Shrinking the haystack

Software is helping the search for guerrillas’ and terrorists’ safe houses and weapons caches.

WHEN selecting a base for preparing attacks, jihadists should choose flats that are on the ground floor, hard to peer into, not near government buildings and unsecluded in a newly built neighbourhood. So advises “Declaration of Jihad Against the Country’s Tyrants”, an al-Qaeda manual found in Manchester in 2000. Flats conforming to these specifications make it easier to dig secret storage areas under the floor, to melt away into the city and to avoid attention from neighbours who, were they longtime residents, might take a greater interest in newcomers.

Thanks to the clever use of software, tips from this and other manuals obtained by intelligence agencies are proving increasingly valuable to counter-terrorist forces deployed both in the West and abroad. Technologists are modifying existing mapping software to produce “geographic profiling” programs that show which areas should be searched or put under surveillance first in the hunt for hideouts, bomb workshops and weapons caches. “Declaration of Jihad Against the Country’s Tyrants”, for example, was a cornerstone of Building Intent, a geoprofiling program developed by Alper Caglayan of Milcord, in Massachusetts, for America’s defence department.

In addition to terrorist guidelines on which buildings to use, software such as Building Intent is fed the co-ordinates of bombings and other actions thought related to the group of interest. These are useful because such groups are often reluctant to conduct operations far from their bases, be it to save time, to remain in familiar or friendly territory, or to reduce the likelihood of encountering a checkpoint.

SCARE story

At the same time, such people also tend not to operate too close to base, in the hope of sparing it scrutiny. Data from years of home-made-bomb (IED, or “improvised explosive device”) attacks and discoveries in Iraq, analysed by Roy Lindelauf of the Dutch Defence Academy, suggest that those planting bombs in urban areas almost always carry the device at least a couple of hundred metres from where it was stored, though rarely much more than a kilometre. Also—suicide missions aside—few IEDs are built, stored or detonated in the territories of rival groups. Data from as few as five IED blasts can thus more or less pinpoint the location of a workshop or cache.

What is true of IEDs is true also of those places from which insurgents launch mortar rounds and rockets. Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, for example, do not like to tote their weaponry far, lest they be caught or killed before getting a good opportunity to use it. The American army has therefore developed, for use in Afghanistan, geoprofiling software called SCARE-S2. This crunches data on the times and co-ordinates of enemy attacks, analysing these in the context of information about the country’s terrain, road network and ethnic make-up, as well as what is known at the time of the shifting pattern of tribal alliances in the area of interest. The software then identifies a handful of villages that are most likely to host the commander behind the attacks or the weapons cache used to make them.

Details about SCARE-S2’s performance are, understandably, scarce. But a publicly available analysis by Paulo Shakarian, who led the program’s development, used data on hundreds of earlier Taliban attacks in Kandahar and Helmand provinces to test its effectiveness. The areas this test flagged up as worth searching had an average of 4.8 villages in them, and NATO records of discoveries of Taliban commanders and weapons caches showed that the density of such discoveries in these flagged areas was 35 times that of discoveries in the two provinces as a whole.

Guerrillas and terrorists are not fools. They are aware they may be under surveillance, and take what they hope are appropriate counter-measures. They are unlikely, for example, to make calls from inside a safe house in which they are living. Instead, they typically make calls from roughly spaced out nearby locations, taking care not to call too often from the same spot. They hope, thereby, that if their activity is being monitored, it will appear random and therefore meaningless.

Spacing things out like this is, in mathematical fact, anything but random: that, in itself, is suspicious. But true randomness would also be odd. As Ian Laverty, the boss of ECRI, a geoprofiling-software firm in Vancouver, observes, innocent phone calls have geographical patterns, because people have routines. Those who take steps to elude the authorities thus often end up unwittingly creating a profile of where their home base is—a profile that a piece of ECRI’s software called Rigel Analyst can spot. This software is used by more than 90 intelligence agencies around the world. Its applications include searching for Taliban rocket caches in Afghanistan.

Geoprofiling is thus already an important counter-insurgency tool. It is likely to become more so in the future, because the number of pertinent actions that can be plotted by it is booming, according to a geoprofiler in Denmark’s intelligence apparatus who prefers to remain anonymous. This operative uses geoprofiling software called ArcGIS that analyses Global Positioning System (GPS) data provided unwittingly by insurgents’ growing use of smartphones and other gadgets that are equipped, by default, with GPS kit. For example, simply right-clicking on propaganda images posted online often obtains a GPS “geocode” that reveals where the picture was taken. “I’d like to keep my job, so we won’t say any more,” his colleague chimes in.

Here I go again

Other experts are more forthcoming. Geoprofiling software is now being fed the locations of extremist groups’ leafleting and graffiti, says Kim Rossmo, who led the development of Rigel Analyst and also trains intelligence and military geoprofilers in America, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands. The locations of muggings and robberies are also analysed, because many terrorists finance themselves from the proceeds of such crime.

Even data on income distribution are plugged into geoprofiling software according to Matthew Degn, who was once an adviser to the Iraqi interior ministry’s intelligence directorate. The poorer an area is, he says, the more likely a flat there houses people paid to store weapons or, say, to snip off countless match heads to make bombs. The likelihood increases if there have been lots of violent deaths in that quarter, for bloodletting often spawns extremists, or at least acceptance of them.

Geoprofiling works especially well in countries like Iraq, in which sectarian splits limit where people are willing to live or work. It is, nonetheless, still a useful tool in places, such as Western countries, where patterns of belief might be thought of as less tied to geography. As Brent Smith, of the University of Arkansas’ Centre for Advanced Spatial Technologies observes, right-wing extremists rarely hole up near gay bars, abortion clinics and other places they consider “pollutants of urban life”. In the matter of politically motivated violence, the ideas thought worth killing and dying for vary. To the geoprofiler it makes no difference.