Syria, Mali, Algerian gas-works and ‘Open Source Everything’

Read any government security document, any of the national security strategies produced by a now large number of states and you will get a feel for the proliferation in the number of threats they feel they face. The preamble will normally contain a paragraph explaining that after the Cold War or after 9/11 everything got a little more complex, a little less explicable.

Heightened complexity in the international system appears to have coincided (and is only partially causally linked) to the increased levels of activity/ improvements in technology, social media etc. The rate at which information can be collected has increased, even if the sort of information being collected is broadly the same.

The problem of accounting for events like the Algerian gas-plant siege a few weeks ago (or the development of the insurgency in Syria, or in the hijacking of the state in Mali) for state-based security organisations is that their resources allocated in such a way that it logical for them to be looking the wrong way when this happens. It would be unlikely – although we can’t be sure, obviously – that there’s a bod in every security community across Europe pondering the safety of gas-plants in the ME and Maghreb. So, when this happens the information required to rapidly come down the pipe needs to be hastily scoped and drawn in. And this got me thinking about Robert Steele’s ‘open source everything’ manifesto (I declare the interest that Robert has written a chapter for the Routledge Handbook on Intelligence that I, Mike Goodman and Claudia Hillebrand have compiled and which will be in a good bookshops from August, and that he and I have corresponded at length about these issues), and how it could be used or applied in these circumstances. I have my own take on this, and I’ve provided the link above to the source: Robert also has a good search on his name I think so I’d guess he’ll correct me in comments too! But my wonder is more in the aggregation of huge quantities of information.

If we assumed that insurgents or terrorists leave an electronic detritus of chatter (be it closed loop phone or some other form), movement data, financial data, and the chatter of their associates, family etc and local media reports etc etc, then the actual ‘intelligence’ required to identify, contain and roll-back a threat or ‘black-swan’ event should be there, right? No-one – it seems – can totally avoid leaving the sort of trail that could be used in anticipating an event, so the issue is in collecting the data in a way that makes sense, and making predictions on it (lenses through which we understand the world). And that made me wonder about how one could translate this kind of regional or localised intelligence into a western European perspective: does it need expert ciphers to do so? Or can it be done with generalists? This fits into one of my side projects, which is thinking through how to make better use of scholarship in the ‘real world’. Would a more open source arrangement provide the sort of information to be better resilient to these black-swan events? This is not to say that the current arrangements are ‘bad’ or ‘failed’, but just like in defence it seems that there’s a constant circle to be squared of ‘more’, ‘more diverse’ and with relatively static methods or money.

Relatedly, some years ago Milja Kurki (who might be the smartest person I’ve ever met) and I wrote a paper about the intersection between intelligence studies and IR theory. We never published this paper and for their pains my final year students get to read it as a tiny part of the reading list for my final year option. Whilst we felt that the field was under-theorised, the paper we wrote never really connected up to the reality of intelligence work adequately enough. The two communities or endeavours seemed immune from each other – indeed to try and overlay one on the other seemed to produce an immune system response. But with the benefit of some years to cogitate on it, and having thought about the work of people like Steele, Fuller, Cairney (as above), I think the missing element from this paper was the realities of complexity:

  • Things in the international system tend away from equilibrium and not towards it as most IR theory suggests
  • The international system tends to chaos and not order (and the level of chaos might be reduced to the level of individuals, making generalizable lessons problematic)
  • Man-made uncertainty shocks, or ‘black-swans’ to use other language, are mostly resistant to accurate advanced prediction. Thus one main function of theory – to predict – is always likely to fail. Using a different approach we could learn lessons quickly enough to be able to deal with a problem or series of problems close enough to the source that in effect it looked like prediction and pre-emption.

The issues all fall-down to how to best use (in terms of creating the right institutional frameworks and having the right cultures) the information available, and in that we need more thinking work into whether alternatives genuinely stack-up.


6 thoughts on “Syria, Mali, Algerian gas-works and ‘Open Source Everything’

  1. Rob, this came to my attention at 1706 Eastern time on 29 January. Lovely comments — especially how they are all optimized to be looking in the wrong direction. Everything we are doing today is a vestige of the combination of Weberian bureaucracy cubbies of knowledge and Industrial Era stovepipes, and a complete refusal to do whole systems analytics or true cost economics. Today I briefed a gathering at the Inter-Americas Defense Board, and my briefing, which bears on this topic, is at

    The time for bottom up intelligence (decision support) has come. We need intelligence centres for each district, each province, each country, and they need to fully integrate the eight tribes and have a virtual 24/7 “all hands on deck” close look capability, as well as the ability to receivbe 114 and 119 signals from any cell phone, and mass critical eyes on accordingly.

    It does not help that the USA is doing things in Africa for the wrong reasons, with the wrong instruments, outside the law, and with very bad effect.

    Warm regards to all,
    Robert Steele
    “The truth at any cost lowers all other costs.”

  2. Pingback: Mali, Syria, and the Complexity of Global Risks | WORLD WIDE NEWS WATCH

  3. davidbfpo says:

    Good try Rob at trying to make sense of the intelligence picture and the current, possibly momentary setting of the UK taking a sudden, public national security interest in Algeria and Mali.

    We are familiar with an increase in the ‘developed world’ of our technological capabilities in the areas of communication, data storage, presentation and a variety of tools to handle each. That does not mean we understand.

    I would challenge the notion that what is collected is useful. Nor is the information ‘broadly the same’. For many Western liberal democracies the focus is its own people, although external enemies remain. Indeed as some Western national security schemes show it is not some of the people, it is all the people; remember Total Information Awareness or the misleadingly titled Communication Modernisation Programme.

    For years we have heard governments refer to a ‘War on Drugs’ and combating serious organised crime. Sometimes if we look and listen carefully officialdom can let us inside. Try Sir Paul Stephenson, ex-Met Police Commissioner, in an article after the two policewomen were killed in Manchester:

    ‘In a speech two years ago, I estimated that there were about 6,000 organised criminal groups in the UK, with a total of around 38,000 individuals. Most of them operate without being disrupted by the police: indeed, in 2010, I estimated that nearly 90 per cent do. That was better than the figure for 2003, which was 94 per cent’.


    A 90% failure to disrupt! Impressive.

    Disruption often being preferred to actual law enforcement, one wonders how many of these groups were subject to non-disruptive action – not intelligence gathering.

    Yes ‘electronic detritus’ is useful evidentially and as intelligence. In at least one area, counter-terrorism, it acts as a starting point for an investigation as indicated by Nigel Inkster, ex-SIS, now IISS: ‘Referring to the USA acting as ‘counter-terrorism collector of first resort to the international community. Of the many plots that Western European services disrupted between 2001 and the present, there was none which did not benefit from game-changing US intelligence….there is no doubt that the US did more to make Europe safe from terrorism that Europe was able to do for itself’.

    From: ‘In 9/11/11: A Decade of Intelligence’, Survival December 2011-January 2012, pgs. 5-12 (quote pg.10)

    Amalgamating all the capabilities, with enhanced surveillance and capable exploitation we have seen successes in counter-terrorism. Nearby in Northern Ireland and further away in Afghanistan and Iraq – have a look at the US doctrine or approach known as F3EA.

    Nor do all actual and potential enemies have this ‘electronic detritus’ to exploit, particularly for the nation-state to predict and pre-empt for example a terrorist cell planning an attack.

    As the Turkish investigators found after the AQ-inspired attack in Istanbul in 2003, on UK targets: ‘The investigation and arrests that ensued revealed that the network involved in the bombings had trained in Afghanistan. Of particular interest was the interpersonal web that grew from the four suicide bombers as well as the range of materials confiscated in the investigation. Specifically, nearly 300 people were identified who had some knowledge of the planned attack. Of these, 48 were viewed as hard-core committed terrorists, leaving approximately 250 community members who were not ideologically committed to al-Qaeda’s goals and who had some information that potentially could have been used in preventive action’.

    Link, behind a paywall:

    What the nation-state, especially politicians and their servants, appear to seek is certainty in intelligence assessment. On hand are the sincere and not so sincere promises of those servants and the private sector, notably IT companies with their offerings of system that will supply “more data, more understanding”.

    How often are we told certainty is elusive, even impossible?

    Back to Algeria and Mali, how quickly will the UK find it has an insufficiency of trusted staff who speak Arabic and French. Traffic analysis is one thing, what is actually being said?

    • Person says:

      How often are we told certainty is elusive, even impossible?

      Not often enough. However, more data and/or understanding could well be a good thing; at least it offers the opportunity to improve accuracy of analysis.

  4. davidbfpo says:

    Coming up soon @ Cambridge, England is a lecture series by Martin van Creveld, one of the four is on ‘Information, Intelligence, and the New Wars’.

    The summary: ‘the future of war is likely to be terrorism, guerilla and insurgency, this one will focus on the role of intelligence in this kind of conflict. First I shall sum up the most important development in the field from 1960 on, including the emergence of satellites, drones, and computers as well as so called cyberwar. Next, the lecture will list the problems that modern intelligence encounters. These include the vast amount of data it generates; the inability of machines to understand and to interpret that data without human assistance; the fact that most wars, instead of being waged in the open field, now take place in much more complex environments created by people, their dwellings, their means of communication and transportation, and their means of production; and the growing need for precision. Following these problems, and regardless of how advanced the hardware and methods intelligence may use, the idea that computers, data digging and the like can put an end to terrorism, guerrilla and insurgency is an illusion. To that end, different methods are called for’.


    • Person says:

      To summarise the summary: We will focus on the “last war” since that’s all we have living experience of.

      To summarise the summary of the summary: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

      (with apologies to Douglas Adams)

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