Facebook for terrorists: System finds hidden network connections
A novel approach to analyzing social networks may one day help homeland security investigators discover the hidden connections between people involved in terror attacks.
The method, reported by Japanese researchers in the current issue of the International Journal of Services Sciences, involves uncovering the nodes that act as connecting hubs in a terrorist network and tracing back to individual members.
“The paper addresses a new mathematical problem, which is node discovery in a network; offers a solution to the problem; and applies the solution to terrorist organization analysis,” said Yoshiharu Maeno, of the School of Engineering at the University of Tokyo.
Maeno believes his analytical approach to understanding terrorist networks could ultimately help prevent future attacks by identifying, weakening and/or eliminating covert networks organizing an attack.
Maeno said that by combining prior understanding with graph theory and computational data processing, it should be possible to analyze a terrorist network and reveal latent connections and patterns.
The Japanese technique uses a sophisticated mathematical scheme to discover the hidden network elements, or nodes, the hubs at which various conspirators in a network are connected. Usually, ordinary members would have merely one or two connections, whereas nodes can have several, and critical nodes, the hubs, have many more.
Maeno said conspiratorial networks are similar in structure to the World Wide Web, where individual web pages may have one or two connections, and small organizations may have a few more. But major hubs, such as search engines like Google and Yahoo and social-networking sites like as Facebook and Twitter, have many more. The big nodes act as the hubs through which smaller, individual sites are interconnected.
The system was tested by analyzing the social network of those terrorists responsible for the 911 attacks. Maeno said his analysis revealed a connection not known in advance of 911 between Waleed al-Shehri and Mohand al-Shehri, who are unrelated.
Mohand al-Shehri helped Mohammed Atta plan the hijack of AA11, which was flown into the North Tower. Mohand al-Shehri himself participated in the hijacking of UA175, which was flown into the South Tower.
The Japanese system showed Waleed al-Shehri, a hijacker aboard AA11, with six links, to be a key figure, which was not known before Maeno's analysis.
“Having such network insights sooner rather than later would allow investigators to gather information on associates, friends and relatives of a suspect terrorist and so bring the perpetrators to justice that much sooner or perhaps even unravel a network plotting future attacks,” Maeno said.
The researchers admit, however, that the system as designed is not so much a prevention tool as an after-the-fact investigative resources to aid in identification and arrest of surviving conspirators.