Tackling the new terrorist threat

Why analytics holds the key

By Joanne Taylor, Director Public Security, SAS

The global national security landscape is changing all the time. Ten years ago, the authorities were focused on dealing with complex, organized conspiracies. These kinds of threats are still around today - but we’re also seeing the emergence a new kind of terrorism, where individuals or small isolated groups carry out attacks in isolation.

Two recent examples are the Boston Marathon bombings in April and the Tiananmen jeep crash in Beijing, China in October. Both were self-organized plots planned and executed with little or no direct intervention or influence from outside.

We are witnessing a major change in the nature of the terrorist threat the world faces today. In the past, agencies knew where they stood. They were mainly dealing with highly organized groups, whose aims and ways of working were well understood. They could therefore ask targeted questions, gather data to build intelligence and fill in gaps in knowledge.

... finding the differences between those talking extremism and those willing to act on it compounds the challenge ...

The rise of a new type of terrorism, however, means a new set of challenges.

Identifying threats from a greater pool of individuals, often acting in isolation, is difficult, but finding the differences between those talking extremism and those willing to act on it compounds the challenge of where to invest valuable resources and time in the investigative process.

It’s an unfamiliar landscape and to tackle it effectively, agencies need to adapt fast.

This new breed of lone actors with few connections, or small cells operating in isolation, are by their nature difficult to detect. They’re elusive and low-profile. While data about these individuals will be out there somewhere, agencies won’t know who or what they are looking for, so they won’t know what questions to ask.

So what’s the answer? The big advantage of analytics in this context is that agencies don’t need to know what they are looking for beforehand. They don’t need to carry out a specific search of the data or ask a specific question.

Instead the technology will push key information to them. It can identify individuals spending time online looking at information about bomb-making or visiting hate-based websites, unusual travel patterns and associations, for example.

Indeed, analytics is particularly useful to agencies when they don’t have any specific leads, when they are looking for the lone needle in the haystack. It gives them the chance to flag individuals who are behaving suspiciously - and not just because they are connected to networks or groups known to be of interest to the authorities.

Once an area of interest has been identified, the authorities can then hone in on it and apply their resources to more in-depth investigation. Analytics gives agencies a place to start and that will be vital in countering the changing nature of the threats to national security that the world will face in the years to come.

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