The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a non-partisan think tank based in DC, recently published a report entitled, Syria’s Armed Opposition, an in-depth look at the rebel movement in Syria that began last June. Author Joseph Holliday, Senior Analyst at ISW, provides solid analysis on the structure and capabilities of the insurgency, but perhaps just as interesting as the conclusions themselves is the analytic workflow Holliday utilized to arrive at his conclusions.
Now a highly respected scholar and subject matter expert in the policy community, a year ago Holliday was an active duty Army intelligence officer with general knowledge of the situation facing the Assad regime in Damascus. With the use of Palantir, a cutting-edge analytic platform, Holliday and his colleagues and partners, many of whom are educated at the Nation’s top-tier universities and service academies and utilize field experience from diverse assignments, are creating and establishing dynamic workflows to rapidly analyze the hardest problem sets in international affairs. Analysts still spend long hours reading and sourcing reports from multiple data streams focusing on the history, demographics, culture, and politics of specified regions; however, when combining the efficiency of traditional analytic methods with the power of innovative analytic software the analyst teams are able to greatly advance the way knowledge is shared across not only the policy community but throughout the communities who think tanks advise and assist. As a result, users minimize the time required to move through large amounts of data through the integration of disparate sources, collaborate more effectively by sharing insights both internally within focused teams and externally with stakeholders, and flatten the learning curve by providing strategic and operational analysis to empower the decision making process.
The widespread use of social media, accelerated by the proliferation of cellular data transfer, has shifted the nature of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT); however, many analysts in the community are not leveraging social media streams to enrich workflows. Holliday gathered, cleaned, integrated, and analyzed videos published by soldiers announcing their defection from the Assad regime’s military to join the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which functions as an umbrella organization for Syrian rebels. By importing the publicly- available videos, which enables advanced network analysis, and modeling data to follow activity and movement, teams structured the opposition and analyzed, to a great extent, the capabilities and order of battle of the rebels. In addition, by cross-referencing traditional news sources with state-run media and social media sources, ISW tracked insurgent attacks across Syria with accuracy and analyzed the tactics employed by rebels with precision in order to attribute engagements to specific subgroups of insurgents. Holliday’s analysis also heightened the awareness of diaspora movements and trafficking cycles in the region, vital information that enables international partners and Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) to understand the flows of Internationally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to and from refugee camps in neighboring countries as well as analyze the impact of criminal activity in hot spots and across borders.
The model utilized by ISW’s Syria Analyst Team holds great potential for applying a new methodology across the research, analysis, policy, and operations communities at a macro level. Data and analysis sharing can be increased by creating a partnership involving organizations from traditional think tanks like Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), research and educational institutions like the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point (CTCWP), academic and government hybrids like the University of Maryland START Program, and/or humanitarian-focused institutions like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Likewise, decision makers can build a repository of vetted open source data that is persistently streamed and compiled from foreign and conventional news sources and social media platforms. Combining the database with global geospatial imagery, organizations would not only have available a point of departure for analyzing information for a variety of purposes but a collaborative platform to collectively analyze the Nation’s hardest and most challenging problems.
In an ever-changing world, empowering analysts with the most advanced analytic tools that can easily manage big data offers a new and revolutionary capability to process and analyze the world’s data in a timely, accurate, and useful way while minimizing reduplication of effort and maximizing efficiency of application at a logarithmic pace, making this new analysis a reality.