reread Moon is a Harsh Mistress?

HJohnSeptember 27, 2010 1:21 PM

@Daniel: "One problem might be that "tactics which appear to offer immediate impact" would be very tempting from a CYA/theater/PR perspective, while behind the scenes disruption would not"
___________

I think CYA/theatre/PR is a difficult problem to solve. Most of us, especially ones who are reappointed periodically, have to keep our bosses convinced we're doing our jobs and of value. That is also true of public servants, except their bosses are the general public who can't always be told everything, and with elections every 2 years CYA/theatre/PR is a difficult problem. Elected (or appointed) officials at any level will want to be seen as visibly addressing whatever concerns the public seems to have, even if the visible actions are less valuable to reality than to perception.

Imperfect CitizenSeptember 27, 2010 1:46 PM

@Scot B.
Speaking from personal and present experience as a target (I'm being called a terrorist) isolation can occur by using the community around them in the monitoring aspect.

Think perimeters of observers everywhere they go.

Think tap/bug on phones/computer and gps on vehicle with real time audio--civil defense alerts watching if its here.
Anyone they meet with, if not an observer, is watched/photographed/followed.
Further, each time they park their vehicle and leave it you have observers who watch the vehicle, look under it for bad things, search it if the subject is in the building long enough.

That's how you isolate innocent people and others. Its so ubiquitous they know they are being watched, plus they overhear the observers talking about the job, like "yeah I see her, she's wearing a blue shirt ok I'll follow her to the parking lot."
So if the target contacts their other cells (if there are any) they give away their game. If your are just an innocent person and you are visiting friends and family, they get watched too.

I think the opportunity cost factor mentioned at the end of the article has too much common sense in it for the unlimited/unwatched counter terror budget.

bobSeptember 27, 2010 3:13 PM

"It's better to try to isolate parts of a terrorist network"

Depends on how well they've read "On Guerilla Warfare"...

anonSeptember 27, 2010 3:18 PM

@BF Skinner wrote:
Is it time to reread Moon is a Harsh Mistress?

bad analogy (no offense intended). True, Mike was the "guy who knew a million people" but he WAS the guy in charge - the apex of the pyramid in every sense.

However, it's always time to re-read Heinlein.

Ian WoollardSeptember 27, 2010 4:00 PM

The secret to these kinds of strategies is to do them, and *not* talk about them, and then do some theatre, and then publicly point to the theatre as being the reason that the level of terrorism has declined.

Davi OttenheimerSeptember 27, 2010 4:55 PM

Vos Fellman's work reminds me of how the medical industry was talking about cancer a few years ago:

His "key elements may remain hidden" sounds a lot like this:

"In the case of cancer, the solution would lie in stamping out the highly specialized cells, known as cancer stem cells, that appear to give rise to the cancer in the first place. Such cells are largely impervious to current treatments, enabling them to lurk silently until they repeatedly spawn new tumors, either in the same part or in other parts of the body."

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/...

The solutions, not surprisingly, also have the same language.

"What we've been doing is simply making the tumor shrink -- leaving the equivalent of the source of the head behind. So it just regrows," said Michael Clarke, a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, who has found evidence for the existence of breast cancer stem cells. "We need to figure out how to sever the head so it doesn't grow back."

Wow, that sounds really good. Have we figured it out yet?

direwolffSeptember 27, 2010 5:10 PM

@SashavandenH: "In the vein of the old adage: it's better to allow a bit of crime, so that you can understand your enemy rather than the futile to attempt to destroy it and thereby creating invisible enemies.

For example, the Dutch government tolerates some offenses, such as tolerating possession -including limited sale- of small amounts of marijuana, and by doing so they can manage (regulate) the situation better. They then know who is who and this way you let the landscape organically give form to itself while still maintaining oversight. If you enforce the law to it's extreme, it simply goes underground and probably flourish even better than before."
---------------

Absolutely. Recently, Craigslist was forced to terminate its "Adult Services" section due to pressure by clueless Attorneys General (some of which had no jurisdiction over the service and related issues) around the U.S. and other Senators trying to grandstand around trafficking of minors for sexual abuse. Where law enforcement were provided w/a great set of tools to better understand the issues, the scope of the problem and a way to reach out to potential criminals, less sane minds won the day, sadly.

Mike SSeptember 27, 2010 5:18 PM

The single most effective thing we could do to stop terrorism is to get our government to stop giving foreign aid to Russia and all the other nations that sponsor terrorism.

Richard Steven HackSeptember 28, 2010 1:46 AM

"stop giving foreign aid to Russia and all the other nations that sponsor terrorism."

Talk about "Cold War mentality". Russia hasn't been sponsoring terrorism for decades if it ever did.

When was the last time the US gave Iran foreign aid? Not that Iran sponsors terrorism because Hamas and Hizballah are not "terrorists" in the Al Qaeda sense - and Iran does not support Al Qaeda.

Not to mention that most foreign aid goes to Israel which is spreading organized crime and espionage all over the world, so let's cut off their aid.

Not to mention Saudi Arabia which is the source of most Sunni terrorism. Instead, we send them $60 billion worth of planes they can't use.

More on topic, there are only TWO possible ways to deal with terrorism:

1) Infiltrate, then kill EVERYONE. Only feasible if the group is small enough and geographically limited enough that the majority of its members can be identified and located.

2) Change your state policies so you're no longer a target because you are no longer doing the things that make you a target.

This is what the US should be doing: Cut off all support for Middle Eastern corrupt dictatorships and monarchies and for Israel, stop supporting Israel in the UN, and demand Israel disarm its nuclear arsenals and negotiate honestly on the Palestinian issue.

These policy changes could be made overnight if Congress wasn't owned by the Israel Lobby and would result in bin Laden sending Obama a bouquet of roses (assuming bin Laden is still alive) and removing the US from the Al Qaeda target list.

Of course, we'd then still have to deal with all the Iraqis (and the Afghans and the Paks) who are PO'd at the US for destroying their countries. Not sure how the US will ever solve that problem when the blowback starts.

Payback's a bitch.

dudeSeptember 28, 2010 7:09 AM

at least put likud and shas on the terrorist list for all the settler terrorism and only deal with the pro peace elements

Richard Steven HackSeptember 28, 2010 9:11 AM

Oh, and I forgot about the M.E.K., whom the US government seems to like since they're against Iran, despite being a Marxist terrorist personality cult.

"Our" terrorists are always the Good Guys.

bin Laden used to be "our" terrorist.

The funny thing is that "blowback" is NOT an accident. It's intended. Because the essence of the state is as follows: "You do everything we tell you to and give us everything you have, and we'll protect you from the Bad People inside and outside of our borders. And if there aren't any Bad People, we'll make some."

Been working for ten thousand years and shows no signs of slowing down. Because humans are chimpanzees who behave in hierarchical primate groups. Without an Alpha chimp to point the brown chimps against the pink chimps, how would the brown chimps know how to behave toward the Alpha chimps?

paulSeptember 28, 2010 9:44 AM

Of course, this implies that a) you can accurately identify the "hubs" and b) that the model of what happens when communication is disrupted are accurate.

The long list of "Number 3 man in Al Qaeda" figures who have been captured or killed suggests that a) may be more difficult than it seems.

And if you have a heterogeneous group of terrorists, all with some operational capability but with different beliefs about the scale and level of violence their organization should be engaging in, disruption of communication/discussion structures might in fact lead to more casualties, at least in the short to medium term.

IceBabySeptember 28, 2010 11:12 AM

They should be isolated and studied. More importantly, their work needs to be broken down, their propaganda and erroneous beliefs... any argument can be won. 9/11 by Islamic terrorists was a good example of them stating their argument and losing massively on a global scale. No one could stand behind that kind of atrocity.

Sooner or later their hot, slanderous rhetoric breaks out into the open into actions of harm against others. It is important to always answer them and educate them away from these beliefs to something better.

However, it is also true they come from nations which their culture have run into the ground. Some are angry and become terrorists. They see the Western way as wrong, so they throw up their hands instead of putting their passion into emulating Western ideals and fixing their own nations.

L-5September 28, 2010 11:58 AM

"Because if policing and enforcing laws really helped, then why is crime on the rise?"

Crime, at least in the USA, isn't on the rise.

PeterVSeptember 28, 2010 1:36 PM

So he's reinventing the things that were being used in the old 'beyond the Iron Curtain' countries? Or even the regimes before that?
If you would study the techniques of the most successful counterintelligence orgs that period (being the Czech and East German secret police forces), this was exactly what they did and then some...
However: the burden on the rest of the society (meaning 'us') we would not tolerate anymore (e.g. having both of your neighbours report on you or being banned from a job of study due to a negative remark in your file...).

Richard Steven HackSeptember 28, 2010 9:45 PM

"The long list of "Number 3 man in Al Qaeda" figures who have been captured or killed suggests that a) may be more difficult than it seems."

True. OTOH, "hubs" may be temporary and easily replaced but they're still hubs for a while and could be useful in identifying other assets.

But the face that they are easily replaced gives the lie to the entire wasteful "drone campaign" in Pakistan and elsewhere which does nothing but kill ten innocent civilians for each "militant" who is then replaced by his cousin third removed in a tribal society. It's not only completely useless, it's completely counterproductive.

But apparently no one in the Pentagon or White House can comprehend that. Which makes you wonder whether Obama is as smart as everyone claims - or if he's smart enough to know that it's all a PR game so he can claim to be "tough on terrorism" against the Republicans - at the cost of hundreds of civilian lives.

The rule should be: If you can't kill them ALL (or the overwhelming majority), then don't kill any because it just makes them mad. Instead, stop being a target.

"They see the Western way as wrong, so they throw up their hands"

This has been established by numerous studies to be completely incorrect. By far, most Muslim terrorists are attacking the US precisely because of US foreign policies, not Western cultural values. The terrorists may or may not like Western cultural values (mostly not), but those attitudes are NOT the deciding factor in becoming a terrorist. And the REST of the Muslims in those terrorist-producing countries usually admire and consume Western cultural values to some degree at least.

US foreign policy is THE major factor in producing anti-US terrorism.

DavidSeptember 28, 2010 9:55 PM

@Richard Steven Hack: "2) Change your state policies so you're no longer a target because you are no longer doing the things that make you a target. "

- - -

The only state policy that the Al Qaeda cares about is when will the US and other Westerners enforce Islam as the state religion.

What do you suggest we do?

Davi OttenheimerSeptember 29, 2010 2:01 AM

"The rule should be: If you can't kill them ALL (or the overwhelming majority), then don't kill any because it just makes them mad."

That "rule" has to be one of the stupidest things I have ever read in the comments on this blog.

Humans are capable of comprehending many, many more options than only genocide or pacifism.

I smell a troll.

Davi OttenheimerSeptember 29, 2010 2:15 AM

"get our government to stop giving foreign aid to Russia and all the other nations that sponsor terrorism"

I assume "our government" = USA?

First you have come to a proper definition of states that sponsor terrorism. Chechnya in 2001 is a good example -- the US did not include it in the watch list (I'll let you guess why) until after 9/11. Is Somalia on the list if it isn't a state?

Second you might want to start at home and get the USA to stop sponsoring terrorism itself...

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-11426166

"Eric Lewis will tell a Congressional hearing on terrorist financing that billions of dollars are slipping through the US banking system."

Richard Steven HackSeptember 29, 2010 3:45 AM

"The only state policy that the Al Qaeda cares about is when will the US and other Westerners enforce Islam as the state religion."

Once again, numerous polls and studies - not to mention the exact statements of bin Laden himself - have shown that is absolutely incorrect. US foreign policies have been proven to be the number one ingredient in anti-Americanism worldwide.

"Humans are capable of comprehending many, many more options than only genocide or pacifism."

I said nothing about genocide or pacifism. I'm talking about specific terrorist groups. If YOU are thinking about all Muslims, well, that's on you.

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