Kill-Lists and Network Analysis

Gregory McNeal
Monday, February 25, 2013, 4:46 PM
In my previous post I discussed how law creates three broad categories of potential targets (AUMF targets, Covert Action targets, and Ally targets).  Those broad categories mean that many individuals may be targetable based on their status as members of an organized armed group.  Working from these broad legal categories, the U.S.

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In my previous post I discussed how law creates three broad categories of potential targets (AUMF targets, Covert Action targets, and Ally targets).  Those broad categories mean that many individuals may be targetable based on their status as members of an organized armed group.  Working from these broad legal categories, the U.S. next relies on multiple levels of bureaucratic analysis to sort out the persons worth adding to a kill-list from the universe of potential targets.  The goal is not merely killing people, but to kill those persons whose elimination will have the greatest impact on the enemy organization.  I briefly described a systems based approach to targeting that looks at potential targets, their value to enemy organizations, their ability to be replaced, and their contributions to the enemy's warfighting effort.  In this post I dive a bit deeper into the targeting bureaucracy to discuss network based targeting analysis. (Internal references have been omitted in this post but can be found in the paper once it is available).


To outside observers, some targets such as senior operational leaders are obviously worthy of placement on a kill-list, while the propriety of adding other persons to a kill-list may be more hotly disputed.  While it may be clear that killing a bomb-maker (to draw from the example in my last post) is an obvious choice as it can create a gap in an enemy organization that may be hard to fill, removing other individuals (even if they are quickly replaced) may similarly pressure or disrupt terrorist organizations.  As CIA director Hayden stated in 2009:
By making a safe haven feel less safe, we keep al-Qaeda guessing. We make them doubt their allies; question their methods, their plans, even their priorities… we force them to spend more time and resources on self-preservation, and that distracts them, at least partially and at least for a time, from laying the groundwork for the next attack.
When personnel within the targeting process are developing names for kill-lists, they will look beyond the criticality and vulnerability factors (described in my prior post) and will supplement that analysis with network based analysis. Networked based analysis looks at terrorist groups as nodes connected by links, and assesses how components of that terrorist network operate together and independently of one another.  Those nodes and links, once identified will be targeted with the goal of disrupting and degrading their functionality.  To effectively pursue a network based approach, bureaucrats rely in part on what is known as "pattern of life analysis" which involves connecting the relationships between places and people by tracking their patterns of life. This analysis draws on the interrelationships among groups "to determine the degree and points of their interdependence.” It assesses how activities are linked and looks to “determine the most effective way to influence or affect the enemy system." While the enemy moves from point to point, reconnaissance or surveillance tracks and notes every location and person visited. Connections between the target, the sites they visit, and the persons they interact with are documented, built into a network diagram and further analyzed. Through this process links and nodes in the enemy's network emerge. The analysis charts the "social, economic and political networks that underpin and support clandestine networks" identifying key-decision makers and those who support or influence them indirectly. This may mean that analysts will track logistics and money trails, they may identify key facilitators and non-leadership persons of interests and they will exploit human and signals intelligence. They will feed this information into computer systems that help integrate the knowledge and which generate and cross-references thousands of data points to construct a comprehensive picture of the enemy network. “This analysis has the effect of taking a shadowy foe and revealing his physical infrastructure…as a result, the network becomes more visible and vulnerable, thus negating the enemy’s asymmetric advantage of denying a target.”


Viewing targeting in this way demonstrates how seemingly low level individuals such as couriers and other "middle-men" in decentralized networks such as al Qaeda are oftentimes critical to the successful functioning of the enemy organization. Targeting these individuals can "destabilize clandestine networks by compromising large sections of the organization, distancing operatives from direct guidance, and impeding organizational communication and function." Moreover, because clandestine networks rely on social relationships to manage the trade-off between maintaining secrecy and security, attacking key nodes can have a detrimental impact on the enemy’s ability to conduct their operations. Thus, while some individuals may seem insignificant to the outside observer, when considered by an analyst relying on network based analytical techniques, the elimination of a seemingly low level individual might have an important impact on an enemy organization. Moreover, because terrorist networks rely on secrecy in communication, individuals within those networks may forge strong ties that remain dormant for the purposes of operational security. This means that social ties that appear inactive or weak to a casual observer such as an NGO, human rights worker, journalist, or even a target's family members may in fact be strong ties within the network. Furthermore, because terrorist networks oftentimes rely on social connections between charismatic leaders to function, disrupting those lines of communication can significantly impact those networks. For example, Osama Bin Laden's courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was Bin Laden's sole means of communicating with the rest of al Qaeda.  To preserve operational security, he is rumored to have kept his relationship with Bin Laden a secret from some of his family members in the Persian Gulf.  Once identified, tracking al-Kuwaiti allowed analysts to determine the links and nodes in Bin Laden’s network. Moreover, if the government had chosen to kill al-Kuwaiti, a mere courier, it would have prevented Bin Laden from leading his organization (desynchronizing the network) until Bin Laden could find a trustworthy replacement. Finding such a replacement would be a difficult task considering that al Kuwaiti lived with Bin Laden, and was his trusted courier for years.  Of course, sometimes intelligence gained from continuing to monitor a target is more significant than killing or capturing the target (as was initially the case with al Kuwaiti).  This is a point that is recognized by every expert in targeting.  Critics oftentimes accuse the government of not considering the potential intelligence loss associated with killing rather than capturing persons, but that intelligence loss is one that is well known by targeteers.  The only issue is that someone deep within the killing process has decided that an operation, when it occurs, is worth the intelligence loss (given the available options). As the previous discussion demonstrates, sometimes targeting even low level operatives can make a contribution to the U.S. war effort against al Qaeda and associated forces. Of course, there are legal consequences associated with this dispersal of al Qaeda and associated forces into a network, and to the manner in which the U.S. government determines if individuals are sufficiently tied to groups with whom the U.S. sees itself at war. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is that to an external observer, it is not clear what criteria will render an individual or a group an associated force, let alone what would constitute being labeled a node or a link in some networked base analysis.  This is a point that is not lost on even the highest level officials in the U.S. government, as Daniel Klaidman has noted:
[President Obama] understood that in the shadow wars, far from conventional battlefields, the United States was operating further out on the margins of the law. Ten years after 9/11, the military was taking the fight to terrorist groups that didn't exist when Congress granted George Bush authority to go to war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Complicated questions about which groups and individuals were covered…were left to the lawyers. Their finely grained distinctions and hair-splitting legal arguments could mean the difference between who would be killed and who would be spared.
Accountability for these “finely grained” legal distinctions is bound up in bureaucratic analysis that is not readily susceptible to external review. It relies on thousands of data points, spread across geographic regions and social relationships making it inherently complex and opaque. Accordingly, the propriety of adding an individual to a kill-list will be bound up in the analyst’s assessment of these targeting factors, and the reliability of the intelligence information underlying the assessment. How well that information is documented, how closely that information is scrutinized, and by whom will be a key factor in assessing whether targeted killings are accountable. As the concepts above make clear, there are multiple incremental questions that must be asked to determine whether an individual can be lawfully targeted, and whether that lawful target should be added to a kill-list. That process involves the creation of an extensive paper and electronic trail.  My next post will discuss that accountability paper trail. This post is Part 2 of a 7 Part series based on the article Kill-Lists and Accountability

Gregory McNeal is a professor at Pepperdine University. He is a national security specialist focusing on the institutions and challenges associated with global security, with substantive expertise in national security law and policy, criminal law, and international law. He previously served as Assistant Director of the Institute for Global Security, co-directed a transnational counterterrorism grant program for the U.S. Department of Justice, and served as a legal consultant to the Chief Prosecutor of the Department of Defense Office of Military Commissions on matters related to the prosecution of suspected terrorists held in the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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