GEOINT tradecraft: 'Human geography'

How new tools like Activity Based Intelligence are helping intel analysts map the “human terrain.”

Geography and social media analytics represent the latest tradecraft within Defense Department and the intelligence community, incorporating "human geography" into geospatial intelligence. For instance, the 2013-2017 National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Strategy calls for using both traditional and non-traditional (e.g., human geography and social media) geospatial sources.

Case in point: When the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab massacred more than 60 civilians at a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in September, they tweeted live during the attack trying to explain and justify the carnage. While al-Shabaab’s use of Twitter to communicate its motives to a worldwide audience was brazen, it was not surprising. Jihadists like al-Shabaad with links to al-Qaeda are increasingly turning to social media sites to exchange ideas and publicize their beliefs, according to a 2013 report from the New America Foundation.

"It is only a matter of time before terrorists begin routinely using Twitter, Instagram, and other services in ongoing operations," concluded the report. "We have already seen this in a limited manner from al-Shabaab, which tweets its #JihadDispatches on recent battles."

Social media platforms such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have "flattened control over the production of online jihadi media," enabling jihadist groups to share news items, original articles and essays, tribute videos and even Islamic-sanctioned music, the report revealed. “Those so inclined can talk about jihad all day on the Web, even if they are geographically dispersed," the report added.

In response, U.S. defense and intelligence agencies are monitoring Arabic-language jihadist Web forums and other online communications in order to "map" the "human terrain" of terror groups based on a treasure trove of open source data available on the Internet. Among the emerging tools is a discipline called Activity Based Intelligence.

SAS Federal, a business analytics and software services company, is helping U.S. intelligence agencies to leverage open source data to better understand the motivation of jihadist groups, where they operate and what they are doing. Social media analytics and content categorization technology from SAS coupled with data mining capabilities are used to scan more than 20 million websites, including blogs, chats, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, while "natural language processing" extracts online discussions in Arabic, Farsi and 28 other native languages and dialects. 

All this is used to support geospatial intelligence gathering and analysis. The technology is designed to enable the identification of "unknown unknowns."

"With a couple of mouse clicks, an NGA analyst, as an example, could look at a whole category of unknown neighborhoods or villages and see the latest conversations and discover that there is a local reference to a neighborhood we did not have on the map," said Marc Kriz, an account executive with SAS Federal's National Security Group. "We're constantly extracting conversations about things like unknown hospitals and clinics, schools, mosques, neighborhoods, villages and governance. We're discovering a rich plethora of geospatial data vis-a-vis social media."

"It sounds funny but it's very difficult to know when a hotel changes, for instance, from a Best Western to a Hilton," added Scott Simmons, CACI’s executive director of Geospatial Solutions. "You can try and search on websites every day and hope that they have that updated information. But, shockingly, someone in Nairobi is going to tweet about it and send a message that the hotel's Best Western sign came down."

Kriz said there are often local slang words used by indigenous populations for neighborhoods or villages that are identified by social media analytics and have been subsequently added to the U.S. geospatial intelligence names database. Based on an assessment of the "patterns of life" in a particular neighborhood or village, analysts can better understand those patterns and linkages. For instance, through open source media, analysts leveraging social network analytics can discover conversations about mosques in a particular part of the world that helps them to identify Imams and their followers, he said.

"Sentiment analysis" is another area of geospatial intelligence that is important to some DOD and intelligence community customers, according to Rebecca Garcia, director of intelligence solutions for SAS Federal. "We can look at how unrest may be spread through an area or within a human geography," said Garcia, noting that the Arab Spring, the revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests (both non-violent and violent) that have rocked the Middle East in recent years, have been fueled by social media. 

This kind of analysis seeks to extract and identify popular, negative or neutral sentiment from open source content.

Understanding the "Human Domain," defined as the presence, activities, social structure or organization, networks and relationships, motivation, intent, vulnerabilities and capabilities of individuals or groups is a vital part of Activity Based Intelligence.  ABI, a multi-intelligence approach to analysis embraced by U.S. intelligence agencies, is a discipline in which analysis and subsequent collection is focused on the activity and transactions associated with an entity, a population or an area of interest. It is based on persistent collection of intelligence over a broad area from multiple sources. 

"ABI is really a new tradecraft that builds on top of something that's been around for awhile called 'patterns of life,'" said Jordan Becker, vice president and general manager for GEOINT-ISR at BAE Systems. "As a new tradecraft, it really moves away from some of the traditional processes such as tasking, collection, processing, exploitation and dissemination. What ABI does is [it] enhances and breaks the linearity of that process."

Geospatial intelligence, coupled with human domain analytics, is the foundation of ABI. In December 2012, BAE won a multi-year, $60 million contract to provide ABI systems, tools and support to NGA. Using a computer-assisted problem solving methodology, ABI analysts leverage big data to spot trends and patterns of activity when they intersect, enabling the identification of "unknown unknowns" and more predictive intelligence that anticipates targets and threats. As NGA COO Ellen McCarthy has stated, ABI "reveals what we don’t know and helps us find what doesn’t want to be found.”

McCarthy could not be reached for comment for this story.

"The ultimate goal is better intelligence," added Becker of BAE Systems. "It's not about how many more reports you can generate or how many more items you can identify on a map, whether it's relevant or not. It's can you really get closer to intent and help that analyst formulate better hypotheses."

Mike Manzo, director of geospatial solutions for General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems, said ABI allows analysts to be proactive rather than reactive. "ABI has been around in different forms in the past, but what has made it more attractive now is computing power," said Manzo. "The cloud enables you to have those real-time capabilities where you have access to a lot more data and computing power. 

“As processing power increases and smarter algorithms are developed,” he added, “we're going to start to see more intelligence systems infer activity based on a myriad of different data coming in."