Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Can network theory help track terrorists – or small arms?

Al Qaeda is often referred to as an atypical organization without central authority that operates like a swarm. In a 2005 interview, Spanish counterterrorism judge Baltasar Garzón said that, following the loss of key leaders during the first year of the U.S.-led global war on terrorism, Al Qaeda convened a strategic summit in northern Iran in November 2002, at which the group’s consultative council decided that it could no longer operate as a hierarchy, but instead would have to become a decentralized network.

Can network theory help us destabilize or even neutralize terrorist groups?

Well, it seems to be possible. In a recent article in The Boston Globe (see reference below), I read that the Pentagon asked a team of scientists from Boston to look at the potential of “social network analysis” to study the web of relationships among terrorist organizations, arms scientists, and suppliers in order to help prevent terrorists from acquiring or developing weapons of mass destruction.

By reconstructing the web of the cultural, political, and financial connections among terrorists, it’s possible to identify the individuals who are most highly socially connected. These key players – also known as “hubs” – are not necessarily the leaders of the organization: they are the nodes that hold the network together. By knocking down a critical hub, you may disable the whole network.

This method has been used retroactively by Valdis Krebs, a Cleveland consultant, to determine the key role of Mohamed Atta among the 19 hijackers involved in 9/11 terrorist attacks. Network theory was also at the center of the U.S. military programme called “Mongo Link”, whose aim was to chart Saddam Hussein’s relationships and which eventually led to his capture near his hometown of Tikrit.

Determining hubs and relationships in terrorist networks is a major challenge. Although some networks are obvious in hindsight, the real difficulty is to disable them before they act.

Network theory also may have wider applicability to other security issues, in which relationships are important to understanding what’s going on. (John Borrie and I discussed this in our chapter in the Disarmament as Humanitarian Action project’s third volume of research, see reference below.) In particular, a potential use for this tool could be to identify the significant nodes and critical connections of illicit small arms proliferation networks.

Aurélia Merçay


Bryan Bender, “Antiterrorism agency taps Boston-area brains: Analysts plumb arms networks”, The Boston Globe, March 27, 2007.

Aurélia Merçay and John Borrie , “A Physics of diplomacy? The Dynamics of Complex Social Phenomena and Their Implications for Multilateral Negotiations”, Thinking Outside the Box in Multilateral Disarmament and Arms Control Negotiations, UNIDIR, 2006, pp. 129-164, available online here.