Networds: Terra Incognita and the Case for
Author's note: What I have chosen to call
"ethnographic intelligence" might be more accurately
described as "ethnographic information," since much
of the content involved in analyzing a hostile network will be
open source. I have chosen to retain "Intelligence,"
however, to indicate the military utility of the content involved.
The proliferation of empowered networks makes
"ethnographic intelligence" (EI) more important to the
United States than ever before.2 Among
networks, al-Qaeda is of course the most infamous, but there are
several other examples from the recent past and present, such as
blood-diamond and drug cartels, that lead to the conclusion that
such networks will be a challenge in the foreseeable future. Given
the access these networks have to expanded modern communications
and transportation and, potentially, to weapons of mass destruction,
they are likely to be more formidable than any adversaries we have
Regrettably, the traditional structure of the
U.S. military intelligence community and the kind of intelligence
it produces aren't helping us counter this threat. As recent debate,
especially in the services, attests, there is an increased demand
for cultural intelligence. Retired army Major General Robert Scales
has highlighted the need for what he calls cultural awareness in
Iraq: "I asked a returning commander from the 3rd Infantry
Division how well situational awareness (read aerial and ground
intelligence technology) worked during the march to Baghdad. 'I
knew where every enemy tank was dug in on the outskirts of Tallil,'
he replied. 'Only problem was, my soldiers had to fight fanatics
charging on foot or in pickups and firing AK-47s and [rocket propelled
grenades]. I had perfect situational awareness. What i lacked was
cultural awareness. Great technical intelligence...wrong enemy.'"3
I propose that we go beyond even General Scales's
plea for cultural awareness and look instead at amassing EI, the
type of intelligence that is key to setting policy for terra incognita.
The terra in this case is the human terrain, about which too often
too little is known by those who wield the instruments of national
power. The United States needs EI to combat networks and conduct
global counterinsurgency. This paper will therefore define EI, discuss
some cases that illustrate the requirement for it, and propose a
means to acquire and process it.
According to Dr. Anna Simons of the United
States naval postgraduate School, "What we mean by EI is information
about indigenous forms of association, local means of organization,
and traditional methods of mobilization.
Clans, tribes, secret societies, the hawala
system, religious brotherhoods, all represent indigenous or latent
forms of social organization available to our adversaries throughout
the non-Western, and increasingly the Western, world. These create
networks that are invisible to us unless we are specifically looking
for them; they come in forms with which we are not culturally familiar;
and they are impossible to 'see' or monitor, let alone map, without
consistent attention and the right training."4
Because EI is the only way to truly know a
society, it is the best tool to divine the intentions of a society's
members. The "Indigenous forms of association and local means
of organization" are hardly alien concepts to us. Our own culture
has developed what we call "social network analysis" to
map these associations and forms of organization.5
These unwritten rules and invisible (to us) connections between
people form key elements of the kind of information that, according
to General Scales, combat commanders are now demanding. Because
these rules and connections form the "traditional methods of
mobilization" used either to drum up support for or opposition
to U.S. goals, they demand constant attention from the U.S. government
and armed forces.6 Simply put, EI constitutes
the descriptions of a society that allow us to make sense of personal
interactions, to trace the connections between people, to determine
what is important to people, and to anticipate how they could react
to certain events. With the United States no longer facing a relatively
simple, monolithic enemy, our national interests are found in a
confusing cauldron of different locales and societies. Each of these
has its own "latent forms of social organization" that
create networks we cannot see or map, and to which we may very well
fall victim, unless we aggressively pursue EI.7
The Threat: Three Case Studies
American national interests are affected by
many societies about which we may know very little. In the early
1960s, few Americans recognized the importance of the terra incognita
of Vietnamese society.8 In the 1990s,
America either failed to develop, or failed to employ EI on al-Qaeda,
afghanistan, or Iraq.9 Today, we have
little insight into which cultures or networks may soon become threats
to our national interests. For this reason, America must seek to
understand and develop EI on a global scale, before it is surprised
by another unknown or dimly understood society or network. As a
first step toward becoming more EI-smart, we might look at three
illustrative cases: the blood-diamond cartel, drug trafficking syndicates,
The blood-diamond cartel. West Africa's blood-diamond
cartel is a good example of the seemingly random mixture of networks,
private armies, governments of questionable legitimacy, and social
environments in conflict that plague the world today. At the core
of the cartel are guerrillas in Sierra Leone who have used terror
tactics to control access to diamond mines. They were assisted by
the former government of Charles Taylor in Liberia, which helped
launder the diamonds in Europe for money. Some of that money then
went to international arms dealers who smuggled weapons to the guerrillas,
and some went to finance international terrorists like al-Qaeda.
War, as the U.S. military has traditionally preferred to consider
it-the clash of state armies and navies-has given way to a mix of
crime, money, and terror executed by dark networks in league with
each other and with reprehensible governments to secure profits
and export terrorism. According to H. Brinton Milward and Jorg Raab,
"Covert networks have come together with warlords controlling
access to resources to create commodity wars. These wars are fought
over control of diamonds, petroleum concessions, coca leaves, and
poppies that yield narcotics, not for any real ideological or political
While entities like the blood-diamond cartel
have heretofore not been deemed threatening to vital U.S. interests,
and thus have not justified the attention of significant American
assets or numbers of troops, such a presumption is overdue for reconsideration.
The United States cannot afford-nor should it be inclined to act-as
the world's policeman, but these unholy alliances now demand scrutiny.
This is where EI enters the picture. When crime, brutality, poor
governance, and terrorist financing come together, they are so enmeshed
in the local social environment that only a detailed understanding
of ethnographic factors can provide the basis for further identification
of who and what truly threaten U.S. national interests. An understanding
of the societies in which these networks roost is the indispensable
bedrock upon which any further analysis rests.
Traditional military intelligence, in examining
opposing formations and weapons systems, does not even speak in
the same terms as those found in the blood-diamond "conflict."
In Milward and Raab's words: "In the period after Taylor became
president, the republic of Liberia became a nexus for many dark
networks. There are linkages between various dark networks; some
are more central than others are and some only loosely linked with
the others."11 Borrowed from social
network analysis, terms like "network," "nexus,"
and "centrality" are useful concepts that allow analysts
to better identify threats to American security.12
It is only through extensive, on-the-ground
observation that latent forms of social organization and mobilization
can be made apparent. When those indigenous forms of social organization
are exploited by people like Charles Taylor, or become linked to
external nodes such as other networks, then EI feeds and blurs into
the police style social network analysis needed to identify and
counter threats to U.S. interests. In this way, EI takes the incognita
out of the human terra so that the United States can craft effective,
realistic policy actions.
Drug trafficking syndicates. Drug syndicates
or cartels are another networked threat that will not disappear
in the foreseeable future and that cannot be depicted effectively
by order-of-battle-style intelligence. Phil Williams has clearly
articulated the ethnic qualities that make drug trafficking a particularly
opaque threat: "[M]any networks have two characteristics that
make them hard to penetrate: ethnicity and language. Moreover, many
of the networks use languages or dialects unfamiliar to law enforcement
personnel in the host countries. Consequently, electronic surveillance
efforts directed against, for example, Chinese or Nigerian drug-trafficking
networks do not exist in a vacuum, but instead operate in and from
ethnic communities that provide concealment and protections as well
as an important source of new recruits. Some networks, such as Chinese
drug-trafficking groups, are based largely on ethnicity. They are
global in scope and operate according to the principle of guanxi
(notions of reciprocal obligation), which can span generations and
continents and provides a basis for trust and cooperation. Such
networks are especially difficult for law enforcement to infiltrate.
In short, drug-trafficking networks have a significant capacity
to protect their information and to defend themselves against law
By themselves, drug gangs might not represent
a clear and present danger to America, but they warrant study for
two reasons. First, they are increasingly moving beyond mere profit-making
ventures into alliances with other types of networks, such as the
gun-runner and terrorist networks active in West Africa, that do
pose a significant threat to the United States. Second, drug-trafficking
networks provide a relevant example of how subversive groups can
exploit ethnic social bonds and indigenous forms of mobilization
about which we Westerners remain ignorant. Phil Williams' illustrative
invocation of guanxi, which won't appear in any traditional military
intelligence summary, is instructive here.
A concept of mutual obligation that can endure
from generation to generation and across great distances, guanxi
can be a powerful tool in the hands of a network with evil intent.
Drug trafficking can be harmful enough to a society, but when it
is lashed together with the trafficking of weapons, money, and perhaps
even materials of mass destruction, such racketeering does become
a clear and present danger to America. A nexus of dark networks,
peddling destruction in various forms, and facilitating international
terrorism, becomes inordinately threatening when powered by traditional
social practices such as guanxi that are invisible to states that
don't do their ethnographic homework. Williams appropriately notes
that these practices, or means of "Indigenous mobilization,"
work precisely because they are embedded in an ethnic population.
This is true whether the population in question inhabits an ethnic
enclave in a culturally dissimilar host nation or occupies its home
region. In fact, under the latter conditions, local forms of organization
and means of association can become more powerful than any written
law, and therefore that much more efficacious for the network using
them. They can be extraordinarily effective at creating local networks.
However, he who has done his ethnographic analysis stands a decent
chance of neutralizing the hostile actions of a dark network or
perhaps even turning the activities of the network to advantage.
Al-Qaeda. A third case that illustrates the
need for EI is Al-Qaeda. In 2004, Marc Sageman wrote Understanding
Terror Networks to clarify what he saw as a widespread misperception
in the West about who joins these networks and why they join.
Sageman concentrates on al-Qaeda's sub-network
constituents, mapping the individual networks and partially filling
in their foci, such as certain mosques.14
Sageman obtained his information by accessing documents via friendly
means, but he freely admits that his examination is limited. Sageman's
main agenda is to refute the myth that terrorists such as those
in al-Qaeda are irrational psychopaths created by brainwashing impoverished
Muslim youths. He contends that the majority of terrorists are educated,
generally middle-class, mature adults. They are usually married,
and they come from caring families with strong values. They are
also believers wholly committed to the greater cause of global Salafist
According to Sageman, these people belong to
four general groups in the al-Qaeda network: the Central Staff,
the Southeast Asians, the Maghreb Arabs, and the Core Arabs. The
Central Staff is comprised mainly of Osama bin Laden's older compatriots,
men who heard the call to jihad against the Soviet infidels in Afghanistan
and who continue the fight today. The Southeast Asians are mostly
disciples of two particular religious schools. The Maghreb Arabs
are first- or second-generation Arabs in France. Socially isolated,
the Maghrebs have sought community ties in local mosques. The Core
Arabs grew up in communal societies in Islamic lands, but became
isolated and lonely as they moved away to schools or jobs.
With the exception of some Maghreb Arabs, many
of al-Qaeda's recruits have a good education and strong job skills;
they have no criminal background. Sageman writes at some length
about the feeling of isolation that led many of the expatriate al-Qaeda
members to seek out cliques of their own kind, and about the gradual
strengthening of their religious beliefs prior to joining the jihad
as a source of identity and community. He emphasizes that people
join in small cliques, and that the motivation is primarily fellowship,
and only later, worship. The cliques are not recruited as much as
they seek out membership in al-Qaeda. In the search for fellowship,
some men happened upon one of the relatively few radical mosques
or became embedded in a clique that happened to have an acquaintance
in the jihadist network. Sageman debunks the theory that al-Qaeda
has recruiters in every mosque, yet he does point out the existence
of a few people who know how to contact the larger group and will
provide directions, travel money, and introductions to clandestine
training camps. In sum, Sageman argues convincingly that our stereotypes
of al-Qaeda are dangerously misleading.
Sageman's analysis of the al-Qaeda network
has been widely quoted, yet he himself underscores the lack of available
first-hand information and makes it plain that he used open-source
documents, with some limited personal exposure; in other words,
he wrote the book without much access to EI.15
Let us imagine what Sageman's sharp intellect would have found if
he had had access to a full, well-organized range of EI from each
of the four subgroups' regions. What might a dedicated core of EI
specialists have discovered about the recruitment pattern? As an
illustration, Sageman uncovered a key ethnographic point in the
bond between student and teacher in Southeast Asia.16
The active exploration of this key example of "Indigenous forms
of association" might have led to the two radical Southeast
Asian schools much sooner. Perhaps armed with such knowledge, the
governments in question could have taken more steps against the
network years ago.
Acquiring and Processing EI
To acquire ethnographic knowledge, there is
no substitute for being on the scene. For the U.S. military, the
structural solution to EI could be relatively easy. Some form of
U.S. Military Group, or the military annex to the embassy, could
become the vehicle to collect EI. While the defense attaché
system is charged with overtly collecting military information and
assessing the military situation in particular countries, there
currently is no comprehensive effort to collect and process EI.
The security assistance officers attached to U.S. country teams
often obtain a fine appreciation of the cultural aspects of their
host nation, but they are not charged with the responsibility to
collect EI and may not always have a smooth relationship with the
defense attaché (if one is even assigned).17
There is a relatively low-cost way to set up
a system to collect EI. The United States could develop a corps
of personnel dedicated to the task and base them out of a more robust
military annex to our embassies. There are two key points to developing
such a corps: it must be devoted exclusively to the task without
distraction, and its personnel must be allowed to spend extended
time in country and then be rewarded for doing so.18
their work could be considered a form of strategic reconnaissance,
and in reconnaissance matters there is simply no substitute for
being physically present on the ground. Since the ethnographic ground
in question is actually a population and not necessarily terrain,
a constant and near-total immersion in the local population would
be the means to turn McNamara's terra incognita into a known set
of "Indigenous forms of association, local means of organization,
and traditional methods of mobilization."
While the most streamlined EI organization
would probably combine the functions of the defense attaché
and security assistance officer, such a move is not absolutely necessary.19
The most important structural aspect is that the EI developed in
country should be analyzed at the embassy, forwarded to the staff
of the geographic combatant commander, and shared laterally with
other relevant embassies. This kind of information sharing would
make for better contingency plans, and it would create a hybrid
network to counter the dark networks that profit from blood diamonds,
drugs, and terror.
A small number of Americans, usually military
foreign area officers (FAOs), are already in tune with this type
of work, and some have achieved a high level of excellence. There
are not many of them, though, and they are not organized into a
truly comprehensive system focused on the ethnographic aspects of
networks. A sterling example of the capacity that the United States
could build can be found in an officer named "David."
On a mission with a platoon of army rangers in western Iraq to find
out how foreign fighters were infiltrating the country, David traveled
in Mufti. At one village, he "met a woman with facial tattoos
that marked her as her husband's property. As they chatted, the
pale-skinned, sandy-haired North Carolina native imitated her dry,
throaty way of speaking. 'You are Bedu, too,' she exclaimed with
delight." from her and the other Bedouins, David finds out
that the foreign fighters are using local smuggling routes "to
move people, guns, and money. Many of the paths were marked with
small piles of bleached rocks that were identical to those David
had seen a year earlier while serving in Yemen."20
David gained access and operational information
by using ethnographic knowledge. The deeper that personnel like
David dig into local society, the better their ability to assess
which groups threaten the United States and which should be left
alone. If America could build a healthy corps of people like David,
based out of each U.S. embassy in the world, then our nation could
identify those networks that, in Simons's formulation, are "Invisible
to us unless we are specifically looking for them; [and that] come
in forms with which we are not culturally familiar."
Sadly, there aren't nearly enough Davids in
the military. The army has about 1,000 FAOs, but most of them are
in Europe. A mere 145 are focused on the Middle east, and even that
number can be deceptive because a FAO's duties include many things
that aren't related to EI, such as protocol for visits and administrative
duties.21 Certainly, one solution to
the growing threats from networks would be to produce more Davids
and reward them for extensive time on the ground exclusively focused
on the development of EI.
The benefits to be derived from such a corps
would be tremendous. Consider, for example, the impact good EI could
have had on the war plan for Iraq. There has been much discussion
of late about how American forces did not really understand the
Iraq's tribal networks, a failure that contributed to the difficulties
we are currently facing. With the "consistent attention and
the right training" Simons has prescribed, knowledge like this
could have been built into contingency plans and then updated in
the regular two-year plan review cycle to insure currency. Ethnographic
understanding could have allowed U.S. forces in Iraq to use tribal
networks to advantage from the outset; they would not have had to
figure things out for themselves, as Lieutenant Colonel Tim Ryan
did: "the key is a truce brokered by the national league of
Sheiks and tribal leaders and U.S. Army Lt. Col. Tim Ryan, the 1st
Cavalry Division officer responsible for Abu Ghraib-a Sunni triangle
town west of Baghdad and a hotbed of the insurgency. Under the agreement,
Ryan now meets regularly with tribal leaders and provides them with
lists of residents suspected of taking part in attacks. The sheiks
and their subordinate local clan leaders then promise to keep their
kinsmen in line. 'They [the sheiks] do have a lot of influence.
To ignore that is to ignore 6,000 years of the way business has
been done here."22
EI that might lead to beneficial relations
with local power figures, along the lines of the one between Ryan
and the sheiks, could be developed from each U.S. embassy around
the clock in peacetime to inform contingency plans and enable activity
against the dark networks that seek to harm America. In some places,
such as pre-war Iraq or in outright killing fields similar to a
blood-diamond zone, Washington will judge the presence of an embassy
to be too dangerous, but in the absence of an on-site embassy, personnel
can be invested in the surrounding embassies to glean as much EI
as possible through borders that are often porous.
The Broken Windows theory of criminologists
James Q. Wilson and George Kelling suggests that we might reap another
benefit from establishing an American ethnographic counter-network
in surrounding, linked embassies.23
the essence of the theory is that if a building has a broken window
that remains unfixed, then people will assume that no one is in
charge or cares; as a result, they will do whatever they wish to
the place-the broken window will invite vandalism, graffiti, and
so on. Once these acts of disorder commence, crime becomes contagious,
like a fashion trend or virus. A more robust military annex to an
embassy and a low-key, constant interest in overt ethnographic matters
would show that the United States cares and is indeed watching.
Perhaps this constant attention would serve to subtly constrict
the amount of safehaven space available for dark networks. The overt
information gathered by military ethnographers could complement
the covert work done by the Cia (and vice versa).
U.S. citizens, at least intuitively, have always
recognized the presence of networks in society, from family ties
to economic relationships, indeed, to the very structure of daily
life. The law enforcement community has long since recognized and
acted against domestic criminal and extremist variants of these
networks. However, the U.S. Government and military have had a difficult
time coming to grips with networks like al-Qaeda. It took the shock
of the September 11th attacks to galvanize national attention on
terrorist networks, and the ensuing years of struggle to grasp that
terror networks can be more than ideologically motivated, and that
they can flourish in the nexus of crime, drugs, weapons trafficking,
money laundering, and a host of other lethal activities.
Terrorism can take many guises, and it blends
very well into the cauldron of dark phenomena like blood diamonds,
drug trafficking networks, and al-Qaeda. The United States desperately
needs a counter-network to fight the dark networks now surfacing
across the globe. Ethnographic intelligence can empower the daily
fight against dark networks, and it can help formulate contingency
plans that are based on a truly accurate portrayal of the most essential
terrain-the human mind. United States policymakers must not commit
us ever again to terra incognita. The nation must invest in specialized
people who can pay "constant attention" to "Indigenous
forms of association and mobilization," so that we can see
and map the human terrain.
1. Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect:
The Tragedy And Lessons Of The Vietnam War (New York: Times Books,
2. Anna Simons and David
Tucker, "Improving Human Intelligence In The War On Terrorism:
The Need For An Ethnographic Capability," report submitted
to office of the secretary of Defense for Net Assessment (2004),
3. Robert Scales, "Culture-Centric
Warfare," Proceedings (October 2004), available online at <www.military.com/newcontent/0,13190,ni_1004_culture-p1,00.
4. Simons and Tucker.
5. Valida Krebs, "An
Introduction To Social Network Analysis," 2006, <www. Orgnet.com>.
6. McNamara, 30-33.
7. Anonymous, Imperial
Hubris: Why The West Is Losing The War On Terror (Washington, DC:
Brassey's, 2004); Robert Baer, See No Evil (New York: Three Rivers
8. H. Brinton Milward
and Jorg Raab, "Dark Networks: The Structure, Operation, And
Performance of International Drug, Terror, And Arms Trafficking
Networks," paper presented at the International Conference
On The Empirical Study Of Governance Management, And Performance,
Barcelona, Spain, 2002, 28-39, <iigov.org/workshop/pdf/milward_and_raab.pdf>.
9. Ibid., 28.
Barabási And Eric Bonabeau, "Scale-Free Networks,"
Scientific American (May 2003): 60-69.
13. Phil Williams,
"The Nature Of Drug-Trafficking Networks," Current History
(April 1998): 154-159.
14. Marc Sageman,
Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia: University Of Pennsylvania
Press, 2004), 143.
15. Ibid., vii-ix.
16. Ibid., 113-114.
17. Kurt M. Marisa,
"Consolidated Military Attaché And Security Assistance
Activities: A Case For Unity of Command," Fao Journal, 7, 2
(December 2003): 6-11.
18. Simons and Tucker.
19. Marisa, 6-24.
20. Greg Jaffe, "In
Iraq, One Officer Uses Cultural Skill To Fight Insurgents,"
Wall Street Journal, 15 November 2005, 15.
22. Ashraf khalil,
"teaming up with tribes to try to quell insurgents," los
angeles times, 21 june 2004, a8.
23. Malcolm gladwell,
the tipping point: how little things can make a big difference (New
York: little, brown, and co., 2000), 140-146.
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