Canadian PM says we shouldn’t “commit sociology” and try to explain terrorism

When asked about a recently uncovered train terrorism plot, the Canadian Prime Minister said we should not “commit sociology”:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said this is not the time to “commit sociology” when asked about the arrests of two men this week who are accused of conspiring to carry out a terrorist attack on a Via train.

Harper was asked during a news conference with Trinidad and Tobago’s prime minister about concerns with the timing of the arrests. He was also asked about when it’s appropriate to talk about the root causes of involvement with terrorism.

The Conservatives had taken Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to task when he suggested last week it was important to look at the root causes of the Boston Marathon bombings after offering condolences and support to the victims. They said he was trying to rationalize the bombings or make excuses when the Liberal leader said the bombings happened because someone felt excluded from society.

“I think, though, this is not a time to commit sociology, if I can use an expression,” Harper said. “These things are serious threats, global terrorist attacks, people who have agendas of violence that are deep and abiding threats to all the values our society stands for.

“I don’t think we want to convey any view to the Canadian public other than our utter condemnation of this kind of violence, contemplation of this violence and our utter determination through our laws and our activities to do everything we can to prevent it and counter it,” Harper said.

This echoes some conversations in recent years:

George Will warned against committing sociology after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

-After the riots in London, some said we should not try to explain why some people would riot (which is a relatively rare event in Western society).

Is this a new conservative talking point?

Just because we want to try to understand why some people commit terrorist acts (and most others do not) does not mean the explanations excuse or condone the actions. It also does not necessarily imply that society is entirely at fault. But, we do know that social forces can affect people even as individuals have some agency. In the end, thinking about causes of terrorism (and rioting) can help us develop ways to stop it in the future.

The human eyes and hours needed to review CCTV footage to find terrorists

A common tool in fighting urban terrorism today is the closed-circuit camera system. However, it still takes a tremendous amount of personnel and time to go through all of the available tape. Here is a summary of what was required to put together the narrative of the 2005 bombing in London:

Six days after the attack, police start linking these events together. “By 13 July, the police had strong evidence that Khan, Tanweer, Hussain and Lindsay were the bombers and that they had died in the attacks.” But it was no small feat: Police collected 80,000 CCTV tapes, amounting to hundreds of thousands of hours of footage. The London police brought on some 400 extra officers to help with the grunt of it.

“The scale is enormous,” the narrative concluded.

As Alexis Madrigal writes at The Atlantic, although we have the technology to capture and record every inch of a city in real time, the process very much depends on a human eye to analyze. “Right now, there is no video software that can do this type of analysis,” he writes, “not even in a first-pass way.”

Even so, given the history here, it seems likely that given enough time, the perpetrators of the bombing will be found on camera. Whether the police can connect the thread among all the disparate sources of information is another matter.

In other words, you can collect big data but it still requires humans to make sense of it all. I imagine there is a big opportunity here for someone to create reliable recognition software but this may be a task where humans are simply better.

Wired says the data in Boston is being crowdsourced but the investigation will not:

It is unclear whether law enforcement had overhead cameras mounted in helicopters or other aircraft over the Marathon. (Boston-area cops don’t have spy drones — yet.) But the era of readily-accessible commercial imaging tools provides a twist on the exponential growth of surveillance tech used by law enforcement and homeland security. The data on your phone can become an adjunct to police during the highest-profile investigations.

That isn’t an unfettered benefit to police. The military has found that its explosion of imagery data has stressed its ability to process it, to the point where its futurists are hunting for algorithms that can pre-select images a human analyst sees. Davis requested that any spectator providing media showing the attacks indicate the time they collected the data so police “don’t need to go through the electronic signature.”

Lots of work to do.

A UN report discusses how Facebook can be used for terrorism

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released a report this week on how terrorists are using new platforms like Facebook:

Terrorists are increasingly turning to social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to spread propaganda, recruit sympathizers and plot potential attacks, a United Nations’ report released Monday says.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime said Internet-based social platforms are fertile, low-cost grounds for promotion of extremist rhetoric encouraging violent acts, with terrorists able to virtually cross borders and hide behind fake identifies…

The University of Waterloo sociologist said networks like Facebook are effective tools to screen potential recruits, who could then be directed to encrypted militant Islamic websites affiliated with al-Qaida, for example.

Check out what the full report says about Facebook. Here is the first mention of Facebook (p.4):

The promotion of extremist rhetoric encouraging violent acts is also a common
trend across the growing range of Internet-based platforms that host user-generated
content. Content that might formerly have been distributed to a relatively limited audience, in person or via physical media such as compact discs (CDs) and digital video discs (DVDs), has increasingly migrated to the Internet. Such content may be distributed using a broad range of tools, such as dedicated websites, targeted virtual chat rooms and forums, online magazines, social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and popular video and file-sharing websites, such as YouTube and Rapidshare, respectively. The use of indexing services such as Internet search engines also makes it easier to identify and retrieve terrorism-related content.

The second mention (p.11):

Particularly in the age of popular social networking media, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and blogging platforms, individuals also publish, voluntarily or inadvertently, an unprecedented amount of sensitive information on the Internet. While the intent of those distributing the information may be to provide news or other updates to their audience for informational or social purposes, some of this information may be misappropriated and used for the benefit of criminal activity.

And that’s about it when it comes to specifics about Facebook in report. One case involving Facebook was cited specifically but the bulk of the terrorist activity appeared to happen on other websites. On one hand, officials say they will continue to monitor Facebook. On the other hand, Facebook is one popular website, among others, where Internet users can interact.

I imagine Facebook as a company is also interested in this and its too bad they didn’t respond, at least not to Bloomberg Businessweek:

Spokespeople at Facebook, Google and Twitter didn’t immediately return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Sociologist: downgrade threat of terrorism in US to a “tiny” threat

Remember when terrorism was the number one concern in the United States? A new report features a sociologist arguing that terrorism is a “tiny” threat in the United States. Here is some of the evidence:

Kurzman’s report, “Muslim-American Terrorism in the Decade Since 9/11,” said that compared to the 14,000 murders in the U.S. last year, the potential for Muslim Americans to take up terrorism is “tiny.”

In the 10 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 193 Muslim Americans have been indicted in terrorist plots, or fewer than 20 per year, Kurzman said.

Just one of those indicted last year was actually charged with carrying out an attack — Yonathan Melaku, who fired shots at military buildings in northern Virginia — compared to six Muslim Americans who carried out attacks in 2010, including Faizal Shahzad, the failed Times Square bomber.

“This number is not negligible — small numbers of Muslim Americans continue to radicalize each year and plot violence,” Kurzman wrote. “However, the rate of radicalization is far less than many feared in the aftermath of 9/11.”

This reminds me of the idea that the “war on terror” is more of a social construction than actual threat. Granted, the money and resources spent on fighting terrorism may just have contributed to the low number of terrorists but the large application of resources plus the political rhetoric (remember the days of terror alerts?) plus media accounts may have just blown this up into a bigger issue than it actually was.

It would be interesting to hear what Kurzman thinks should be done in response to this data. On one hand, perhaps we should spend less time and effort fighting terrorism, particularly in an era of a lot of other issues and fiscal shortfalls. On the other hand, who wants to be the politician or expert that says things are okay and some major incident occurs? Is just one incident of terrorism just too many to handle? This sounds like a very similar tradeoff to what the options are in dealing with (falling rates of) crime.

Learning from the organizational structure of al-Qaida

Studying organizations is hot today and here is some real-world evidence: US Special Operations forces were aided in their search for terrorists by mimicking al-Qaida’s structure.

One of the greatest ironies of the 9/11 Era: while politicians, generals and journalists lined up to denounce al-Qaida as a brutal band of fanatics, one commander thought its organizational structure was kind of brilliant. He set to work rebuilding an obscure military entity into a lethal, agile, secretive and highly networked command — essentially, the U.S.’ very own al-Qaida. It became the most potent weapon the U.S. has against another terrorist attack.

That was the work of Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal is best known as the general who lost his command in Afghanistan after his staff shit-talked the Obama administration to Rolling Stone. Inescapable as that public profile may be, it doesn’t begin to capture the impact he made on the military. McChrystal’s fingerprints are all over the Joint Special Operations Command, the elite force that eventually killed Osama bin Laden. As the war on terrorism evolves into a series of global shadow wars, JSOC and its partners — the network McChrystal painstakingly constructed — are the ones who wage it.

Very interesting. This story suggests that factors manpower, equipment, and even charismatic leadership can only go so far: an organization’s structure is vital to its outcome.

Several Weberian thoughts that I have:
1. If this course of action is now considered a success, would the rest of the Armed Forces (and even other organizations) be willing to change their organizational structures? Is this the end of bureaucracy in the Armed Forces or could there be other global situations or battlefields where a traditional bureaucratic structure works better?

2. The article places a lot of emphasis on General McChrystal and his finer and lesser moments. Is McChrystal a classic example of a “charismatic authority” and if so, can his work be routinized? In his forthcoming book, will McChrystal put himself at the center of the story? Since it sounds like JSOC has moved on without him with his ideas, was McChrystal’s ultimate role to introduce these ideas and then bow out? And if McChrystal is good at solving such problems, where could he be put to best serve?

A final thought: how would the American public respond to this idea that adopting al-Qaida’s ideas is what can make America (and its military) great? Is this American pragmatism at work?

Data on millennials’ life-long take on Osama Bin Laden

In an op-ed, a millennial considers some data regarding how the younger generation viewed Osama Bin Laden throughout their lives. While the media has suggested Bin Laden was a key figure in their young lives, this commentator suggests the data regarding his generation’s view of Bin Laden is more mixed:

Let’s start with the media’s attempts to establish Bin Laden’s impact on millennials. In addition to student sound bites and expert testimony, newspapers turned to sociological evidence to support their theories. To show how 9/11 inspired millennials to pursue public service, USA Today cited the increase in applications for nonprofit jobs. (The week before, this would have been proof of our struggling economy.) To show how 9/11 left millennials in a state of perpetual distress, the newspaper cited a Pew survey claiming that 83% of young people sleep with their cellphones on. (The week before, this would have been proof of our declining attention spans.)

Notice what USA Today didn’t cite: data on millennials’ opinions of Bin Laden from before his death. That’s because these data don’t support the narrative of a generation defining itself in the shadow of the Twin Towers. Not too long ago, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation ran a series of focus groups on college students’ attitudes toward 9/11. The foundation asked students to name the most important social or political event of their lifetime. The most common answer was not 9/11 — in fact, it was one of the least common — but the rise of the Internet.

Even data that support the media’s theories stop well short of suggesting a millennial reboot. In 2000, for example, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute reported that the number of freshmen who considered keeping up with political affairs to be “essential” or “very important” hit an election-year low: 28%. After 9/11, that number did bounce back — but only to 39% in 2008, well below the 60%-plus who answered affirmatively in 1966, the first year of the annual poll.

These statistics, I think, capture my generation’s real relationship to Bin Laden. It would be too much to say we had forgotten about him, but it also would be too much to say he haunted or defined us in any real way.

I, too, have heard this media narrative and now that I think about it, the primary data marshaled in support of it were the college student celebrations the night of the announcement of Bin Laden’s death. I would need to see more data on this to be convinced either way but it sounds like an interesting argument. If the media story is incorrect, it seems like it wouldn’t be too hard to put together more data to suggest this is the case. I assume most polling organizations have asked plenty of questions about Bin Laden and terrorism over the last ten years and these organizations could easily break out the data by age. If it turned out that millennials were not terribly impacted by 9/11 or Bin Laden’s death, what would be the reaction of older generations?

The rest of the op-ed contains opinions about the partying reaction of millennials. The public discussion regarding the celebration of and reaction to Bin Laden’s death has been intriguing though it is hard to know exactly what is going on and what it might say, if anything, about the larger American culture. My initial reaction to seeing the college students partying in front of the White House was to think that they were looking for an excuse to party on a Sunday night with school the next day…

Bin Laden and his McMansion

As the details of Osama bin Laden’s death have become public, some attention has been paid to the house in Pakistan in which he was staying. Here is an extended description from Politico:

The White House says the compound that housed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was “extraordinarily unique” and had many signs that indicated he was hiding there.

The structure, which has been described as a mansion, was on a “large plot of land” in a “relatively secluded” area, a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call. The residence itself was “eight times larger” than other homes in the area, said the official, who refused to be identified.

“We were shocked by what we saw,” the official said after President Obama announced that bin Laden had been killed at the compound in Abbottabad.

The security measures at the compound were “extraordinary,” the official said, describing walls that were 12 to 18 feet high and topped with barbed wire, in addition to walls on the inside. Access to the mansion was restricted with two security gates, officials said.

Another sign was that the residents of the mansion burned their trash, unlike their neighbors, who simply put their garbage outside, they said.

The property, valued at $1 million, had no telephone or Internet access, the White House said. It was “custom built to hide someone of significance,” the official said.

When I first heard about this house in a Pakistani community, I wondered if anyone would tie this kind of unusual house to the idea of a McMansion. I found three examples. First, a columnist links bin Laden’s house to McMansion complaints in an Austin neighborhood:

And so much for the legend that bin Laden was a really big camper who survived in caves. Bin Laden was found in a huge house, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, eight times larger than any other house in the area. So if he had been hiding in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood, they would have found him years ago because people would have called the city to complain about his McMansion.

They must have a lot of complaints about McMansions in this neighborhood.

Second, a Brooklyn-based publication links bin Laden to McMansions and Martha Stewart:

As for the details, we’ll find out over time (we’re expecting a big spread in Martha Stewart Living about how you can make your house look like Osama’s Abottobad Dream McMansion).

I don’t think we’ll be seeing that particular spread soon.

Third, the blog SpyTalk has this headline for a blog post: “Mystery: Who Financed Bin Laden’s McMansion?

Why exactly would people say bin Laden was living in a McMansion? Perhaps a few reasons: the house was quite large. The house was larger than anything nearby (the relative size argument). The home was quite private with its walls, gate, and barbed wire. But this seems kind of ridiculous: the typical suburban McMansion looks nothing like this nor are its typical residents dangerous terrorists (regardless of what the movie Arlington Road might lead you to believe). But if you don’t like McMansions and you don’t like bin Laden, perhaps this makes sense…

(A Time piece suggests the house was not even a mansion:

The compound doesn’t quite fit the descriptions of a mansion, as some have labeled it. The walls are 12 feet high walls and about 13 inches thick – enough to shield the tall terrorist leader from public view. The property itself is spread over an area slightly smaller than an acre. The house is a great deal smaller, rising over two-storeys. In other ways, it was unremarkable but sometimes noticed.

So there are some differing opinions on this.)