Case Study: The Capture of Saddam Hussein

A visualization of Saddam Hussein’s social networks / Via Brian Joseph Reed (pdf)

After the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Ba’athist regime headed by Saddam Hussein quickly collapsed. However, finding Saddam, who was believed to be directing a rising insurgency against coalition forces, proved difficult.

At first, U.S. forces concentrated on rounding up key members of the former government, officials who were highlighted on the famous playing cards put together by the Defense Intelligence Agency. That strategy, however, ended up being a dead end for finding Saddam.

“The deck of cards didn’t help in the hunt of Saddam, very simply, because the cards had many of the wrong people on them,” wrote Chris Wilson, in Slate, as part of a five-part series dedicated to the role social network analysis played in the eventual capture of Saddam Hussein.

As U.S. forced hunted for associates they hoped might lead to Saddam, the ultimate question was which relationships actually matter? The answer, it turns out, was much more complex and much less obvious than finding former senior Iraqi government officials.

In his PhD dissertation, Maj. Brian Reed, one of the Army officers involved in mapping Saddam’s network, wrote about how social network analysis helped understand associations that weren’t previously well understood. Critical to understanding Saddam’s network, according to Reed, was that it was not very dense, meaning there weren’t a large number of connections between people compared to the total number of possible connections.

Overall, Saddam’s core network—people with whom he had close connections-was small and tightknit, dominated by family and tribal associations. “[O]f the 214 actors in the total network, there are only 23 actors with direct ties to Saddam Hussein,” Reed wrote.

In Slate, Wilson details how Army intelligence analysts used social network analysis techniques to map Saddam’s network, eventually identifying key families from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit. That eventually led them to a key individual, called the “fat man,” who gave up Saddam’s hiding place.

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