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Intelligent man’s guide to fighting terror

Predator drones firing Hellfire missiles in Waziristan. US Navy SEALS landing in Abbottabad. These are the popular impressions of cutting edge counter-terrorism warfare and technology. Manohar Thyagaraj writes.

world Updated: Sep 11, 2011 15:32 IST
Manohar Thyagaraj
Manohar Thyagaraj
Hindustan Times

Predator drones firing Hellfire missiles in Waziristan. US Navy SEALS landing in Abbottabad. These are the popular impressions of cutting edge counter-terrorism warfare and technology.

There is much, much more to the story. The raid that led to Osama bin Laden’s death was only the visible tip of a much longer process. Like a duck swimming, much of the action happens out of sight. The work of counter-terrorism in the US is just as likely to be done by number-crunchers in suburban Virginia as special forces in the Afghan mountains.

The ‘soft’ part of counter-terrorism — built around data and networking — parallels to ‘hard’ methods like guns and armour. But it’s when the two merge that a counterterrorism agent or special forces fighter knows what to look for and who to shoot, real-time and on-the-spot. General Stanley McChrystal’s special operations campaign in Iraq fused intelligence, analysis and operations to a degree never seen before. He was able to go after Al Qaeda in Iraq faster than the terror group could regenerate.

The ‘data war’ is what allows governments to prevent rather than merely react to terror. Attacks can be preempted. The next terrorist strike is blocked from occurring because a pattern was spotted in time, a link between disparate pieces of information was established. Terrorists change methods frequently and keeping up with them takes place in this virtual battle-space.

This facet of counter-terrorism puts a premium on the collection, analysis and dissemination of data. Traditional information-sharing is hierarchical and inefficient. US agencies now network information among all the players in the process. The result is a common operating picture in which everyone gets to see the same information at the same time.

The first step is to have multiple data-gathering points. US systems include its Advanced Passenger Information and Passenger Name Records (PNR), human sources and technical sources of intelligence, such as signals or communications intelligence. New sources of data have to be constantly brainstormed. What you’re looking for is out there in the ether of human activity and records. Somewhere.

Once you’ve got this data, sense has to be made of it. There has been an enormous investment in this sort of technology: software programmes and the like which extract meaningful information from the ingested data using pattern recognition and link analysis. Travel too much to a suspect place, for example, and you would have a pattern to be questioned.

Says David Trulio, senior fellow at the Homeland Security Policy Institute in Washington, “The increased use of automated risk assessment (ARA) represents a significant advance in homeland security.” Trulio, a former Special Assistant to President George W Bush, notes that systems using ARA can identify border crossers and air travellers who pose a risk of terrorism, smuggling, or other crimes on the basis of rules developed over time.

In 2003, a US border inspector in Chicago used PNR data and analytics to stop a traveller from entering the US. His fingerprints were later found on a suicide vehicle in Iraq. In 2006, another inspector at Boston’s Logan airport identified two passengers whose travel patterns indicated high risk. One claimed to be travelling on business for a group with suspected ties to Al Qaeda. Their baggage was opened and found to have images of armed men labeled ‘Mujahideen’. They were refused entry.

In fighting and, especially, preventing terrorism, its unsexy computer programmes that play around with data that are even more important than munitions.

Some US software weapons:

TIDE: Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment is used to compile watch-lists. Handled by the National Counterterrorism Center.

ARA: Automated Risk Assessment compiles watchlists and develops risk profiles of people. Risk analysis uses tools like pattern recognition, experience and reasoning, to develop models of dangerous behavior — and then runs traveller and other data against those models to identify high-risk individuals.

Advanced biometrics: The present investment in 3-D facial recognition will make as good if not better than fingerprinting for targetted individuals.

Automated language translation technology: can translate languages in real-time.

RTRG: Real-Time Regional Gateway is an example of a system fusing intelligence, analysts and war-fighters in real time.

Atometry: One of a set of new scanning technologies for explosives. In this case it uses radiation to scan a target. Coming soon: chemical ‘sniffing’ technologies for explosives.

The author is President of Paragon International, a homeland security consulting firm.

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First Published: Sep 10, 2011 23:24 IST