Shout Out – Understanding Gangs and Underground Economies

Following up on last week’s first expert recommendation in some time, I decided to stay on the criminal justice theme but shift perspectives to understanding the criminal side of crime. This week, I make a shout out to Dr. Sudhir Venkatesh from Columbia University for his fantastic research on gangs, crime and the urban poor.

A sociologist by trade, Dr. Venkatesh’s research consists of unparalleled ethnographies providing some needed insight into the life and challenges of those living in poor communities. I first encountered a bit of his work in the book Freakonomics in the chapter explaining why drug dealers live with their mothers. This chapter was a nice taste for what later became one of the best books I’ve read, “Gang Leader for a Day.” The book describes Sudhir’s years following a gang leader in one of Chicago’s most dangerous communities. The book details not only how gang life works but also illuminates how urban communities and their off-the-books economies operate. The book is a great work and I believe should be essential reading for anyone working in law enforcement. Dr. Venkatesh continues his research through several different projects and for a sample of his work see this interview below.

Shout Out – Top Gun on Smart Policing

I’ve been overly focused on terrorism posts the past few months and have completely neglected nominations to my “Expert List”.  After many months, I need to give a shout out or two to those I’ve overlooked thus far. Additionally, I’ve only delved into criminal justice and law enforcement discussions on rare occasions thus far on Selected Wisdom.  Seeing as how I spend quite a bit of time working on law enforcement issues, I’ve decided its time to also start blogging more about criminal justice and law enforcement issues and will catalog these posts on their own page in the coming months.

Today, I give my first shout out in the the law enforcement arena to Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe of Temple University.  Jerry is both an academic and practitioner of criminal justice.  As a former member of the Metropolitan Police in London, Jerry has spent time on the street resulting in his research being particularly effective at putting theory into practice.  Jerry was one of the first to explore the application of intelligence processes in law enforcement jurisdictions leading to his seminal book Intelligence-Led PolicingUnfortunately, revelations of the NYPD’s intelligence operations have ruined the term intelligence-led policing.  Jerry’s research does not advocate spying but instead provides a business management approach to increase the use of informants and surveillance empowering analysis that targets prolific offenders – an approach better described under the more current moniker of “smart policing”.  Jerry’s research successes with the Philadelphia Police department are noteworthy. Highly trained in Geographic Information Systems, Jerry’s work with mapping crime hotspots is outstanding.

I highly recommend Jerry’s website where he provides top notch, free resources.  Lastly, Jerry’s one of the best instructors around keeping the audience engaged and providing real world examples for all of his proposed techniques

So to kick off my law enforcement posts, I highly recommend Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe for those seeking the best in law enforcement education and research.

Anti-Social Aspects of Social Media

This week, I watched an interesting video of Sherry Turkle and her TED Talk “Connected, but alone?“. She discusses the negative aspects emerging from society’s addiction to social media and mobile messaging.  Turkle was once a strong advocate for how technology could empower identity.  However, Turkle now identifies many of the downsides of our new digital life noting some of the effects she personally experiences in her relationship with a daughter:

“We’re letting [technology] take us places that we don’t want to go.”

Turkle makes several excellent points that I’ve considered at times when assessing both the new digital society and myself.  Social media can feel connecting and disconnecting at the same time.  Turkle continues on:

“We’re lonely, but we’re afraid of intimacy. And so from social networks to sociable robots, we’re designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”

I recently wrote a paper entitled “The Future of Terrorism: Treating the Disease of the Disconnected.”  One of my central points with regards to recent notions of a spike in homegrown extremism is that violence across the United States, in aggregate, is going down.  However, a good portion of the violence that remains comes in the form of homegrown violent extremism (HVE) and lone gunmen shooting up schools and workplaces.  Many of these perpetrators express their frustrations online. While trying to connect themselves to larger causes and ideologies (Brevik, Hasan, etc.), we later find that these individuals were in fact extremely alone, isolated and vulnerable.  Their violence stems as much or more from frustration over their social isolation rather than their commitment to the objectives of an extreme ideology they recently encountered online.

Turkle, I think, rightly points out that;

“If we’re not able to be alone, we’re going to be more lonely. And if we don’t teach our children to be alone, they’re only going to know how to be lonely.”

My assertion is that our attachment to social media might very well lead to more depression in American youth and subsequently more violence from previously calm segments of America. This depression will manifest itself in violent ways we have not witnessed in past generations. This new era of violence will be:

  • The result of attention seeking behavior more than ideological commitment,
  • In the form of individuals (lone wolf) more than groups,
  • Found in middle and upper socio-economic strata with access and addiction to social media (rather than poor and/or urban communities),
  • Correlated with non-traditional indicators of violence. For example, criminal history, in the past, has been a strong indicator of future criminal perpetrators.  In the isolated, social media generation, perpetrators of lone wolf violence will be less likely to have a criminal record and more likely to have a history of depression.

For law enforcement and security enthusiasts, Turkles discussion should spark conversations about what to look for in emerging violence.  Some have advocated that we should look for individuals supporting “al-Qaeda’s ideology”.  But will that really be a useful method for anticipating the social media generation’s strain of violence?

An alternative approach might instead look for 1) those places with high incidence of cyber-bullying, youth depression, high levels of prescriptions in anti-depressant drugs and 2) those reports by school security officers and private security noting behavior changes and isolation on the part of students and co-workers.

I think these alternative indicators related to the disconnect of the social media generation deserve more research.  I also believe these indicators will be more helpful (and less narrow minded) than current U.S. CVE indicator lists that are dominated by al-Qaeda jargon.  I believe there is little that separates the next 18-year old active shooter in a local high school and the wannabe 18-year old homegrown, al-Qaeda lone wolf recruited via the Internet.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Turkle’s talk and applaud her for noting caution that undermines the technology community she helped pioneer.  It would have been easier for Turkle to continue boosting technology for her own benefit rather than pointing out its weaknesses in order to help others.

Debunking the Spike in Homegrown Extremism

This week I read Dr. Risa Brooks new article “Muslim Homegrown Extremism in the U.S.: How Serious is the Threat?“.  Thank you Dr. Brooks for writing an excellent article and clear rebuttal to the incessant hand wringing over “Homegrown” extremism.  Terrorism researchers should take note of the construct of this article as much as the content.  She creates an excellent research design thoroughly discussing the hypotheses being examined.  I rarely see this in terrorism publications.  My only disappointment comes strictly from jealousy.  Dr. Brooks beat me to this topic and did a much better job researching this issue than I could have.  I highly recommend Dr. Brooks article and agree with her conclusion:

Muslim homegrown terrorism does not at present appear to constitute a serious threat to their (Americans) welfare. Nor is there a significant analytical or evidentiary basis for anticipating that it will become one in the near future.  It does not appear that Muslim Americans are increasingly motivated or capable of engaging in terrorist attacks against their fellow citizens and residents.

Will there be American-Muslim extremists in the future? Sure.

Will one of these extremists try to commit an attack? Yes.

But, on average, the threat of “homegrown extremism” is not the greatest threat to the U.S. homeland. Here are some of the reasons I agree with Dr. Brooks:

  1. The U.S. is better at counterterrorism – Brooks describes quantitatively the increase in counterterrorism resources over this past decade.  The FBI and state/local law enforcement have dramatically improved their ability to detect and interdict homegrown terrorism resulting in more arrests.  Prior to 9/11, most of today’s cases would have gone undetected.  Today, improved counterterrorism capability results in what appears to be more plots when in fact the U.S. is just successfully interdicting what was previously overlooked.  See her page 15 for a good breakdown.
  2. Counterterrorism folks find what they seek: terrorism -  If your entire purpose is to look for terrorism, then you will find terrorism.  Brooks accurately captures this phenomenon discussing the declining quality and increased volume of terrorism related matters referred by law enforcement for criminal prosecution (p.17). Brooks notes the CT “declination rate rose to 73 percent in fiscal year (FY) 2008 from 61 percent in FY 2005 and from 31 percent in 2002.”
  3. Misinterpreting data generated from infrequent, rare events -  The entire debate surrounding homegrown extremism suffers from the complications of counting rare events.  Brooks notes that the highest year for arrests occurred in 2003 with another peak in 2009 only to be followed by a mild slow down in 2010.  Additionally, many cases, such as Shabaab recruitment in Minneapolis and the Boyd network in North Carolina, result in a group of arrests resulting in what appears to be a spike. However, on average the numbers are fairly steady – and small.
  4. Lag time between extremism and action/arrest -  Some have advocated for increased Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) efforts in response to the perceived spike in “homegrown terrorism”.  Most extremist recruitment occurs over a period of time numbering in many months and often years.  A CVE program in Minneapolis to prevent the Shabaab recruitment spike of 2007 would likely have to begin in 2005 to be effective.  Going to Minneapolis today (2011) to deal with an extremism problem from 2007-2008 is pointless.  The Shabaab recruiting pool has likely been drained by now and the effort overall is about 5 years too late.
  5. Counterterrorism research incentives to find/exploit spikes – CT pundit focus on “homegrown extremism” correlates closely with their need to find a new topic.  Brook’s doesn’t address this point, but her data and discussion shows homegrown extremism to be in a relatively steady state.  CT pundit and media hype surrounding  homegrown extremism arose as discussions of Iraq dissipated.  Discussion of a Zachary Chesser type homegrown extremism case during the height of AQ in Iraq (2005-2006) wouldn’t have lasted more than a couple minutes in the news.  Bottom line: there is less to talk about in counterterrorism and thus every small-time jihadi wannabe gets ever more attention by an ever growing pool of CT pundits.

Overall, Dr. Brooks article is outstanding in every way.  Academics and researchers should be talking about it, but I imagine that won’t happen as it thoroughly undermines an industry in decline: counterterrorism.

Counterterrorism “Patternicity” Analysis

Michael Shermer’s recent TED presentation “The Pattern Behind Self-Deception” provides an excellent discussion on the weaknesses of human pattern detection.  Shermer’s description of “patternicity” reminded me of our nation’s counterterrorism analysis immediately following the 9/11 attacks.  I often joke that, “if you leave an intelligence analyst alone long enough, they’ll find Bin Laden in either Pakistan, the local mall or your basement depending on their pattern analysis.”  In counterterrorism, we always find the pattern we are looking for- whether it’s there or not.  This video should be required viewing for intelligence analysts, investigators and academics researching counterterrorism issues.

Here is a quick recap of Shermer’s key concepts.

Humans make two types of errors when attempting to identify patterns.

“Type I Error- False Positive- Believing a pattern is real when it is not (finding a nonexistent pattern)”
“Type II Error-  False Negative- Not believing a pattern is real when it is (not recognizing a real pattern)”

Patternicity is:

“The tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.”

Patternicity will occur:

“whenever the cost of making a Type I error (finding a nonexistent pattern) is less than the cost of making a Type II error (not recognizing a real pattern).”

Shermer explains how humans evolved into a default position of making Type I errors (to ensure survival) and thus tend to assume all perceived patterns are real.

Shermer’s “patternicity” lens describes the default fears of counterterrorism personnel between 2001 and about 2006.  Post 9/11, investigators, analysts, and policymakers understood the high cost of a Type II error (in Shermer speak) and thus we assumed that all screen blips, chatter increases and tan male movements were indicators of terrorist attacks.  Usually, these leads turned out to be dirt on screens, people talking excitedly about Middle Eastern soccer matches, and outdoor workers riding the bus to work (Type I errors).    Unable to think our way through the terrorism problem, the U.S. fell back on a second physiological response to uncertainty: spending.   I’ll follow up in a future post about counterterrorism spending.  For now, I encourage all those in counterterrorism to watch Shermer’s talk.  It’s been useful for me as I scan for ‘patterns’ amidst a sea of data.