Who are those guys?
By Doug Page
The remains of an exploded car from the Mumbai, India terrorist attacks of November, 2008. (AP Photo)
During the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, computer scientists at Rice University determined who the perpetrators were even before local Indian authorities could.
Mumbai police had to wait four days to learn from the only surviving attacker that the culprits were a militant Pakistan-based group called Lashkar-e-Tayyiba. The Rice researchers had only to wait on output from a sophisticated new computer program to determine which terrorist group might be responsible for the attacks.
“A necessary step in an effective response to an attack or incident is identifying who’s responsible,” said Rice graduate student Derek Ruths, the computer scientist who designed the system. Ruths told Homeland1 his system identified the responsible group in Mumbai within 48 hours, two days before local police.
Identifying terror groups can be difficult. Often, either no group will claim responsibility or multiple groups will claim responsibility for an incident, making it unclear which is actually responsible.
Even the best intelligence operations are not ubiquitous; no one can watch everything all the time. The Rice project demonstrates that information technology might help intelligence experts figure out where to look.
Ruths said his system takes the facts known about an attack such as weapons, targets and tactics, then searches large databases of news stories to identify groups that, based on past behavior, could be responsible. By doing this, the system provides an additional piece of information to analysts trying to figure out who is responsible.
“This is the first system that uses a model of a group’s past behavior to determine how likely its involvement in an attack is,” Ruths said.
The system, as yet unnamed, combines methodologies from artificial intelligence and bioinformatics, and the highly flexible Python programming language, to rapidly scan the news report databases, maintained at the Institute for the Study of Violent Groups <www.isvg.org>, which is headquartered at Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas.
“Every time there is a major terrorist attack, we are able to test our models, refine our methods and incorporate new functions into our system,” Ruths said.
The Rice researcher stressed that the system only generates hypotheses. “In all tests we’ve conducted, our system has worked well in identifying responsible groups,” Ruths said, “but the ultimate determination should always rest entirely in the hands of trained analysts and domain experts. Our system gives these decision-makers additional information with which to reach and support a conclusion.”