Posts Tagged 'Boston marathon'

Questions are data too

In the followup investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings, we see again the problem that data analytics has with questions.

Databases are built to store data. But, as Jeff Jones has most vocally pointed out, simply keeping the data is not enough in adversarial settings. You also need to keep the questions, and treat them as part of the ongoing data. The reason is obvious once you think about it — intelligence analysts need not only to know the known facts; they also need to know that someone else has asked the same question they just asked. Questions are part of the mental model of analysts, part of their situational awareness, but current systems don’t capture this part and preserve it so that others can build on it. In other words, we don’t just need to connect the dots; we need to connect the edges!

Another part of this is that, once questions are kept, they can be re-asked automatically. This is immensely powerful. At present, an analyst can pose a question (“has X ever communicated with Y?”), get a negative answer, only for information about such a communication to arrive a microsecond later and not be noticed. In fast changing environments, this can happen frequently, but it’s implausible to expect analysts to remember and re-pose their questions at intervals, just in case.

We still have some way to go with the tools and techniques available for intelligence analysis.

Language learning as a model of radicalisation

The Canadian Prime Minister said today, in response to the arrests for the planned Via Rail attacks, and perhaps to the Boston Marathon bombings as well, that these are not a reason to “commit sociology”. I think he’s exactly right. As I said in the previous post, I’m dubious that levels of dissatisfaction with societies, or even with religions, play a major role in radicalisation — it’s a much more individual-specific process. This is why only a tiny fraction of people in exactly the same social, religious, and even family setting become radicalised.

I’m also deeply skeptical that anyone becomes radicalised via the Internet. Our survey results indicated that variations in access to the Internet, or to mass media channels that have a frankly jihadist orientation have no correlation with attitudes on radicalisation-relevant subjects or dissatisfaction of any kind. I’m convinced that it always takes contact with a person, perhaps only one and perhaps only once, for radicalisation to happen.

Here’s where the analogy with language learning comes in. I learned French (in Australia) the same way I learned Latin (declensions, conjugations, agreement). I read French well and could speak it after a fashion. But the first time I heard French radio and then met people who actually spoke French, there was a kind of click in my brain and something changed about the way I used and learned French. I don’t think this is just autobiography; as I mentioned in the last post, learning languages via TV programs doesn’t work nearly as well as you might expect it to.

I’m fairly convinced something similar happens with radicalisation. An individual can watch the videos, talk the talk, fantasise the actions, but unless/until they make contact with someone who has actually done something, there isn’t any danger. Once this happens, of course, radicalisation can proceed very quickly indeed, which explains (I guess) the several cases where apparent changes have been very swift.


(Yes, it is spelled like that.)

The events of the past ten days have revived interest in the process of radicalisation. Why and how do people move from apparently normal to wanting to blow other people up, especially for a goal that most of them would be hard put to explain coherently?

There are plenty of grand theories of radicalisation. Often they are derived from and supported by the narratives of those who have become radicalised, been arrested, and then interviewed. The trouble with building theories this way is that they fail to explain all of the apparently identical people in the same situation who didn’t become radicalised. From a population of 10,000, maybe 1,000 will turn out to demonstrate in favour of some apparent injustice; of these, maybe 100 will find out more and acquire ideas supporting violent extremism, and of these 10 will even consider actually doing something. Even then, only a couple of these will get very far down the path to planning and carrying out an attack. So what makes the difference? Which ones never get beyond vague feelings of support? The grand theories have little to say about what doesn’t cause radicalisation.

By the way, many of you probably filled in an Islamist back story for the previous paragraph. But it’s important to remember that violent extremism is also used by animal rights supporters, anti-globalisation protesters, anarchists, right-wing ideologues, and others. So explanations of radicalisation have to work for these other groups too.

What is becoming clear is that the explanations for radicalisation have a small ball component, that is they derive from the personalities and immediate social settings of the people involved (family, rather then social group). Many teenagers and young adults feel out of place in society as they grow up. If you’re the child of an immigrant, especially one whose parents didn’t manage to settle cleanly in their new country, it’s easy to blame the “out of place” feeling on the society rather than on yourself. Even for those who aren’t children of immigrants, there’s a certain attraction to this extrinsic view. If there’s nothing wrong with you, there must be something wrong with the society around you. Narratives that play to this are naturally attractive, whether Islamist, or anarchist.

Overwhelmingly, also, those who radicalise are men; and, if they have post-secondary education, it tends to be in engineering and the hard sciences rather than in the humanities and social sciences. Both of these suggest a lack of nuance in thinking socially.

Although it might be conceivable for an individual to self-radicalise, this seem extremely difficult. It’s not obvious, but it’s really hard to learn a foreign language by watching TV, and something similar seems to be true of visiting jihadist web sites. Those who have become radicalised seem to need to be involved with a small group (2 is enough, but 5 is better) to amplify each others thoughts. And there seems to be a need for some kind of mentor figure, preferably an actual person, although here it’s just possible that an online figure can serve.

We have a paper coming out (eventually — the Dec 2012 issue still to appear) in the Canadian Journal of Political Science reporting on the results of a survey of attitudes in the Islamic community in Canada. These results make it fairly clear that dissatisfaction, broadly defined, has little to do with radicalisation. People don’t come to support violent extremism because they’re unhappy with government programs; nor, much, because they’re unhappy with the morality of society around them. Explanations have more to do with them as individuals than about society as a whole.