Through this article, Krebs attempts to map the social networks of the 19 hijackers involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He uses the same approach as he does for mapping project teams within organizations; however, while overt networks can be fairly easy to map, covert networks are significantly more difficult.
Krebs cites Malcolm Sparrow (1991) in describing three major problems of analyzing criminal networks:
- Incompleteness - the inevitability of missing nodes and links that the investigators will not uncover
- Fuzzy boundaries - the difficulty in deciding who to include and who not to include
- Dynamic - these networks are not static, they are always changing. Instead of looking for the presence or absence of a tie, Sparrow recommends looking at waxing or waning strength of ties based on the situation.
These terrorist networks are held together by deep, trusted ties that are usually not visible to outsiders. Ties are strengthened when terrorists spend time together, specifically in classes or training.
Krebs' initial social network (Figure 1) was created using strong ties built between terrorists who lived and learned together. Interestingly, many of the individuals on the same flight were more than two steps away from each other (beyond the horizon of observability). This practice minimizes the damage to a network if an individual is captured or compromised. Interestingly enough, Osama bin Laden reiterated this strategy: "Those who were trained to fly didn't know the others. One group of people did not know the other group" (Department of Defense, 2001).
|Figure 1. Trusted Prior Contacts|
|Figure 2: Trusted Prior Contacts + Meeting (Short-cut) Ties|
|Figure 3: Hijacker's Network Neighborhood|
Interestingly, many of the strong ties in Figure 3 were concentrated around the hijackers trained as pilots. This concentration of both unique skills and connectivity within the same nodes makes a network very vulnerable to disruption. These key individuals can be targeted by law enforcement for capture or compromise and severely deteriorate the operational and logistical capabilities of the covert network.
While this knowledge could be used to prevent illegal activities by covert networks, the challenge still lies in identifying members of the network before it is too late. In order to overcome this hurdle, Krebs recommends that the various intelligence agencies share and aggregate their information to build a larger, more complete network. There are significant difficulties in putting this recommendation into practice, but it would be an advantageous first step to discovering and disrupting covert networks.
The article presents a detailed view of how social network analysis can be used to assess and take action against covert networks. Krebs' analysis that the most connected members of this network were also those with the unique skills (the pilots) is something that can be applied to similar terrorist network structures in order to prevent their activities. One improvement that should be made, or a measure that can be considered in future research, is the use of Eigenvector centrality. Eigenvector centrality is used to determine the influence of nodes in a network through their connections to other high or low scoring nodes. This measure would have likely shown Mohamed Atta to be the leader of this particular social network.
Krebs, V.E. (2002). Mapping networks of terrorist cells. Connections, 24(3), 43-52.
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