Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Foreign Fighters and Ants: How they form their colonies


Foreign Fighters and Ants: How they form their colonies

Posted by Clint Watts

July 16, 2013 - 9:35am




Swarm intelligence has proven particularly useful over the past two decades

in identifying more efficient methods for computer engineering, machine

learning and describing social media phenomena.  Several years ago at a FPRI

conference on al Qaeda foreign fighters I noted that I thought Ant Colony

Optimization, an efficiency method by which ants find their food, might be

an effective modeling system for analyzing, understanding and ultimately

disrupting foreign fighter recruitment pipelines to places like Iraq and

Afghanistan.  Today, I believe it is time to re-examine the utility of this

methodology to help analyze and potentially mitigate the largest foreign

fighter mobilization since the original Afghan jihad during the 1980s -- the

Syrian revolution.


Ant Colony Optimization, often referred to as ACO, explains the method by

which ants efficiently find their food.  Mauricio Perretto and Hector

Silverio Lopes in their article "Reconstruction of phylogenetic trees using

the ant colony optimization paradigm" explain:


    "Real ants, when searching for food, can find such resources without

visual feedback (they are practically blind), and they can adapt to changes

in the environment, optimizing the path between the nest and the food

source. This fact is the result of stigmergy, which involves positive

feedback, given by the continuous deposit of a chemical substance, known as



In their Figure 2 (seen below), Perretto and Lopes diagram how ant pheromone

trails that evaporate over time help guide ants along the most efficient

route between their nest and a food source.  Ants initially start off

traveling in random directions laying pheromone trails that evaporate over

time. Other ants follow these pheromone trails.  When food is found, ants

then travel back to the nest again laying a pheromone trail over their

original path.  The most efficient path to the food thus becomes overlaid

with denser layers of pheromones.  Ants sense the more densely laid and

efficient trails and select them over the less dense and evaporating paths

to food sources.  This process results in the most efficient path being

reinforced by the subsequent pheromone trails of followers who confirm the

route from nest to food.


[Ant Colony Optimization]


Further research on ACO has also shown that ants not only optimize their

routes but select the best food source available when they are presented

routes to different food sources.  When presented with either less abundant

but more nutritious honey and more abundant but less nutritious sugar, ants

can optimize their routes to show a preference for the more nutritious food

source of honey.


How do foreign fighters find their way to jihadi battlefields and what does

that have to do with ants?


At first glance, it's seemingly amazing that jihadi foreign fighters can

mobilize volunteers across the globe.  As noted in books such as Lawrence

Wright's The Looming Tower, foreign fighter recruits from as far away as

Kansas made their way to the Afghan battlefields of the 1980s simply through

"advertisement" flyers and audio broadcasts.  However, with the expansive

use of the Internet by jihadists, the recruitment process to battlefields

like Iraq, Afghanistan after September 11, 2001 and now Syria has occurred

more quickly and transparently as compared to the original Afghan jihad of

the 1980s.  Today, while the networks supporting jihadi recruitment to

battlefields remain a bit opaque, the migration of fighters and their

activities in jihadi campaigns are quite visible for all to see on social

media.   After watching these jihadi migrations, I believe that ACO models

can be used to understand how and where foreign fighter pipelines will

flourish in support of extremist conflicts.


Here is an example.


Much like ants seeking food, foreign fighter recruits often set out blindly

seeking a successful path to a jihadi campaign.  The initial foreign fighter

recruits to a battlefield like Syria likely set out in small numbers of five

or less with the most zealous Western recruits setting out on solo missions.

These initial recruits test a variety of different routes and methods en

route to places like Syria.  Many recruits from North Africa and the Middle

East travel old networks utilized during previous jihadi conflicts while

other recruits blindly seek out their own path.  During these travels to

join jihadi groups, foreign fighters -- eager to brag about their

accomplishments -- communicate back to peers at home via email, phone,

social media and jihadi web forums.  Instead of excreting pheromones like

ants, foreign fighters lay digital trails marking their routes -- virtual

breadcrumbs.  With successful migration and integration into places like

Syria, foreign fighter recruits broadcast their jihadi adventures.  Those

recruits that broadcast most frequently and demonstrate the most successful

route to Syria further encourage fence-sitters at home that jihadi dreams

can be fulfilled creating an exponential recruitment pace -- the

Minneapolis, Minnesota recruitment of several Somali Americans to al-Shabaab

around the 2008 time period may be one example.  Meanwhile, those recruits

that set out for jihad and are heard from less frequently and appear to take

a longer time or fail in reaching their destination likely dissuade other

foreign fighters at home from following their path -- an example of stunted

recruitment might be the failed attempts of five Americans from Alexandria,

Virginia that traveled to Pakistan in 2009.


Like ant pheromones, foreign fighter digital signals fade over time as their

relevance can be crowded out by the emergence of new alternative jihadi

campaigns and the negative experiences of foreign fighters treated poorly

while fulfilling their jihadi fantasy.  For example, fickle foreign fighters

prefer to join campaigns on the rise rather than those in decline.  This

past winter, jihadi Internet forums briefly lit up with calls to support

al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and affiliated groups in repelling

the French intervention into Mali.  However, AQIM and its affiliates were

quickly on the run at a time when the Syrian revolution continued to pick up

steam.  Seeing a better opportunity in Syria, like ants preferring honey to

sugar, foreign fighters likely followed the well documented digital trail to

join groups like al-Nusra.


In another context, the negative experiences of foreign fighters also likely

influence the choice of emerging recruits.  I would estimate the trials and

tribulations of Omar Hammami, the American foreign fighter to al-Shabaab who

has since been betrayed and hunted by his terror group, have stunted foreign

fighter flow into Somalia. Similarly, in the Sinjar records, foreign

fighters who traveled to Iraq through the coordination of a facilitator

named "Loua'aie" noted they found difficulties dealing with him.  In both

cases, these negative experiences demonstrate how a digital foreign fighter

pheromone trail can evaporate and eliminate less than optimal facilitation



What could be accomplished by using ACO to model foreign fighter flows?


ACO modeling, if successful in its application to foreign fighter flows,

could yield several benefits.  First, this modeling could be used in early

warning to detect when jihadi campaigns have reached a point where

recruitment and facilitation of extremists have broken a critical threshold

suggesting future strategic implications -- like when the Syrian revolution

went from a handful of foreign fighters from neighboring countries to a

global cause bringing in thousands of fighters from dozens of countries.

Second, ACO may be able to quickly identify which routes have become the

most optimal for foreign fighters and help counterterrorism strategists

focus their interdiction and disruption efforts. Third, ACO would ideally

determine those attributes of highly efficient foreign fighter recruitment

pipelines.  Knowing what facilitation attributes result in more efficient

recruitment and facilitation will assist counterterrorism efforts by

identifying key focal points that both signal the formation of efficient

routes and become decisive points for tackling terror networks.



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