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Social Network Analysis
Counter-terrorism for Corporations
Profile: Pakistan's military intelligence agency
Kargils first hero
N.Korean missile crisis
Dangers of open internet
Pak funding of N.Korean missiles with heroin
Internet 'cloaking' terrorist threat
ISI--the Al Qaeda link
Militancy in Kashmir
Kashmir-a flashpoint
How Modern Terrorism Uses the Internet
How Modern Terrorism Uses the Internet
Cyberterrorism: How Real Is the Threat?
Open Source Intelligence OSINT
Celebrating militant Islam
Pakistans Ghauri threat
India's most wanted
Social Network Analysis
ISI & Taliban
LeT--A profile
US Terrorism Exclusion List
Pakistans Nuclear Development
Modern terrorism & net
dangers of cyberterrorism
Pak nuclear know-how clandestine supply

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Social Network Analysis as an Approach to Combat

Terrorism: Past, Present, and

Future Research

Steve Ressler


The greatest security threat facing the United States is not from formal states, but from

terrorist organizations that attack informally, using terror at any time and place, with

the goal of undermining confidence in U.S. institutions and the American way of life. No

longer a structured battle that can be fought with military power, the war against

terrorism will be won with superior knowledge.

Due to the changing nature of homeland security issues, a new type of intelligence is

needed by homeland security: social network analysis (SNA). The basis of social network

analysis (also known as network science or network sociology) is that individual nodes

(which, depending on the type of network, can be people, events, etc.) are connected by

complex yet understandable relationships that form networks.


These networks are

ubiquitous, with an underlying order and simple laws. Networks form the structural

basis of many natural events, organizations, and social processes.

Terrorist organizations are well-suited to study using social network analysis, as they

consist of networks of individuals that span countries, continents, and economic status,

and form around specific ideology. Terrorist organizations are different from

hierarchical, state-sponsored appointments in characteristics such as leadership and

organizational structure. Social network analysis can provide important information on

the unique characteristics of terrorist organizations, ranging from issues of network

recruitment, network evolution, and the diffusion of radical ideas. Specifically, social

network analysis can be used to understand terrorist networks, inform U.S. homeland

security policy, and form the basis of a more effective counter-measure to net war.


The origin of contemporary social network analysis can be traced back to the work of

Stanley Milgram.


In his famous 1967 experiment, Milgram conducted a test to

understand how people are connected to others by asking random people to forward a

package to any of their acquaintances who they thought might be able to reach the

specific target individual.


In his research, Milgram found that most people were

connected by six acquaintances. This research led to the famous phrase “six degrees of

separation,” which is still widely used in popular culture.

Another important step in the development of social network analysis was the work

of Mark Granovetter on network structures. In his widely-cited 1973 article “The

Strength of Weak Ties,” Granovetter argues that “weak ties” – your relationships with

acquaintances – are more important than “strong ties” – your relationships with family

and close friends – when trying to find employment.


Granovetter's article and

subsequent research extended this argument by positing that more disperse, non-

redundant, open networks have greater access to information and power than smaller,

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denser, and more interconnected networks because they supply more diversity of

knowledge and information.

D.J. Watts’ small world hypothesis builds upon both Milgram’s “six degrees of

separation” concept and Granovetter’s “weak ties” argument by stating that most

networks in the natural and man-made world are highly clustered yet far-reaching.


These networks have a “clustered” center, where most nodes are neighbors, tightly

interconnected. In addition, each has weak ties that can connect it to any node in the

network in a few short connections. For example, if a node represents a person, a

person’s friendship network is generally tightly connected, with common friends,

similar backgrounds, and overlaps. However, despite this “clustered” inner core, as

shown with Milgram’s “six degrees of separation,” a person can reach a stranger in the

world through only a few small steps/connections. Watts’ small world argument has

been extended by numerous researchers to help understand the structure and behavior

of various networks, including the spread of AIDS, the collapse of financial markets, and

the spread of information.


The value of social network theory versus other political science and sociological

approaches is its focus on the value of the network structure rather than the

characteristics of the individual. While social network analysis leaves room for

individuals to affect their fate, it argues that the structure of the network and

relationships and ties with others in the network are more important. The network

structure of an organization (in this case a terrorist organization) will affect its ability to

access new ideas, recruit new individuals, and achieve sustainability. Network analysis

seems to work because it provides a structural analysis while still leaving room for

individual effort. In a sense, network analysis builds upon many organizational theories,

since networks are just another organizational structure. As Charles Perrow discusses in

his work Complex Organizations, many organizational theories have evolved over time

in an attempt to explain the organization structures of the related era.



structure is a modern organizational structure, whose power may be built upon the idea

of disintermediation. Disintermediation is the removal of the intermediary role in a

process or supply chain, a proverbial "cutting out the middleman." Modern social

networks are building upon this idea of disintermediation as individuals can directly

connect to each other especially with the advancements of modern telecommunications

and the Internet. The power of loosely structured networks is that they can move quickly

and be adaptive, as they do not need to go through layers of a hierarchical chain.

Disintermediation is important for terrorist networks as they have cut out layers of

bureaucracy; individuals can join a network through weak ties and plan attacks through

loose connections.

While social network analysis has been present in some form for decades, the concept

entered popular culture in the beginning of the twenty-first century. Malcolm Gladwell’s

bestseller The Tipping Point uses basic network ideology to describe how real-world

social epidemics occur, such as the popularity of Airwalk shoes and the decline of crime

in New York City.


Gladwell describes the importance of three types of people:

connectors, mavens, and salesman. Gladwell builds upon Watts' research as he

describes connectors – those with wide social circles – as the hubs of the human social

network and responsible for the small world phenomenon.

The use of social network analysis in the mainstream has increased with the growth

of a number of new online Internet sites based on social network principles. For

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example, MySpace, Friendster, and Facebook are three websites that allow users to

connect with friends and friends of friends to share photos, blogs, user profiles, and

messages. Especially important in teenager culture, these sites map out each user's

network of friends and acquaintances. According to, a web trafficking service,

as of April 2006, MySpace is the third most popular website in the U.S. and the sixth

most popular in the world ("Top 500 Sites"). Further, similar websites have been

created in the employment field. Sites such as LinkedIn allow members to map their

professional connections and allow employers and employees to use their associations

as references in job matching.


The importance of SNA in fighting the war on terrorism was recognized even before the

attacks of September 11, 2001. John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt’s work Networks and

Netwars, which was released in 2001 before the terrorist attacks, describes the

increased network principles in modern criminal organizations.


The premise of the

book is that war is no longer a head-to-head battle of two powers. There is no formal

hierarchical-based enemy like the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. Modern war is netwar,

a lower-intensity battle by terrorists, criminals, and extremists with a networked

organizational structure. These networked structures are often leaderless and able to

attack more quickly. Novel, asymmetric approaches are needed to combat a network-

based criminal organization.

After the attacks of 9/11, academia, the government, and even mainstream media

began to discuss the importance of social network analysis in fighting terrorism.

Mainstream media outlets such as the Washington Post and the Dallas Morning News

ran articles describing the potential benefits of network science.


Authors of popular

press network books, such as Antonio-Laszlo Barabasi (Linked), were interviewed

extensively, on television and radio programs, on how we could use the knowledge of

social networks to fight terrorism. Further, when the National Security Agency’s

warrant-less eavesdropping program hit the news in 2006, the importance of social

network analysis in fighting terrorism reemerged in a New York Times article discussing

the ability of network analysis to map and potentially make meaning out of the millions

of communications NSA intercepts daily between individuals.


Academic Activities

After 9/11, social network experts in academia began to look explicitly at the use of

network methodology in understanding and countering terrorism. The listserv

associated with the leading social network organization, International Network for

Social Network Analysis (INSNA), was inundated with questions, comments, and

concerns over the role of social network analysis in the fight against terrorism. In the

winter of 2001, Connections, the social network journal affiliated with INSNA, devoted

an issue to social network analysis and terrorism. In this issue, Valdis Krebs begins to

map the Al-Qaeda network by collecting public available data on the Al-Qaeda hijackers

and running basic network principles through computer software.


The rest of the

articles in this issue are more or less data-free. Kathleen Carley and others describe the

potential uses of social network analysis and multi-agent modeling to destabilize

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terrorist networks.


Richard Rothenberg conjectures on the structure of the al Qaeda

terrorist network based on newspaper articles and radio commentary.


Since the winter of 2001, the academic world has increased the attention paid to the

social network analysis of terrorism as a result of public interest and new grant money.


Network analysis of terrorist organizations continues to grow and can be divided into

two groups: the data collectors and the modelers.

Data Collectors

Data collection is difficult for any network analysis because it is hard to create a

complete network. It is especially difficult to gain information on terrorist networks.

Terrorist organizations do not provide information on their members, and the

government rarely allows researchers to use their intelligence data. A number of

academic researchers focus primarily on data collection on terrorist organizations,

analyzing the information through description and straightforward modeling. Valdis

Krebs was one of the first to collect data using public sources with his 2001 article in

Connections. In this work, Krebs creates a pictorial representation of the al Qaeda

network responsible for 9/11 that shows the many ties between the hijackers of the four

airplanes. After the Madrid bombing in 2004, Spanish sociologist Jose A. Rodriguez

completed an analysis similar to Krebs’ by using public sources to map the March 11th

terrorist network. In his research, he found diffuse networks based on weak ties

amongst the terrorists.


Another bright spot is the 2004 publication of Understanding Terror Networks by

Marc Sageman. Using public sources, Sageman collects biographies of 172 Islamic

terrorist operatives affiliated with the global Salafi jihad (the violent revivalist Islamic

movement led by al Qaeda). He uses social network analysis specifically on Al Qaeda

operatives since 1998. This analysis yields four large terrorist clusters. The first cluster

resides in the Pakistan-Afghan border and consists of the central staff of al Qaeda and

the global Salafist jihad movement. The second cluster is a group of operatives located

in core Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, and Kuwait. The third cluster is

known as the Maghreb Arabs who, although they come from North African nations,

currently reside in France and England. The final cluster is centered in Indonesia and

Malaysia and is affiliated with Jemaah Islamiyah.


Despite their many strengths, Krebs’ and Sageman’s works have a few key drawbacks.

By dealing with open sources, these authors are limited in acquiring data. With open

sources, if the author does not have information on terrorists, he or she assumes they do

not exist. This can be quite problematic as the data analysis may be misleading. If one

cannot find an al Qaeda operative in the U.S. in publicly available sources, the

researcher could assume there is no al Qaeda network. However, it is highly probable

this is not the case, since terrorists generally try to keep a low profile before committing

an attack. The data collectors can also be criticized because their work is more

descriptive and lacks complex modeling tools. Fostering relationships with modelers

could augment the work being conducted by data collectors, as statistical analysis might

be able to take into account some of the limitations of the data and provide an additional

analytical framework.

One promising activity is the development of a major terrorism web portal at the

University of Arizona’s Artificial Intelligence Center. This website makes social network

tools and data related to terrorism publicly available.


One example is the Terrorism

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Knowledge Portal, a database consisting of over 360,000 terrorism news articles and

related Web pages coming from various high-quality terrorism Web sites, major search

engines, and news portals. By providing publicly available network tools and data, the

research opens itself to a number of new scholars. Academics can double-check the work

of others to ensure quality. New scholars can enter the field without the lengthy time

commitment and financial cost of developing basic tools and getting data. Such

activities, combined with the federal government’s support, will help push the field of

terrorism-related social network analysis to new heights in the future.


Complex models have been created that offer insight on theoretical terrorist networks.

Kathleen Carley heads one of the largest computational model organizations that

models terrorist networks, Computational Analysis of Social and Organizational

Systems (CASOS) at Carnegie Mellon University. Carley, along with her team of faculty

and graduate students, has a number of ongoing projects in the Networks and Terrorism

division that have received funding from government sources ranging from the Office of

Naval Research to the Department of Defense. In a series of projects, Carley and her

collaborators deal with a variety of terrorism-related issues. They looked at how to

model the shape of a covert network when little information is known, through

predictive modeling techniques based on inherent network structures.


Using a

computational tool created at CASOS known as DyNet, they looked at ways to estimate

vulnerabilities and destabilize terrorist networks.


They also developed a city-level

network model of chemical and biological attacks (BioWar) in an attempt to understand

how people move in networks that affect what they know, what they do, how they

respond, especially when they get diseases, how they get diseases, and how they react.


Finally, they use network text analysis, a method used to define and model the

relationships between words in a text, to turn raw text related to Mideast covert

networks into a pictorial network representation of the social and organizational

structure of a covert network.


Besides the aforementioned work, Carley and her team

are beginning to look at a range of other related issues including work on the

effectiveness of wiretapping programs in mapping the networks of rapidly evolving

covert organizations.


There has been limited work in the field of complex modeling of terrorist networks

outside the work of Kathleen Carley and her associates. One group using complex

models to look at terrorism issues is the researchers at the University of Arizona Dark

Web Terrorism Research Center. In a series of articles, researchers at this center

published a number of articles in which they used social network tools to study

extremist-group web forums.


Through the analysis of web forum activities, they were

able to construct social network maps and organization structures. In addition, in 2002,

Tami Carpenter and others began to look at some of the practical issues and algorithms

for analyzing terrorist networks by discussing a number of ways to construct various

social network measures when dealing with covert networks.


Besides the

aforementioned works, a few of the major social network analysis scholars such as Steve

Borgatti at Boston College and David Jensen at University of Massachusetts have

discussed the general implications of social network analysis of terrorist networks in

invited presentation and conference talks; but they have not undertaken the issue in

detail with complex modeling.

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A common problem for the modelers is the issue of data. Any academic work is only

as good as the data, no matter the type of advanced methods used. Modelers often do

not have the best data, as they have not collected individual biographies (like Sageman)

and do not have access to classified data. Many of the models are created data-free or

without complete data, yet do not fully consider human and data limitations. The

implication of this is that the results can be potentially misleading, as they cannot take

into account behavioral and contextual issues that might affect the network structure

and activity. For example, it would be quite difficult to model the network structure and

evolution of al Qaeda since many of the organizations that claim ties to al Qaeda are

lying and do not actually have those ties. It can be quite difficult differentiating these

groups from other, truly loosely affiliated groups.

In addition, modelers often do not have a foundation in terrorist studies nor do they

always work with top counter-terrorism experts. Without the help of counter-terrorism

experts or a background in terrorism studies, it is difficult to turn the numbers and

graphic models into interpretable results that make sense in the context of the vast

literature on terrorism. The vast body of knowledge in terrorism studies created since

the 1970s can provide a context for the network data created by the modelers, including

the historical and political trends exhibited in terrorism, reasons people join terrorist

groups, and the psychology of terrorist attack tactics, including suicide terrorism.


Government Activities

Despite the seeming novelty of social network analysis, the federal government has used

link analysis, a predecessor of SNA, for nearly fifty years. Karl Van Meter describes the

two main types of link analysis: the village survey method and traffic analysis.



village survey method was created and used by Ralph McGehee of the CIA in Thailand in

the 1960s to understand family and community relationships. He conducted a series of

open-ended interviews and in a short time was able to map out the clandestine structure

of local and regional Communist organizations and associated "sympathetic" groups.

Traffic analysis (also known as communication link analysis) began during World War

II and its importance continues to this day. This technique consists of the study of the

external characteristics of communication in order to get information about the

organization of the communication system. It is not concerned with the content of

phone calls, but is interested in who calls whom and the network members, messengers,

and gatekeepers. Traffic analysis was used by the British MI5 internal security service to

combat the IRA in the 1980s and 1990s and continues to be used across the world by

law-enforcement agencies including the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Office

of National Drug Control Policy.


The Analyst Notebook is the primary software used for link analysis. Currently on its

sixth version, this software is recognized as one of the world’s leading analytical tools

and is employed in more than 1,500 organizations ("Contraband Enforcement"). Social

network analysis improves upon link analysis by moving from single variable analysis to

multivariate analysis, allowing the individual to control for many factors at once. The

change from single variable to multivariate analysis is quite significant when

researching terrorism: a number of factors affect terrorism, not one single factor. For

example, the propensity for one to participate in a terrorist activity might not be

strongly affected by the single variable of being related to a terrorist member. However,

the combination of multiple variables such as poverty, type of government, combined

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with the link to a terrorist member may cause a person to participate in a terrorist

activity. Multivariate analysis allows us to take into account these multiple variables and

their effects when controlling for another variable.

From the outside, it is difficult to understand how social network analysis is being

used in the federal government. Confidentiality prevents government social network

analysts from discussing their work with professors and private companies without

security clearances. Despite this lack of information, it is clear that the federal

government is interested in using network techniques in fighting the war on terror.

Many government agencies, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

(DARPA), U.S. Army Research Labs, the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR), the

National Security Agency (NSA), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the

Department of Homeland Security (DHS), have funded research related to social

network analysis. Also in the past few years, government agencies such as the Navy

Joint Warfare Committee have created openings for network analysts. DHS has

instituted the Department of Homeland Security Graduate Fellowship program for

graduate students interested in terrorist-related studies. This program has funded

research specifically in the field of network analysis. However, aside from these

activities, the number of government employees actually using network analysis is

unclear. The best evidence in this regard is the admission, by the few known

government social network analysts, that social network techniques are quite prevalent

but they will not discuss the specifics of this approach’s use in government anti-terrorist



The main limitation of social network analysis is the same that applies to any new and

innovative technology: social network analysis is just one tool that can be used to

understand terrorism, and is just one piece of the puzzle. Subject matter experts are

needed to provide a context for the research. Furthermore, the basic assumption of

network analysis regarding terrorism may not be completely valid. Despite their non-

hierarchical approach, terrorist organizations are not completely organized in a network

structure. There are still central headquarters and training facilities for most terrorist

organizations. Also, social network analysis must attempt to address the underlying root

cause of terrorism. It is helpful to understand how a network evolves and how to

destabilize a network. It is more helpful, however, to understand how networks recruit

participants and why people wish to join terrorist networks.

I would like to see an expansion of the research areas in which network analysis is

being used with regard to terrorism. Only a limited amount of work has been completed,

and there is much room for this tool to yield great insights into terrorism. I would be

particularly interested to see this method used to analyze network recruitment.

Network analysis could identify recruiters from peripheral participants, as well as the

demographic and personal characteristics that repel – as well as draw – an individual to

a terrorist organization. Are terrorist recruiters generally introduced to the organization

through weak ties or strong ties? These characteristics may also affect the individual’s

degree of participation in terrorist activity. Such research could potentially help

intelligence analysts in creating strategies to counteract terrorist recruiting initiatives.

Network analysis can also be used to understand the psychological effect of

terrorism. One of the main effects of terrorism is fear, which is spread through network

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structures such as media, the Internet, and personal relationships. For example, the

number of ties an individual has to victims of terrorism may impact the individual’s

perception of the risk of terrorism. Finally, I would like to see further research on

network structure evolution. It would be interesting to compare the structure of

multiple terrorist networks to see how they evolve over time. The network structure may

impact the ability of an organization to endure over the years and complete attacks. It is

important for intelligence analysts to understand how to break up a network; they could

potentially exploit the small world topology by eliminating weak ties in order to isolate

the network and diminish its reach and power. The removal of individuals in key

network locations may be even more important than attacking the traditional leaders of

a group.

Further, I hope to see an expanded use of social network analysis among homeland

security educators and practitioners. Homeland security education is in a pre-paradigm

phase as a professional discipline and is being conceptualized differently among

educators. Christopher Bellavita and Ellen Gordon have identified over fifty topic areas

related to homeland security education; I would like social network analysis to be taught

as one of the tools available in a number of these areas, including risk management and

analysis, intelligence, terrorism prevention, and the sociology of homeland security.


Further, I would like to see increased use of social network analysis by intelligence

analysts. As Bellavita has pointed out, the U.S. suffers from the fear of imagination when

it focuses on the idea of prevention and we need new tools.


It is difficult for a

hierarchical organization to cope with a widely dispersed, loosely integrated,

disintermediated adversary; the U.S. government may want to consider changing some

of its organizational structures to effectively fight such a foe. It may be worth

experimenting with pilot programs in the intelligence community that consist of

decentralized, loose networks of government employees, spanning the globe with

various jobs and ideas, but focused on one goal: stopping terrorists.

The author would like to thank the Department of Homeland Security Scholars and Fellows

Program for support of this research and ANSER for their help supporting this research while

he was an intern there. Further, he would like to thank Laurence Raine, Joshua Sinai, and

Elizabeth Vaquera for their help reading earlier drafts of this research paper.

Steve Ressler is a member of the first class of the Department of Homeland Security

Graduate Fellowship Program and president of the DHS Scholars and Fellows Alumni

Program. He received his master’s degree in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania,

where he conducted research on social network analysis. He completed this article while a

DHS Fellow intern at the ANSER Homeland Security Institute. Currently, Mr. Ressler serves

as an IT auditor for the Department of Homeland Security.

Suggested Web Links (International Network for Social Network Analysis) (Valdis Krebs’ web page on social network analysis) (University of Arizona’s Artificial Intelligence Center) (Computational Analysis of Social and Organizational

Systems (CASOS) at Carnegie Mellon University)




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