An image from a presentation by Mitre Corporation, a Defense Department partner, that is involved in its Counter-Insurgency (COIN) Sandbox effort, a part of which involves analyzing social networks to help combat the use of improvised explosive devices.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military quickly went from fighting a conventional military force to battling a rising insurgency, whose weapon of choice was the improvised explosive device, or IED. Military officials quickly learned that trying to stem the proliferation of IEDs required more than simply finding and defusing the roadside bombs; they needed to understand and dismantle the network of people that enabled them.
In many cases, tracking down that network required understanding the connections between hundreds of people, from the key leaders who financed IED networks, down to the person who actually placed the bomb on the side of the road. Since a network might have hundreds of people in it, the key was tracking down the people who are critical to its operation, in other words, finding the central “nodes.”
“Attack the network” became the official slogan of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, which has begun using social network analysis to help track down members of insurgent cells. In 2010, Michael Oates, then the head of the Pentagon’s bomb-fighting task force, said that social networking analysis programs were being used to track down IED cells, although he didn’t provide any precise details about the technology being used.
In 2010, NPR profiled Maj. Ian McCulloh, an Army officer who earned his doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University, specializing in network science, who went on to teach social network analysis techniques to Army personnel involved in hunting down IED cells .
Social network analysis didn’t necessarily identify key leaders that weren’t already known to Army intelligence analysts, but it did drastically cut down the amount of time needed to identify those key leaders. A network with some 300 nodes, or people, might require five days of an experienced analyst sifting through data to identify key leaders, McCulloh told NPR.
“I was able to put it into the software that I use and do some basic network analysis and in about 15 to 20 minutes I had the same conclusion,” he said.