Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tracking Down the FOOLs

A piece at Strategy Page explains the significance of the data seized in the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. Here's the crux of it:
It works like this. In the last five years, counter-terror operations in Iraq were increasingly concentrating on chasing down specific terrorists and their organizations. The amount of intelligence residing in databases, plus the daily flow of new information made it possible to track terrorist cells and chase after them with high confidence that they would be caught. There were a lot of Islamic terrorists out there in Iraq, but by 2007 they had to spend most of their time on OpSec (operational security, making sure that they, or their bomb making workshops, are not discovered.)

For years, every night in Iraq, about a dozen known bad guys were hauled in. Some of these men gave up their buddies, or incriminating documents or other evidence (often fingerprints) would do it. Since about 2005, U.S. troops were fingerprinting every suspicious character they came across. The guy they turned loose several years earlier for lack of evidence, may end up on a wanted list today because his prints were now found all over some warm weapons or bomb making materials. Prints can even be lifted off some fragments of exploded bombs.

The army and marines have been doing the same thing police forces and corporations have been doing for over a decade; taking data from many different sources and quickly sorting out what all the pieces mean. It's called fusion and data mining, and it's a weapon that is having a dramatic impact on what many thought was an unwinnable war.

The final factor in this trend was the parallel growth of raiding and command techniques. American troops developed organizations, equipment and tactics that enabled them to rapidly and safely (for both the raiders and the arrested) go after suspects in dense residential areas (or farms in rural areas). You didn't hear much about this, because these raids did not generate casualties or the kind of violence that grabs headlines.

American commanders and headquarters also learned how to plan and execute these raids very quickly (sometimes within minutes of new information being discovered.) This meant that, after a terrorist hideout was raided, information found there could generate additional raids in less than an hour. The new raids often caught terrorists who had not yet heard of the earlier raid that turned up the data putting them on the American radar. Speed was a weapon, and it took years to develop a superior amount of it.

The same techniques were applied in Afghanistan, and to the war on terror in general. Thus seizing all that data in bin Laden's house provided thousands of links, and data on who did what for who and when. Added to existing data, and using the specialized software and databases, will provide sufficient information to launch more raids.

They are probably already underway. But you won't hear about it until somewhat later, because more valuable information, and suspects, will be picked up and lead to still more raids. After weeks, or months, the names of "most wanted" suspects that were arrested or killed will get out. But the big damage is done to the organization of these terrorist groups, and the confidence they once had in their communications, and the people they once trusted.
What I don't understand is why we announced to the world that we had all the data. Why not concoct a story that our SEAL team had to evacuate too quickly to gather up all the computers and thumb drives and so forth? Why not put out a story that we were surprised by how little stuff OBL had on the premises and disappointed that the raid yielded so little information on other terrorists? At least this may have created some uncertainty.

As it is, if all the potential targets the new intelligence helps us find know we have information on them they're bound to hop in their SUVs and head for the nearest cave, but if they were uncertain that we had the information they may have taken the chance that we didn't and stayed in their comfy air-conditioned hideouts.

Anyway, it looks like there'll be some anxious days ahead for the FOOLs (Friends of Osama bin Laden). Come to think of it, I wonder how many of those FOOLs are in the U.S.