Category: terrorism

Demonise the availability entrepreneurs, an occasional series

This post on Abou Djaffar‘s fine blog expresses something that the Woolwich murder made me feel. It was a perfect demonstration of the dreadful way availability entrepreneurs come out of the woodwork, the spirit of Why the Bombings Mean You Should Support My Politics, a text that looking back accurately predicted the tone of our lives.

The security services, whose halfwitted attempts to recruit one of the killers couldn’t have been more disastrous, instantly announced that they needed more power.

GCHQ, taking advantage of its special direct access to the prime minister, announced that it needed more power via the Communications Data Bill, although it seems unlikely that anyone will achieve much SIGINT detection against what was basically a kebab-shop stabbing.

Hazel Blears, acting as spokeswoman for the parallel intelligence/counter-radicalisation system set up in DCLG under the Prevent strategy, instantly announced that DCLG needed more money and more discretion to act.

The prime minister convened COBRA and started appearing on TV a lot.

The extreme right immediately picked a fight with the cops and started setting fires.

People like David Goodhart started banging on about immigrants.

Tell Mama, which AFAIK started out as something to do with bullying at school, suddenly became front-and-centre in the fight for social cohesion.

I could go on. But can’t all these people just fuck off? The whole exercise is nauseating, and has the side-effect that I just don’t care. And if fascism is alive and well in Muswell Hill, like Elvis, I probably should care. Apathy is imposed on me.

A very Blairite disaster

So, the Kenyan Police counter-terrorism spokesman has this to say:

“Kenya’s government arrested Michael Olemendis Ndemolajo. We handed him to British security agents in Kenya and he seems to have found his way to London and mutated to Michael Adebolajo,” a Kenyan counter-terrorism spokesman, Muthui Kariuki, told the Associated Press. He added: “The Kenyan government cannot be held responsible for what happened to him after we handed him to the British authorities.”

Assorted relatives and friends seem to think the question is more whether the British had any business asking him questions while he was under the control of the Kenyans, who are alleged to have brutalised him in various ways. Further, the security service’s approach to recruiting informers seems to involve following them around and repeatedly buttonholing them, openly, in the street.

It sounds like an out-take from Four Lions – secret intelligence with a GOLF SALE sign. Perhaps the aim was actually deliberately overt, public, in your face surveillance, rather than recruitment, as a deterrent or an example to others. Either way, I think we can all agree that the situation has not developed to our advantage.

Which reminded me of this classic Daniel Davies post:

young Muslim men are exactly the ones who are vulnerable to being drawn into violent extremist movements, and their parents have both much better information about this happening than we do, and a powerful interest in stopping their sons turning into suicide bombers. In actual fact, [the launch of the CONTEST strategy was] yet another god-damned own goal which had the effect of getting peoples’ backs even further up.

How could this have been sold better?

Well, it seems to me that if the action that you want to achieve is “hand your children over to us”, the very most obvious message that you need to add to that is “we promise that we will keep them safe”. However, since our government currently has as its policy that it wants to hold people for 90 days without trial, and to extradite them without hearings to the Americans, who in turn might subject them to extraordinary rendition and waterboarding, we are not currently in a position to make that promise. We need to get into a position to make that promise, and fast.

A policy recommendation – if an allied police force catches someone like this, treat it as a consular matter and fetch the guy back to the UK. Then it can be a police matter. Or the secret services could try to persuade him to inform…in secret. Just letting the Kenyans or whoever batter him is just as bad and fools nobody. It also makes the UK look duplicitous and underhand as well as ruthless.

I suspect this is better advice than any of the barrage of availability entrepreneurship spewing from the surveillance industry, Hazel Blears, Hitchens Minor 2.0, or the swarm of assorted grant-seeking missiles this sad event has released.

Middle Eastern Links

Back from MWC. Heavy cold. Browser queue jammed with stuff. I’m going to do a brief succession of link posts to clear up. (Happenings last week; huge Leveson revelations, James Murdoch out, King Mob abolished workfare, horse, Borisbus fiasco, debate on Daniel Morgan, even more Leveson..)

This one deals with everyone’s favourite global geo-political region, the Middle East. Anthony Shadid died, and Angry Arab thinks the obits weren’t tough enough on the Israelis. Alyssa at ThinkProgress has a list of 20 of his best dispatches and only one covers the Palestinians and tangentially at that. Really?

Foreign Policy‘s David Kenner provides some history of the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood revolt in Syria and its repression by President Assad’s dad President Assad. Worth noting that by the time the Syrian army began its infamous destruction of Hama in ’82, the struggle had been going on since 1976. Just because the rebels have kept it up so long – which is astonishing and a demonstration of extreme courage – shouldn’t be taken to mean that they are going to win in the end.

Colin Kahl, writing in the Washington Post, points out that the Osirak raid in 1981 didn’t slow down Saddam Hussein’s effort to build the Bomb, in part because it hadn’t really started before the raid. However, the attack convinced him to make a concerted effort, and also caused Iraq to abandon the power reactor-reprocessing-plutonium route in favour of the highly-enriched uranium route, which is much easier to conceal and also to distribute among multiple facilities and which turned out to have a entire black market supply chain.

He also links to this piece on planning considerations for Israel, which highlights their air-to-air refuelling tankers as a key constraint. Kahl also points out that in the event of an Israeli raid, their air force would probably be needed at home immediately afterwards.

The Americans, for what it’s worth, don’t think a strategic decision has been taken to get the Bomb.

Bizarrely, the IAEA inspectors have discovered that the fortified enrichment plant at Fordow in Iran contains 2,000 empty centrifuge cases but not the centrifuges themselves. Is it a bluff of some sort? Is it a decoy target? Is it just a very odd way of going about building an enrichment plant?

Binyamin Netanyahu memorably described as “carrying both Anne Frank and the entire IDF around in his head”, presumably in between the bees in his bonnet and the bats in his belfry. It is argued that he won’t attack Iran because the settlers won’t like it, or possibly that he’s bluffing about Iran to draw attention away from them.

Ultima Ratio is down, but you can read their excellent (French) review of Syed Saleem Shahbaz’s posthumous book Inside Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban in the Google cache. Fans of “Kashmir is still the issue” will be interested by the argument that Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri and ex-Pakistani officer Haroon Ashik introduced a new strategy aiming to bring about more conflict between Pakistan and India, in the hope of alienating Pakistani leaders from the alliance with the US. Apparently they were planning something against an Indian nuclear site when Kashmiri was droned in June 2011.

Reflections on a HOWTO

I have been reading Curzio Malaparte’s Technique of the Coup d’état this weekend. It’s a fascinating document – the basic argument is that the October Revolution represented an exportable, universally applicable technology for taking control of the state, quite independent of ideological motivation or broader strategic situation. It was already fairly well-known at the time that Russia in 1917 really wasn’t the environment Marxists imagined would lead to a revolution and that Lenin had essentially retconned the whole thing to provide for giving history a little push. Malaparte’s unique contribution was to argue that it was more fundamental than that – the Bolshevik seizure of power could in reality have been carried out almost anywhere, for whatever reason. It wasn’t a strategic or ideological question, but one of operational art and tactics.

So, what’s this open-source putsch kit consist of? Basically you need a small force of determined rebels. Small is important – you want quality not quantity as secrecy, unanimity, and common understanding good enough to permit independent action are required. You want as much chaos as possible in advance of the coup, although not so much that everything’s shut. And then you occupy key infrastructures and command-and-control targets. Don’t, whatever you do, go after ministries or similar grand institutional buildings – get the stuff that would really cause trouble if it blew up.

Ideally, you do this by just floaking in through the front door as if you were in the railway station to catch a train rather than to seize the signalling centre. You’ll probably need, once you’ve got control of the real instruments of power, to stage some sort of symbolic overthrow of the government, but this is really only in order to get the message across to everybody else. Then, induce whatever authority is meant to be in charge after the head of government has been incapacitated to legitimise your action after the fact. It doesn’t matter much what state it’s in – a pro tip is to keep the parliament but get rid of enough opposition members to rig the vote.

Bada bing, bada boom, you are now the dictator.

From the other side, Malaparte argues that the worst thing that can go wrong is a general strike. There’s no point occupying key points if you can’t make the machine work yourself, as you’ll just be master of a lot of dark, cold buildings. The second worst thing that can go wrong is that you start to fall behind schedule. The whole trick relies on missing out as many people as possible, and the longer it takes, the more people have time to recover their orientation and get angry.

Interestingly, he comes up with something very like the 70s “historic compromise” concept in relation to this.

So you need either to get the support or at least the neutrality of the unions, or else render them unable to act in advance, which will mean fighting a civil war before you get to bring off the coup. And once you start, you’ve got to move quickly and keep moving.

Interestingly, he doesn’t say much about how you’re going to keep power once you’ve got it, if you can’t rely on calling everyone out on strike. After all, two can play at this game. This is a weakness in the whole concept, and quite an illuminating one.

Malaparte was a deeply odd character, a border-nationalist of German origins, an Italian first world war hero, later a diplomat and journalist and a fascist of the first hour who went on to fall out with fascism and get locked up. This is probably why he is read at all now. Having been released, he reported the Eastern Front of 1941 for the Italian papers until he fell out with the Germans, covered the Finnish sector until something similar happened, ended up back in Italy in time to take part in his second Italian coup (he had already managed to invade Russia twice, once as an attaché with the Poles in 1920 and again with the Germans as a journo in 1941, and live to tell the tale), served in the pro-Allied Italian army, and claimed to have become a communist.

He was also an almost joyously unreliable source, a self-mythologising war junkie who made Hemingway look sensible, and to be frank, if he fell out with the fascists it wasn’t because he was going soft or anything. I’ve read his dispatches from the Eastern Front (The Volga Rises in Europe) and found it hard to make out what the Germans objected to – obviously my standards aren’t those of a Wehrmacht press officer, but there’s a lot of hardboiled combat reporting, quite a bit of gratuitous fine writing, and nothing much critical of the war or Germany.

He also had an Ernst Röhm gay-fascist streak you could have landed a fleet of Savoia-Marchetti flying boats on, across it. Or at least his style did. The Volga… is just full of dashing blond Finnish officers and casually hunky, rough-trade Nazi recovery mechanics track-bashing in the Ukrainian sun, although there are a fair few fair country girls whose hearts and minds don’t seem to need much winning in there as well. (By the time it all got stuck in a ditch outside Rostov-on-Don he’d long since been ghosted by the German spin doctors.)

Anyway, a fascinating, utterly mad, and often deeply creepy writer. Back to the steps of the telephone exchange.

I think his coup technique is quite telling. Fascism always had an odd central contradiction in that it insisted it believed in hardcore political realism but also in romantic activism. Power, and specifically either firepower or horsepower, was all that mattered, but with enough will it would always be possible to change the power realities. Marxists offered inevitability; fascists opportunity. Rapid shock action directed at the key installations will give us the state, and that will give us everything else. Speed, style, ruthlessness, and cheek are everything. It’s the hope of audacity – get the right people together and a list of oil refineries, and everything is possible.

This may not sound very convincing, but it’s certainly true that many, many coups have been carried out following this rough plan.

Malaparte makes a complex distinction between the seizure of power in a parliamentary state and just using the parliamentary institutions to go legit later. He’s agin the first. I’m not so sure – two of the most successful coups of the 20th century were carried out in France, Petain’s parliamentary coup and de Gaulle’s rather less parliamentary one in 1958.

I think what’s happening here is that his residual fascist is showing.

Another thing that runs through the book is the idea, very common in extreme politics since 1918, that the military tactics of the late first world war – infiltration, independent action, surprise attack – can just be ported straight into politics. Malaparte actually goes so far as to make this explicit. It’s a great historical irony that the world experts of decentralised command were the Prussians, of course.

As always, though, it all makes for great tactics but lousy strategy.

Callaghan-era surge

I have recently been reading David McKittrick (et al)’s Making Sense of the Troubles. An interesting point, which I wasn’t aware of before, is their contention that the late 70s and Roy Mason’s tenure as Northern Ireland secretary was an important turning point. In fact, you could make an interesting comparison with Iraq in 2007-2008.

Mason’s policy was to forget about further top-level negotiations, after the collapse of the Sunningdale agreement, and focus on security and economic issues in the hope that progress from the bottom up would bring the conflict parties back to the negotiating table on better terms. In fact, during his tenure, there was a dramatic drop in the rate of killings that was never reversed. This is the hub of McKittrick’s argument – having surged in 1971 and peaked in 1972-3, levels of violence stayed very high until 1977 and then dropped to a new, much lower average level.

The British government in this period tried various expedients. The military used more special forces, and integrated their intelligence systems and those of the police and security services. Overall, there was a deliberate effort to project the whole war as a law-enforcement problem (very much a theme of US and Iraqi government propaganda during the “surge”), and to launch as many criminal prosecutions as possible. They tried hard to recruit informers and to make use of supergrasses.

McKittrick and his co-authors argue that there was a sort of cycle-of-recruitment effect at work – terrorism caused recruitment into the loyalist terrorist organisations, whose violence caused further IRA recruitment, which led to more military intervention and more loyalist violence. They further argue that this cycle was broken or at least slowed down in the late 1970s – whether the government was succeeding in providing security or not, it at least reduced the demand for unofficial, privatised violence. The government also tried hard to recruit potential paramilitaries into its own forces, and demonstrated that it was willing to use force against loyalists as well as republicans (they argue that the failure of the 1977 loyalist strike was important). This is all quite familiar.

However, the drop in violence was an over-determined event. There was a major change in the IRA leadership and strategy, which emphasised holding out for the long term and eventually led to an increased emphasis on the ballot box. (The parallel with the Sadr movement stands out.) There was a major protest movement demanding peace, which is another way of saying that the people were unwilling to tolerate so much violence any more.

Although this turning point meant much less violence, it didn’t solve anything in and of itself. And it involved quite a lot of state violence in itself – especially during interrogations. This Musings on Iraq roundup is telling – rather than gunbattles and mass bombings, the war continues with a low-level assassination campaign. In Northern Ireland, the best any security solution could ever do in the absence of a political solution was to hold the levels of violence down around the post-77 average, with a very significant cost to society as a whole.

we’re the muslimeen, creating a scene

So, I went to see Chris Morris’s takfiri flick, Four Lions. Short review – it’s desperately, barkingly hilarious. Stupidly funny. It started with the snickering. The snickering led to giggling and the giggling led to batshit honking horselaughs all night long.

Perhaps too funny – one of the markers of Chris Morris’s work is that everyone is an idiot, is responsible, and deserves the most extreme mockery and sarcasm. The jihadis are either simpletons, paranoiacs, or deluded. The police are bunglers. The defence establishment is desperately trying to be as ruthless as the CIA but can’t manage it. Democracy is represented by Malcolm Sprode MP, a contemptible Blairite stooge, brilliantly observed, babbling nonsense. The mainstream of British Islam is represented by a Sufi imam who is an obscurantist windbag full of half-digested quotations, who keeps his wife locked in a cupboard (“It’s not a cupboard! It’s a small room!”, he protests). The general public are either tiresome eccentrics or half-wits. The NHS employs the jihadi leader’s wife as a nurse – she is charming, tough, probably the most sane and competent person in the entire movie, and she offers him crucial psychological support when he doubts the wisdom of exploding. Even his little son is cool with Dad blowing himself up and encouraging all his friends to do so as well, and weighs in to help him through his dark night of the soul and on the way to self-induced fragmentation. The real jihadis on the North-West Frontier treat the international volunteers as especially low-grade cannon fodder, hardly surprising given the volunteers’ self-regarding pomposity and utter inability to do anything right.

This plays out in a nicely observed version of Sheffield; it’s as much a Yorkshire film as Rita, Sue, and Bob Too or This Sporting Life. There are a hell of a lot of jokes that turn on this; they only need to drive up a hill and climb over a dry stone wall in order to go from the deep city to somewhere you can safely test-fire a bomb without attracting attention. While meticulously reducing their stash of hydrogen peroxide and assembling the devices, they pose as a band – it’s Sheffield, after all. What else? Inevitably, they attract a rehearsal studio hanger-on somewhere between cool and fairly serious mental illness. Again, who else? Their in-house psychopath is responsible for proclaiming the Islamic State of Tinsley (I really began to lose it with this bit). The volunteers hugely overestimate their knowledge of Islam, and suffer from a sort of quasi-colonial superiority complex to actual Pakistanis in Pakistan – one of them makes the serious mistake of calling a Waziri sentry a “Paki banchut!”. (George MacDonald Fraser would have had him knifed for that, but Chris Morris has crueller plans for him.)

They learn that their cover has been blown from a news screen on the Sheffield Supertram; Omar, the leader, works as a security guard at Meadowhall.

There is a great moment of direction early on where the camera catches the shopping centre roof lit up just as the sun is coming up, catching it briefly showing off its oddly Islamic dome. Around the same time, we watch the CCTV feeds from within the centre through Omar’s eyes – the place is entirely empty and a large sign announces “SHOPPING”, with an arrow pointing upwards. Clearly, when he looks at Britain, this is what he sees.

Omar is a classic type, an autodidactic revolutionary, the only member of the cell with any self-reflection or intellectual depth or capacity for anything much. He’s a man surrounded by novelty-marathon running managers, daft younger brothers, and SHOPPING with an arrow; arguably, what he’s really rebelling against is the sheer horror of Chris Morris’s worldview. A main force in the plot is his progressive self-corruption – he is throughout the least convinced of them about the rightness of their cause, chiefly because he’s the only one with any capacity for doubt. As the mission progresses, he resorts to increasingly sordid deception to keep the show on the road through this or that crisis, and his eventual explosion is more motivated by horror at his failure to stop the others from blowing themselves up and a sense of having run out of options than anything else. It’s also telling that, despite his fury and loathing at British consumerism, self-satisfaction, etc, he’s by a distance the best dressed, shod, housed, and generally equipped member of the gang, redrafting his manifesto on a shiny new laptop in boxfresh trainers, although he does have to communicate with the others and The Emir through a children’s social network website called Puffin Party.

Barry, on the other hand, would have been the Islamic State of Tinsley’s chief of secret police. Barry is the only offcomed’un and the only white man in the group, not so much a convert to Islam as a lifelong convert to non-specific extremism and raging paranoia. As the plot progresses, despite his spectacular ineptness, he begins to take over as the driving force, and eventually it is his action that forces them to go ahead with the attack. One thing he has successfully learned in a long implied career of political madness is that paranoia, ideological enforcement, and ruthlessness pay. This doesn’t mean his thoughts make any sense, though; his idea of strategy is to blow up the mosque in the hope of triggering a wave of race riots and the revolution, but he rather undermines his planned false-flag operation by insisting on recording a martyrdom video taking responsibility for it. A hopeless case in anything that involves practical work, he helps to doom the plot by recruiting any fool he falls in with and blames everything that happens on Jews.

Cameras play a special role. The wannabe terrorists are compulsive film-makers – a running gag has Omar with a laptop at the kitchen table, despairingly trying to edit the latest rushes of his comrades’ martyrdom videos into something presentable. They keep filming and filming, but they always get it wrong – accidentally advertising fast food, posing with a tiny plastic gun, falling out about strategy as the camera rolls. Barry insists on doing a second video just in case they attack the mosque anyway. Omar is secretly keeping an out-takes reel for his own amusement. Reliably, people freak out and fuck up as soon as the red light comes on; Faisal falls over a sheep and accidentally triggers a suicide vest while clowning for a bit of impromptu iPhone video. Hassan makes a fool of himself at training camp by firing off a Kalashnikov for his holiday snaps. As well as Omar’s official making-of project, and their own unofficial video diaries, the state is also making a movie – several scenes show that they are under surveillance as they carry out a test explosion. But it’s a blooper in itself, a sight gag; the cops raid the wrong house and only succeed in giving themselves away and encouraging Omar to bring forward the attack.

The police response, like the mad conspiracy theories and the bomb making and the ratty, third rate band scene gaffs, has obviously had the benefit of careful observation and a close reading of the Stockwell II report – it follows the detail for Operations KRATOS and C closely, and as actually happened, the command and control system breaks down at once and the wrong man is shot, but there is far worse left to happen.

I urge you to see this film at once, although given that you read this, you probably already have done.

Abu Asterisk strikes again…

OK, so the Dubai assassination team made regular phone calls on GSM devices during the operation. What numbers did they call? From which ones? Well, it looks like they both used prepaid SIM cards acquired in Austria and they called Austrian telephone numbers. Obviously, that’s partly explained by the fact that they probably talked among themselves, but the only reason to say that they called numbers in Austria would be that there were other numbers called, outside the group.

Strange. The Mumbai raiders’ DID numbers registered in Austria and pointing at a VoIP system. This could just be an artefact of a data set of two, of course, or that somebody’s Web shop is close to the top of the Google results.

PS, does anyone have recommendations for a good graphics/visualisation solution? I’m thinking of doing my own one of these. Specifically, I’ve not seen one yet that takes account of the time factor – there is one suspect who spent only 3 hours 40 minutes in Dubai.

Authoritarianism Does Its Thing

This has done the rounds and been roundly done for all the right reasons.

There is almost nothing the Obama administration does regarding terrorism that makes me feel safer. Whether it is guaranteeing captured terrorists that they will not be waterboarded, reciting terrorists their rights, or the legally meandering and confusing rule that some terrorists will be tried in military tribunals and some in civilian courts, what is missing is a firm recognition that what comes first is not the message sent to America’s critics but the message sent to Americans themselves. When, oh when, will this administration wake up?

From a purely literary/journalistic point of view, it’s the “When, oh when” that gets me. Sometimes, style and content – aesthetics and morality – fuse into one.

More to the point, the astonishing thing here is Bush’s lasting achievement – he created a political lobby for torture. It’s not just that he let torture happen, or connived at it, or even specifically ordered it. It’s that a significant chunk of the body-politic now demands torture – not just ‘baggers, but editors of the Washington Post. There isn’t a lobbying group with tax-deductible status under 501(3)c yet – unless you count the American Enterprise Institute – but perhaps it would be a more honest world if there was one.

Do I have to quote Vaclav Havel’s crack about the man who puts a sign reading “Workers of the world, unite!” in the window all over again? OK. Havel said that obviously, he probably wasn’t doing this out of conviction; but if the sign said “I am afraid and therefore obedient”, its actual meaning, he might not be so happy to do it.

Perhaps. But I can’t help thinking the example may be wrong. Richard Cohen is, after all, not just being willing to turn a blind eye. He’s actually yelling for torture, and for specific methods of torture. And the marker of the Bush achievement is that the torture lobby has survived Bush. Here we are, more than a year on, after the US armed forces have been given specific orders against torture. And they’re out there wanting it. It’s weirdly reminiscent of the last Stasi man and the last suspect.

Also, it’s nothing to do with expediency; when the FBI wanted to question Captain Underpants, they got his relatives to talk to him, and it worked. It is usually the case that the purpose of torture is torture; what service, I wonder, does the knowledge of torture provide to these people? After all, Cohen explicitly says that he wants torture because it impresses the public, not because it produces names.

I can’t imagine what would have convinced me in 2000 that in 2010, responsible Americans would be lobbying for torture – even after they had succeeded in voting out the torture president. Back then, it used to be a commonplace notion that the power of the state was fundamentally uninteresting; I recall an especially silly newspaper article in which both Bill Clinton and Deng Xiaoping (Deng Xiaoping!) were bracketed together as meaningless figureheads.

Having a considerable lobby that needs a constant drip of draconian rhetoric to maintain their psychological stability is probably very bad for democracy, especially faced with a terrorist group that explicitly aims to destabilise the state through auto-immune warfare. These people have been trained to freak out at the faintest threat and howl for torture – in a sense, it’s yet another backdoor into the political system, as well as an example of the unconscious conspiracy between the terrorist and the state.

a single net of conspiracy

Well, this is hardly surprising; the FBI was in the habit of pretending to be on a terrorism case every time they wanted telecoms traffic data. Their greed for call-detail records is truly impressive. Slurp! Unsurprisingly, the lust for CDRs and the telcos’ eagerness to shovel them in rapidly got the better of their communications analysis unit’s capacity to crunch them.

Meanwhile, Leah Farrell wonders about the problems of investigating “edge-of-network” connections. Obviously, these are going to be the interesting ones. Let’s have a toy model; if you dump the CDRs for a group of suspects, 10 men in Bradford, and pour them into a visualisation tool, the bulk of the connections on the social network graph will be between the terrorists themselves, which is only of interest for what it tells you about the group dynamics. There will be somebody who gets a lot of calls from the others, and they will probably be important; but as I say, most of the connections will be between members of the group because that’s what the word “group” means. If the likelihood of any given link in the network being internal to it isn’t very high, then you’re not dealing with anything that could be meaningfully described as a group.

By definition, though, if you’re trying to find other terrorists, they will be at the edge of this network; if they weren’t, they’d either be in it already, or else they would be multiple hops away, not yet visible. So, any hope of using this data to map the concealed network further must begin at the edge of the sub-network we know about. And the principle that the ability to improve a design occurs primarily at the interfaces – this is also the prime location for screwing it up also points this way.

But there’s a really huge problem here. The modelling assumptions are that a group is defined by being significantly more likely to communicate among itself than with any other subset of the phone book, that the group is small relative to the world around it, and that it is boring; everyone has roughly similar phoning behaviour, and therefore who they call is the question that matters. I think these are reasonable.

The problem is that it’s exactly at the edge of the network that the numbers of possible connections start to curve upwards, and that the density of suspects in the population falls. Some more assumptions; an average node talks to x others, with calls being distributed among them on a well-behaved curve. Therefore, the set of possibilities is multiplied by x for each link you follow outwards; even if you pick the top 10% of the calling distribution, you’re going to fall off the edge as the false positives pile up. After three hops and x=8, we’re looking at 512 contacts from the top 10% of the calling distribution alone.

In fact, it’s probably foolish to assume that suspects would be in the top 10% of the distribution; most people have mothers, jobs, and the like, and you also have to imagine that the other side would deliberately try to minimise their phoning or, more subtly, to flatten the distribution by splitting their communications over a lot of different phone numbers. Actually, one flag of suspicion might be people who were closely associated by other evidence who never called each other, but the false positive rate for that would be so high that it’s only realistically going to be hindsight.

Conclusions? The whole project of big-scale database-driven social network analysis is based on the wrong assumptions, which are drawn either from military signals intelligence or from classical policing. Military traffic analysis works because it assumes that the available signals are a subset of a much bigger total, and that this total is large compared to the world. This makes sense because that’s what the battlefield of electronic warfare is meant to look like – cleared of civilian activity, dominated by one side or the other’s military traffic. Working from the subset of enemy traffic that gets captured, it’s possible to infer quite a lot about the system it belongs to.

Police investigation works because it limits the search space and proceeds along multiple lines of enquiry; rather than pulling CDRs and assuming the three commonest numbers must be suspects, it looks for suspects based on the witness and forensic evidence of the case, and then uses other sources of data to corroborate or refute suspicion.

To summarise, traffic analysis works on the assumption that there is an army out there. We can only see part of it, but we can make inferences about the rest because we know there is an army. Police investigation works on the observation that there has been a crime, and the assumption that probably, only a small number of people are possible suspects.

So, I’m a bit underwhelmed by projects like this. One thing that social network datamining does, undoubtedly, achieve is to create handsome data visualisations. But this is dangerous; it’s an opportunity to mistake beauty for truth. (And they will look great on a PowerPoint slide!)

Another, more insidious, more sinister one is to reinforce the assumptions we went into the exercise with. Traffic-analysis methodology will produce patterns; our brains love patterns. But the surge of false positives means that once you get past the first couple of hops, essentially everything you see will be a false positive result. If you’ve already primed your mind with the idea that there is a sinister network of subversives everywhere, techniques like this will convince you even further.

Unconsciously, this may even be the purpose of the exercise – the latent content of Evan Kohlmann. At the levels of numbers found in telco billing systems, everyone will eventually be a suspect if you just traverse enough links.

Which reminded me of Evelyn Waugh, specifically the Sword of Honour trilogy. Here’s his comic counterintelligence officer, Colonel Grace-Groundling-Marchpole:

Colonel Marchpole’s department was so secret that it communicated only with the War Cabinet and the Chiefs of Staff. Colonel Marchpole kept his information until it was asked for. To date that had not occurred and he rejoiced under neglect. Premature examination of his files might ruin his private, undefined Plan. Somewhere, in the ultimate curlicues of his mind, there was a Plan.

Given time, given enough confidential material, he would succeed in knitting the entire quarrelsome world into a single net of conspiracy in which there were no antagonists, only millions of men working, unknown to one another, for the same end; and there would be no more war.

Want a positive idea? One reading of this and this would be that the failure of intelligence isn’t a failure to collect or analyse information about the world, or rather it is, but it is caused by a failure to collect and analyse information about ourselves.

Profiles in Wanktankery: Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens

How could I forget this?

The Obscurer‘s coverage of the Undabomber has been marked by one man. Here he is:

Peter Hoekstra, the senior Republican on the House intelligence committee, said it was examining Mutallab’s links with the radical Yemeni imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, who has inspired a number of terrorists.

Awlaki had contacts with Major Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who is accused of carrying out the massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, in November in which 13 people were murdered. According to government officials, Awlaki was also the spiritual adviser to two of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, while he was an imam at a mosque in northern Virginia. The FBI investigated him in 1999 and 2000, believing him to be a possible procurement agent for Osama bin Laden.

In Toronto, a terror cell watched videos of Awlaki at a makeshift training camp where an attack was planned on the Canadian parliament and prime minister. “He’s a star attraction as a recruiter to young Americans and Canadians,” one former American intelligence official told the US media.

This month, in an interview with Al Jazeera, Awlaki expressed surprise that the US military had failed to uncover Hasan’s plan, to which he gave his backing. “My support to the operation was because the operation brother Nidal carried out was a courageous one, and I endeavoured to explain my position regarding what happened because many Islamic organisations and preachers in the west condemned the operation,” he said.

Awlaki left the US and moved to Yemen in 2002 where he established an English-language website that has thousands of followers around the world. In January 2009, he published an online essay, 44 Ways to Support Jihad, in which he asserts that all Muslims must participate in jihad, whether in person, by funding mujahideen or by fighting the west.

There’s something missing here…can you spot it?

Concerns about his influence in the UK have been expressed by experts on community cohesion. In August, the Observer reported anger that Awlaki was due to speak via a video link at Kensington town hall. The broadcast was dropped after the local council stepped in. He has also been invited to give talks via video link at several London universities. “Mutallab is the latest in a long list of terrorists [Awlaki] has inspired and encouraged,” said Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens of the Centre for Social Cohesion.

“The preacher has long been a highly respected figure within a number of British university Islamic societies because, unlike most other radical preachers, Awlaki speaks English as a first language, and being born and raised in America has given him a good understanding of western culture. This makes him very appealing to young western Muslims.”

Meleagrou-Hitchens called for British universities to increase their vigilance. “This incident should act as a wake-up call to university authorities,” he said. “It is crucial that they now accept the central role they must play in resisting extremists and preventing student groups from promoting hate preachers.”

Did you spot it? The Obscurer didn’t actually say that he had any connection with the pants bomber. They didn’t even quote Hoekstra saying so – and Hoekstra is a comedy rightwing buffoon anyway. They didn’t adduce any evidence of his connections with him in any way – just cut straight to Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens. Whose kid are you?

Oh, right. He’s “worked” for Standpoint, the Centre for Social Cohesion, Policy Exchange, and the Henry Jackson Society. I think he gets a free cup of coffee and 200 air miles if he can punch another content-free wanktank funded by the Tories’ neocon wing on his loyalty card.

PolEx’s Web site has an “Alumni” page, but mysteriously it bears no trace of him. Google, however, knows:

He has also worked at the Stanford University based think tank, the Hoover Institution for War, Revolution and Peace, and the Washington DC based think tank, Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD).

He holds an MA in International Relations from Brunel University, and a BA in Classics from King’s College London.

Alexander researched for publications providing policy recommendations on creating a robust defence against the threat of terrorism in the UK and abroad.

FDD as well! Free cuppa for you! There is, of course, no suggestion of or link to any work on terrorism he ever did.

Today, he’s in the Obscurer again. Let’s roll the tape.

Recordings of Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida sympathiser who is believed to have inspired Abdulmutallab in Yemen, can be bought through British-based websites and bookshops. Three shops in London and Manchester were contacted by this newspaper last week. Staff said they could sell DVDs of the speeches by the cleric, who is banned from the UK.

As recently as last April, students at London’s City University Islamic Society’s annual dinner were invited to hear the words of al-Awlaki being broadcast live into Britain.

So why is he “believed” to have inspired pants boy? Where is the evidence? It’s not even the electioneering torture fan Hoekstra this time.

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, a research fellow for the think-tank the Centre for Social Cohesion,

For it is he.

said that al-Awlaki has become an increasingly influential figure. “For well over a year now, organisations such as ours have repeatedly warned about the dangerous influence of this man, with most of our warnings falling on deaf ears,” he said.

Call now and buy your anti-terrorist water ioniser – 20 per cent off before the end of this broadcast! And don’t forget to donate now and claim Gift Aid!

“They had no objection to his giving a video sermon to a gathering at Kensington and Chelsea town hall. We are also often told that, although al-Awlaki’s views may be unsavoury, he has never been convicted of any crime. Clearly, this excuse is simply not good enough.”

The excuse that he hasn’t done anything wrong.

Further, Hitchens Minor seems to be missing someone in his laudable crusade on the home front. I refer, of course, to the current and past tenants of Kensington & Chelsea Town Hall, or in other words, the Conservative Party in London. Could this perhaps have something to do with the fact that his boss at Policy Exchange is now the Conservative Mayor of London’s director of policy?