While the structure of Al Qaeda has long been the focus of social network analysis in the years following 9/11, it’s unclear how much sophisticated computer tools have actually helped dismantle the network. More critically, it’s never been disclosed whether any formal social network analysis led to the location and killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Writing in Slate in 2010, Chris Wilson, who detailed the capture of Saddam Hussein using social network analysis, argued that this same process likely couldn’t be used to find Osama bin Laden because Al Qaeda in recent years is no longer a network in the pure sense, but rather a collection of loosely affiliated groups. Yet just a little over a year later, Osama Bin Laden was located by tracking an associate.
“Bin Laden strictly avoided phone or e-mail communications for fear that they would be intercepted,” the Washington Post reported. “Instead, he relied exclusively on couriers, a system that enabled him to avoid detection for nearly a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks.”
Though there’s no evidence that any computer tool could be credited for locating Osama bin Laden, network theorists would say he was found thanks to a classic principle of social network analysis: a courier would be viewed as unimportant in a traditional power hierarchy, but would score high on “betweenness” in a social network, because he or she may represent the shortest path between other individuals
For now, however, it’s difficult to say whether the killing of Osama bin Laden demonstrates that social network is useful as a predictive method for finding and dismantling such networks, or merely an empirical tool for understanding how such networks function.