Slate.com is running a remarkable series this week on the hunt for Saddam Hussein, and how enterprising soldiers used their passion for social networking theory to track down the fugitive Iraqi dictator. According to Slate, the US Army didn’t start making progress on the mission until they stopped looking for the high-ranking Ba’ath party bureaucrats on the infamous deck of cards and started hunting for cousins, in-laws, and fishing buddies of the people who were hiding Hussein:
The reason social network diagrams are essential to counterinsurgency, [Army interrogator Staff Sgt. Eric] Maddox says, is that they help you predict what will happen when someone like [insurgent leader and former Hussein bodyguard]Rudman Ibrahim Omar al-Musslit gets killed or captured. By studying the relationships between potential targets, it’s possible to make an educated guess about how the network will shift — most importantly, who will move up in the ranks—when someone is eliminated. “If you know all the relationships,” Maddox said — marriages, family ties, who drinks together — “then the network does not behave irrationally.”
But as so often happens in the government and military, Maddox’s unusual approach to counterinsurgency was viewed by some of his bosses and colleagues as a waste of time:
It wasn’t an easy sell to pick up two people because they were the alleged friends of a friend of Saddam. […] The team’s analyst, “Kelly,” […] put it in blunt terms: “Look,” he said with an edge in his voice. “You keep going down on this f****** link diagram and we’ll never get anywhere. We’re supposed to be working our way up. But you’re just adding names to the bottom of the list.”
The first four entries in the sprawling, interactive series can be found here. The fifth and final article is due to run tomorrow.