NETWORKS: Terra Incognita and the Case for Ethnographic Intelligence

By Renzi, Fred | Military Review, September/October 2006 | Go to article overview

NETWORKS: Terra Incognita and the Case for Ethnographic Intelligence


Renzi, Fred, Military Review


Author's note: What I have chosen to call "ethnographic intelligence" might be more accurately described as "ethnographic information," since much of the content involved in analyzing a hostile network will be opensource. I have chosen to retain "intelligence," however, to indicate the military utility of the content involved.

THE PROLIFERATION of empowered networks makes "ethnographic intelligence" (EI) more important to the United States than ever before.2 Among networks, Al-Qaeda is of course the most infamous, but there are several other examples from the recent past and present, such as blood-diamond and drug cartels, that lead to the conclusion that such networks will be a challenge in the foreseeable future. Given the access these networks have to expanded modern communications and transportation and, potentially, to weapons of mass destruction, they are likely to be more formidable than any adversaries we have ever faced.

Regrettably, the traditional structure of the U.S. military intelligence community and the kind of intelligence it produces aren't helping us counter this threat. As recent debate, especially in the services, attests, there is an increased demand for cultural intelligence. Retired Army Major General Robert Scales has highlighted the need for what he calls cultural awareness in Iraq: "I asked a returning commander from the 3rd Infantry Division how well situational awareness (read aerial and ground intelligence technology) worked during the march to Baghdad. 'I knew where every enemy tank was dug in on the outskirts of Tallil,' he replied. Only problem was, my soldiers had to fight fanatics charging on foot or in pickups and firing AK-47s and [rocket propelled grenades]. I had perfect situational awareness. What I lacked was cultural awareness. Great technical intelligence...wrong enemy.'"3

I propose that we go beyond even General Scales's plea for cultural awareness and look instead at amassing EI, the type of intelligence that is key to setting policy for terra incognita. The terra in this case is the human terrain, about which too often too little is known by those who wield the instruments of national power. The United States needs EI to combat networks and conduct global counterinsurgency. This paper will therefore define EI, discuss some cases that illustrate the requirement for it, and propose a means to acquire and process it.

El Defined

According to Dr. Anna Simons of the United States Naval Postgraduate School, "What we mean by EI is information about indigenous forms of association, local means of organization, and traditional methods of mobilization. Clans, tribes, secret societies, the hawala system, religious brotherhoods, all represent indigenous or latent forms of social organization available to our adversaries throughout the non-Western, and increasingly the Western, world. These create networks that are invisible to us unless we are specifically looking for them; they come in forms with which we are not culturally familiar; and they are impossible to 'see' or monitor, let alone map, without consistent attention and the right training."4

Because EI is the only way to truly know a society, it is the best tool to divine the intentions of a society's members. The "indigenous forms of association and local means of organization" are hardly alien concepts to us. Our own culture has developed what we call "social network analysis" to map these associations and forms of organization.5 These unwritten rules and invisible (to us) connections between people form key elements of the kind of information that, according to General Scales, combat commanders are now demanding. Because these rules and connections form the "traditional methods of mobilization" used either to drum up support for or opposition to U.S. goals, they demand constant attention from the U.S. Government and Armed Forces.6 Simply put, EI constitutes the descriptions of a society that allow us to make sense of personal interactions, to trace the connections between people, to determine what is important to people, and to anticipate how they could react to certain events.

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