math, computers and terrorism
- math, computers and terrorism
Posted by: giles, Section: International
Posted on Mon Oct 11th, 2004 at 06:05:02 AM PST
A small group of thinking men and women convened at Rutgers University
last month to consider how order theory -- a branch of abstract
mathematics that deals with hierarchical relationships -- could be
applied to the war on terror.
Oct 10/04 - AP
PISCATAWAY, N.J. - A small group of thinking men and women convened at
Rutgers University last month to consider how order theory -- a branch
of abstract mathematics that deals with hierarchical relationships --
could be applied to the war on terror.
It almost seems ridiculous for people who inhabit a world of concept
lattices and partially ordered sets to think they can affect a war that
is being fought on the streets of Baghdad and in the remote mountains of
northern Pakistan. But the war on terror is also fought in cyberspace,
and in the minds of people from Lahore to Los Angeles. Mathematicians
are right at home in such abstract realms.
"It's not just theoretical," said Fred Roberts, director of the Center
for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science, the Rutgers
research institute where the conference was held.
Terrorism takes brains. You don't need political influence, military
might or economic resources to plant bombs or take hostages; but without
brains, terrorism is nothing more than random violence.
Consider al-Qaida's attack on New York City and Washington, D.C., three
years ago. It required a force of only 20 men armed with box cutters,
yet it was so brilliantly conceived, meticulously planned and keenly
attuned to global politics that it changed the world.
"Terrorism is a thinking man's game," said terror expert Gordon Woo.
Mathematician Jonathan Farley of the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (news - web sites) said he was inspired to organize the
meeting by the movie "A Beautiful Mind." The film tells the story of
mathematician John Forbes Nash, whose work in game theory found
application in Cold War military strategy, international trade and the
auctioning of broadcast frequencies by the Federal Communications
Commission (news - web sites).
"I'm a pure mathematician, so I'm completely useless for the most
part," Farley said. "But it would be nice to take some of what we do and
make it useful for some people -- maybe even lifesaving."
The new Homeland Security Institute has a mandate from Congress to do
just that, said Gary G. Nelson. A senior researcher at the
quasi-governmental institute, he attended the conference in hopes of
finding research projects for the institute to support.
Some ideas sounded promising, Nelson said. The most intriguing were
those that could help intelligence agencies boil down the vast amounts
of data they contend with.
Other proposals were "a pretty long logical distance" from the real
world. And not everything was easy to understand, he said, even for a
Theoretically, Farley said, abstract math could help intelligence
officers figure out the most efficient way to disable a terrorist network.
Say it's cheaper or more practical to go after a terrorist cell's
"middle management" rather than its leadership. How many of those
lieutenants would you have to remove in order to disrupt communication
between the top dogs and the field operatives? Are there one or two key
individuals whose capture would completely cut off the chain of command?
Order theory is all about such questions.
"This helps them decide where to spend the money," Farley said.
Of course, many times the organizational structures of terrorist groups
are unknown. Mathematical techniques could also be applied to that
problem, by using computer programs that comb through giant databases
looking for connections between individuals, locations or events. For
example, a program might discover that everybody involved in a given
attack attended the same London mosque. Or it might find large numbers
of e-mail messages between members of one terrorist cell in Germany and
another in the United States, suggesting that they may be working together.
Such data mining techniques are nothing new. But the explosion in
computing power over the past few years has spurred innovation in the field.
Jafar Adibi, a computer scientist at the University of Southern
California, is developing ways to find hidden links between known
terrorists and their as-yet-unknown confederates.
"You're trying to detect major groups of these bad guys," Adibi said.
The technique relies on having an initial group of known terrorists.
Then it analyzes things those known terrorists have in common with other
people in the database, such as phone calls, places of worship,
political affiliations or blood relation.
The program concludes that anybody who has enough connections of the
right kind with a known terrorist probably is one also.
Adibi has tested his program using a database built from newspaper
accounts and other publicly available information. He labels 20 percent
of a terrorist group's members as "known" and challenges the program to
find the rest. Right now, the system misses 20 percent of the remaining
members, and three of the 10 people it does identify as "bad guys"
aren't actually terrorists.
Adibi said he hopes to improve those numbers a bit. But even so,
programs like his could help focus anti-terror efforts on the most
likely suspects. Mass detentions by law enforcement authorities have
often snared too many innocent people, Woo said. Britain has arrested
more than 600 people on suspicion of terrorism since the Sept. 11
attacks, and convicted only 15 of them. By some counts, the United
States has detained more than 5,000 foreign nationals under the
provisions of the Patriot Act, alienating them and their families.
"Part of the war on terrorism is winning hearts and minds," said Woo,
an analyst in the London office of Risk Management Solutions. The
Newark, Calif.-based consulting firm assesses catastrophe risks for the
banking and insurance industries.
Minds are the specialty of Vladimir Lefebvre, a cognitive scientist at
the University of California in Irvine. The Russian-born researcher has
spent his career developing ways of reducing human decision-making to
mathematical equations. The work stems from a top-secret Soviet research
project that Lefebvre worked on during the 1970s.
"I can compute feelings," he said with a grin.
Leebvre's ideas are so obvious that you wonder if he might be kidding.
Every person, he argues, has a view of the self that he or she uses as a
tool for making decisions. That view can be influenced by the outside
So in principle, there ought to be things we can do to make terrorists
feel less sure about themselves or less ardent in their beliefs. The
right strategy might even make them think of themselves as something
other than terrorists.
Lefebvre believes human decision-making is so straightforward that
simple equations can describe how an individual's behavior arises from
his or her self-image as it is shaped by other people and the environment.
Stefan Schmidt, a New Mexico State University researcher who has worked
with Lefebvre, offered a hypothetical example. Suppose, he said,
terrorists were considering three points of entry into the United States
-- one in the Pacific Northwest, one in the Southwest and one in the
Northeast. Looking at the level of security on the various borders, and
considering other factors such as remoteness, terrorists might decide on
the Southwest as the best place to cross.
Assume that border agents, on the other hand, are heavily guarding the
Northeast border. They would benefit by making the Southwest seem more
heavily patrolled than it really is, and the Northeast appear relatively
unprotected. If they did a credible job, the terrorists would
incorrectly choose the most secure border as their best bet and run a
much higher chance of being caught.
Conceptually, this kind of reasoning is no different from military
strategy. If you can plant an inaccurate idea in your opponent's head,
you will have an advantage on the battlefield.
But actually doing that -- at least for the time being -- requires a
combination of brilliance, instinct and luck that few people possess.
Lefebvre would reduce the process of outwitting your opponent to a
In some ways, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have done just
that. Computer scientist Kathleen M. Carley heads a lab that tries to
simulate all kinds of social groups, including terrorist organizations.
The lab has built simulations of Hamas and al-Qaida by dumping
newspaper articles and other publicly available information about the
organizations into a computer database. A program then takes that
information and looks for patterns and relationships between
individuals. It finds weak and strong figures, power brokers, hidden
relationships and people with crucial skills.
Then another program can predict what would happen if a specific
individual were removed from the organization. After Israel's
assassination of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in March, the program
correctly predicted he would be succeeded by hard-liner Abdel Azziz Rantisi.
Three weeks later Israel assassinated Rantisi as well. Carley's lab
predicted that Hamas political director Khaled Mashaal would succeed
him, and posted its pick on the Internet.
This time, Hamas declined to reveal who had taken power for fear he too
would be assassinated. But eventually it became known that Mashaal was
indeed the one.
At that point, Carley said, "we were told to quit putting such
predictions on the Web" by federal officials.
"Be a friend to the oppressed and an enemy to the oppressor" \
--Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib (as)\
"This mathematical rhythmatical mechanism enhances my wisdom\
of Islam, keeps me calm from doing you harm, when I attack, it's Vietnam"\
"It's not too good to stay in a white man's country too long"\
"Everyday is Ashura and every land is Kerbala"\
-Imam Ja'far Sadiq\