Intelligence: Tweets That Blow Things Up


June 27, 2011: NATO revealed that it is using Twitter messages ("tweets") from Tripoli to help locate the best targets for air attack in Libya. The tweets are part of a large database of material collected from public sources (mainly the Internet), used in conjunction with classified data, and used to determine where the best targets are. This is not unique, it's part of a trend.

The last decade has seen a revolution in how intelligence is collected, analyzed and used. This revolution was fueled by smaller and cheaper computers, innovative software, better cameras, UAVs and new ideas to make it all work together. This has changed the way the troops fight as well. The tactics now put priority on superior intelligence, enabling you to go after the enemy leadership and key assets (specialists and stores of weapons and equipment). That is what is happening in Libya.

The drill is simple. Better intelligence enables you to find where key enemy people are, so teams of troops can capture or kill them. But the troops also pick up more information (from documents, interrogation and Internet activity), which quickly leads to more raids. The damage to the enemy is so great, and rapid, that their ability to undertake operations becomes less and less. This played a major role in defeating the Iraqi terrorists. The same thing is happened to the Taliban in Afghanistan and the system is being applied in Libya.

For example, in 2009, the intel system provided leads for about nine raids a week in Afghanistan. In 2010, this went up to about 250 a week. It continued to grow this year. The intel tends to be good as well, with 80 percent of those raids resulting in the capture of who the raiders were looking for, or someone connected with the target. The result of all these raids has been a collapse of the Taliban command and control capability. The Taliban were forced to flee their base areas (leading to media stories about the Taliban "extending their control") and reduced the ability to do any kind of combined operations. Terrorist and guerilla operations depend on dispersed units, but still need leadership and specialists (weapons, intelligence, financial). The massive raiding campaign in Afghanistan has turned the Taliban into small groups of gunmen, in sporadic communication with each other and top leadership (based in Pakistan). Shortages of specialists has crippled their IED (roadside bomb and suicide bombing) campaign. The buzzword used to describe all this is "fusion."

The U.S. Department of Defense, based on experience in Iraq,  moved from semi-automated fusion techniques, to automated intelligence analysis and data distribution (to troops who need it) systems to give troops a nearly instant picture of what is going on electronically in their area. These new systems use off-the-shelf hardware and software. The basic drill is to quickly apply past experience to direct collection and analyses of the electronic data being collected by sensors over and around the battlefield, and then determine which data is useful for which troops on the ground or in the air. The systems then alert those troops and sends the data. Actually, it sends an interpretation of the data. The electronic sensors, usually onboard aircraft or UAVs, senses radio and cell phone signals, as well as the electronic noise broadcast by generators, vehicles and other equipment. Troops tuned in to the system will get a text report of what is squawking (electronically) in their vicinity, with advice on what it might mean. Troops can connect to the system via laptops in their vehicles or smart phone type devices. All this came from the way troops learned how to cope with the growing flood of data they found themselves gathering in Iraq. In Libya, this is often applied by sending radio alerts to bombers headed for Tripoli, or rebels troops on the ground.

For the Libya operation, the United States brought it's full array of intelligence tools (and let other nations do most of the bombing.) But there were few UAVs over Tripoli, or sensors in the city. But there were a lot of rebel supporters in Tripoli, with access to the Internet, and using Twitter heavily. These tweets were monitored, and compared against other data. The most reliable tweeters were noted, and their tips were added to the database used to decide which targets next. Those tweeters who appeared to be deranged, or working for the Libyan government, were tagged and largely ignored.

With lots more fresh battlefield data available, it is now possible to do things that, only a few years earlier, were believed the province of much larger, and better funded, organizations. In other words, the traditional data fusion technology got cheap enough for everyone. Fusion is all about collecting intelligence from many sources, and sorting through it for useful patterns and items that, in seen in the right context, are very valuable. The first of these fusion centers were set up at the national level two decades ago. But during the course of the Iraq war, the concept moved down the food chain. Cheaper, and more powerful, computer hardware was able to use analysis software to speed the fusion process, even in the hands of a relatively inexperienced operator.

Speed has always been an advantage in combat, but, until recently, rarely something intelligence analysis was noted for. No longer. And it's not just the military. Counter-terror operations involve the FBI and local police in the United States, and local security forces in allied nations. The speed in getting target information is just as important to these police organizations as it is to the military.






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