Students use big data to map terrorist networks
This summer, two international relations majors at USC Dornsife got an opportunity to learn how to use the big data and visualization tools employed by the United States military to understand and map terrorist networks.

Students use big data to map terrorist networks

International relations undergraduates at USC Dornsife learn how to understand and map terrorist networks using tools employed by the U.S. military during internships at the Naval Postgraduate School.
BySusan Bell

In the wake of the recent Paris and San Bernardino attacks, counterintelligence experts have been forced to conclude that the face of terrorism appears to be shifting.

Moving away from complex, grandiose plots to blow up national landmarks, attackers now seem to center on “soft” targets, such as restaurants, concerts and sports venues, using small, simply concealed weaponry and easy-to-assemble bombs.

It seems clearer than ever that we need enhanced intelligence and security methods to defeat a terrorist threat that may be even harder to detect — and to prevent.

One of the most effective ways to target terrorists before they target us is to understand how their networks operate. This summer, thanks to internships offered by the Common Operational Research Environment (CORE) Lab, two international relations majors at USC Dornsife got an opportunity to learn how to use the big data and visualization tools employed by the United States military to understand and map terrorist networks.

Located in the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., CORE Lab focuses on using these tools to understand how networks function. The systems studied can be those used by terrorists, but they also can be as varied as tourism networks and drug trafficking organizations. Even networks of things, including roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices (IEDs), can be analyzed for similarities such as type of material, origin and location.

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Senior Matthew Woo. Photo courtesy of Matthew Woo.

“Programs and methods used by the CORE Lab enable researchers to explore similarities that a human brain would be unable to do, allowing them to visualize networks based on location or on relationships,” said senior Matthew Woo, one of the undergraduates who participated in the 5-week internships.  

Data visualization allows researchers to map out attributes and relationships within networks.

“You can think of it as being like the police evidence boards you see on old TV detective shows, with strings that connect suspects,” Woo said. “Now imagine being able to do that with thousands of pieces of data.”

Indeed, in addition to the military, one of CORE Lab’s main clients is law enforcement.

“They have a lot of data they’ve collected on inmates, but it’s just sitting there and they haven’t really found a way to utilize it,” Woo said. “It’s like a giant haystack of data, so finding that one needle of really solid information is really hard to do. The analysis tools we use in the lab can help them make sense of the haystack and find the needle faster.”

CORE Lab also uses social network analysis, a social theory on how groups behave.

“You can use social network analysis to rearrange networks visually as well as quantitatively to understand how they work, who the most influential actors are, where the weak spots are, who is playing a role of a broker in the network, who are the characters who might have more sway,” Woo explained.

At CORE Lab, Woo worked on testing, troubleshooting and technology writing with Lighthouse, a data collection tool that allows groups to collect data from individuals and record it in a way that is codified so it can be exported and analyzed through social network analysis tools.

“I was walking around the office using military-style radio equipment to collect data on my co-workers and run it through the system to make sure it worked,” he said. “It was so cool, and getting it to work was the highlight of my internship.”

Woo said the internship had given him a new appreciation for organizations and relationships.

“I’ve always been passionate about understanding how people work and interact, but being able look at this theoretically, from a very qualitative data-driven angle, has given me a really unique perspective.”

Fellow intern [name obscured], a junior majoring in international relations with a minor in spatial sciences, said he chose his academic focus with the intention of pursuing a career in intelligence analysis.

“However, I didn’t really know how my international relations and geographic information systems (GIS) degrees would really pair with each other,” he said. “This internship was an amazing opportunity to see them fit together at one of the highest levels with the military.”

[Name obscured] was tasked with several major projects during his internship, including updating, editing and curating data on more than 350 members of the global Salafi Jihad, the collective name given to the world’s major Islamic Jihadist groups, including Al Qaeda.

“What had happened to these 350 people in the past five years? Were they dead, alive or in prison? Do we know more about them than we did before? There were so many people where we knew their name and their role but we had no idea where they were from, or what they looked like, or even their age,” [name obscured] said. “My job was to do all the research required to update the military’s data set on all the major terrorists.”

He also worked with academics from John Hopkins University and marine colonels who were developing a new software tool to enhance soldiers’ ability to collect data while in combat zones.

[Name obscured] said he enjoyed learning what it’s like to work for the military as a civilian and that the internship had strengthened his ambition to work in intelligence and security. “I’m not only much more qualified to do it now, but it has piqued my interest because I know what it’s like, I know I can do it and I’ve seen how fun it can be.”

Woo and [name obscured] said they would recommend the internship and agreed it would boost their resumes.

“An internship with the military conveys a certain level of prestige and validation,” [name obscured] said.

Woo said the internship enabled him to gain practical and technical skills to add to the strong analytical skills he had already acquired through international relations.

“I learned to use six or seven tools including big data analysis, social network analysis and data visualization,” he said. “Being able to put these technical skills on your resume can give you a big boost in the eyes of future employers.