The Strategy Page describes the unseen infrastructure built since September 11 designed expressly to fight the terrorist foe. The enemy, like the U-boats of the 20th century, believed they were beyond the reach of a blind and helpless foe. And they were for a time. But combatants through history have adapted and the U.S. military was no exception. It responded like the designers of sonar; by building a path to the enemy and finding ways to obtain data and combine it into a picture which negated the enemy advantage. The story begins in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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.
Continuing the analogy of the submarine, the U.S. military was sending pings into the depths. But comparing it to a more modern kind of ping is also appropriate. What combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere allowed America to do was break into the network. The romantic and conspiratorial labyrinth of the Jihad obscured the fact that topologically it was nothing but a network, no different in the abstract from a telephone system or the Internet. Americans knew how to break into those, and once they knew how to think about the al-Qaeda problem, they would inevitably break into that too.
Al-Qaeda could not prevent Americans from pushing into multiple parts of the network and to begin what might be compared to traceroutes on the system.
By accepting combat, al-Qaeda was doing more than just feeding its combatants into a meat grinder. It was giving the United States access; providing them with starting point after starting point from which to run a traceroute. Nodes which might be disconnected or inaccessible from one point of access would suddenly become visible from another. It had always been a truism that one of the most important fruits of combat was information about the enemy, but that was never truer than after 9/11.
What was worse for al-Qaeda, America began to redesign its operations not only to inflict casualties but to acquire information. One “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).”
The process began slowly. But with the aid of computers, databases, and the mathematics of topology the process began to gather speed. At some point analysts probably began to understand the al-Qaeda network structure better than the terror organization’s operators themselves, in much the same way as Google may “know” the Internet better than the individual nodes that make it up. With increasingly rapidity, perhaps exponential rapidity, the gaps were closed.
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 theory was known. RAND wrote in 2007 that “as the U.S. military transforms to an information-based force, it will need processes and methods to collect, combine, and utilize the intelligence that is generated by its assets. … The data are assumed to come from a variety of sources, whether a sensor on a platform; a person seeing, reading, or hearing something; or some other source in the battlespace, all of which can be incorporated into the operational picture.” But it took time to develop.
When Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan he was no longer facing an enemy he would have recognized from 2001. In the intervening 10 years they had created the architecture to beat him at his own game. Once the SEALs were through the final protective door he may have dimly realized their goal was not simply to shoot him but to seize every piece of information on the premises. That he did not have the time to destroy it was a regret he took to his grave.
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.
Bin Laden had done everything humanly possible to survive. His wife said he had not left his compound in five years. He stayed away from windows. Burned his trash. He surrounded himself with walls nearly 20 feet high. Bin Laden strictly limited the means of communication that led back to his safe house.
But extreme as these measures were, the firewalls they provided were not enough. Slender as those links were, OBL was still connected, however tenuously, to the larger network. And on that network his enemy watched at every point. It scanned the earth from overhead; it sucked up transmissions from landlines and the electromagnetic spectrum; it followed his human operatives from hidden vantages. And that enemy assembled all this information together until it ultimately found him. It was his death sentence. In al-Qaeda, bin Laden believed he had created an impenetrable network. It turned out not to be good enough to keep out the penetrators.