Can the high-tech hunt for terrorists stop lone wolf attacks?

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GWEN IFILL: This coming weekend marks 15 years since the 9/11 attacks. We will spend time in the coming days showing how the U.S. is pursuing its campaign against terrorism, also the state of the war in Afghanistan and the lives of its people.

But we begin first with the first of a two-part series from Miles O’Brien on the technological evolution of terrorism and those who fight it. It’s the focus of the film he produced for the PBS program “NOVA” premiering tomorrow night, “15 Years of Terror.”

Tonight, an inside look at the changing face of counterterrorism.

MILES O’BRIEN: This is the room 9/11 built, the operations center at the National Counterterrorism Center just outside Washington, D.C.

NICK RASMUSSEN, National Counterterrorism Center: On a 24/7 basis, we have officers here working in shifts who are consuming, reading, analyzing, and assessing every bit of available information that there is to try to figure out what terrorist threats are aimed at the United States.

MILES O’BRIEN: Nick Rasmussen is the director here. The agency itself, and this room in particular, were created to encourage the myriad of intelligence, military and law enforcement organizations involved in national security to share classified information.

This is where they try to connect the dots.

NICK RASMUSSEN: So, there are probably officers at NCTC from 17 or 18 different government organizations all across the government. Basically, every three- or four-letter agency that you could probably name, we probably have somebody here at NCTC serving from that organization on a one- or two- or three-year assignment.

MILES O’BRIEN: The nature of the work here has changed dramatically in recent years.

MAN: These folks can get radicalized by one group and the baton can be passed to another group.

WOMAN: The FBI had this man on its radar as early as 2013.

MILES O’BRIEN: More lone wolves, fewer face-to-face meetings and phone calls, the Internet as a source of inspiration and planning.

MAN: Self-radicalization doesn’t have to take many months or many years.

NICK RASMUSSEN: Increasingly, what connecting the dots means to me is dealing with the huge, huge volume of publicly available or open source or unclassified information that’s out there that may have terrorism relevance.

And the work we’re doing now with our partners in the intelligence community often doesn’t involve really, really sensitive intelligence. It involves looking at Twitter or looking at some other social media platform and trying to figure out who that individual behind that screen name, behind that handle might actually be and whether that person poses a threat to the United States.

MILES O’BRIEN: The term of art in the world of espionage is SOCMINT, social media intelligence, open source spying.

JEFF WEYERS, Ibrabo: Anybody can track a war online, can track a terrorist group online, can develop informants and contacts online.

MILES O’BRIEN: Intelligence analyst Jeff Weyers is expert at gleaning intelligence from social media. His operations center is his living room.

The data is hiding in plain view. All it takes is patience, persistence and a little bit of technical know-how to find it. For instance, many Islamic State fighters do not disable the geographic tracking capability built into their mobile phones.

JEFF WEYERS: Some, I think, do it by error, so that they don’t realize that their phone is broadcasting the information, or they simply don’t care. So, when we look at Raqqa and Mosul over the last year, there was lots of content, lots of geolocated content coming out of those areas.

MILES O’BRIEN: The technology makes it easy for anyone to track a terrorist.

JEFF WEYERS: If he broadcasts from Raqqa, and then I again see him in Turkey, and then I again see him moving into Europe, well, this is a way that we can potentially interdict with somebody that may be looking to do an attack.

MILES O’BRIEN: That, combined with some selfies, might provide plenty of intelligence needed for targeting.

JEFF WEYERS: If you are looking for a drone attack, and you’re seeing where they’re going for morning coffee, Twitter could tell you.

MILES O’BRIEN: When it comes to terror, the problem isn’t a lack of data. It is separating the wheat from the chaff.

NICK RASMUSSEN: If you look at the Orlando shooting or Baton Rouge or the recent cases in Germany and France, just because the government has all this data doesn’t mean they have the capacity to analyze all that data.

So, how do you then go and make a determination as to whether that person poses a threat to the public.

MILES O’BRIEN: With so many electronic bread crumbs scattered out in the open, couldn’t it be possible for computer scientists to harness the right combination of software and hardware to find them…

TOM CRUISE, Actor: All right, Howard Marks, where are you?

MILES O’BRIEN: … and make pre-crime arrests, as depicted in the 2002 movie “Minority Report.”

TOM CRUISE: I’m placing you under arrest for the future murder of Sarah Marks and Donald Dubin that was to take place today, April 22, at 0800 hours.

MILES O’BRIEN: Provocative, dark science fiction now, but maybe not forever.

At the University of Maryland, computer scientist V.S. Subrahmanian is applying a big data approach to fighting terror. He is trying to put more objective analysis into decisions about which terrorists to target.

V.S. SUBRAHMANIAN, University of Maryland: I’m a scientist, and when somebody says we degraded al-Qaida by taking person X out, if I can’t measure it, I don’t believe it.

MILES O’BRIEN: He and his team focused on the Islamic terror organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group responsible for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, a dozen coordinated shootings and bombings lasting four days that killed more than 160 people.

V.S. SUBRAHMANIAN: So, what you see here is the terrorist network corresponding to the terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba. And each node that you see here corresponds to an individual.

MILES O’BRIEN: They compiled 21 years of data on the group and its actions. All of it is fed into some sophisticated software, an algorithm, that he calls STONE, for Shaping Terrorist Organization Network Efficacy.

It’s a schematic of a terrorist network, identifying individuals, subgroups and affiliations. The software assigns a number to measure the lethality of the terror organization, the higher the number, the more dangerous the group is.

V.S. SUBRAHMANIAN: Let’s take a look at the leader of the group here, number one. If you right-click on him, we will see some information about him.

MILES O’BRIEN: He is Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, a man with a $10 million bounty on his head.

V.S. SUBRAHMANIAN: Let’s pretend we are in the role of an analyst and we’re considering the consequences of targeting him and removing him from the network.

MILES O’BRIEN: Here’s what surprising: The software predicts, if you take out the boss, the lethality of the terror group actually goes up.

V.S. SUBRAHMANIAN: You may be faced with a situation where the new leader is either much more aggressive about carrying out operations or much better liked or much more competent in carrying out those operations.

MILES O’BRIEN: But what would happen if Saeed’s three top deputies were all taken out? The number goes way down. Lashkar-e-Taiba becomes much less of a threat.

V.S. SUBRAHMANIAN: You can have a much more efficient counterterrorism operation that significantly weakens a group by targeting just the right people.

MILES O’BRIEN: So, could the same software one day predict an attack? Is it possible to identify surefire signals of trouble ahead? Sort of.

V.S. SUBRAHMANIAN: We could have predicted the Mumbai attacks. However, we could not have predicted exactly where they would have occurred. So, we can say things like, we expect these kinds of targets to be hit in the next one, two, three, four months, but we cannot say, this specific target will be hit in the next one, two, three, four months.

MILES O’BRIEN: Not as accurate as a hurricane prediction, but human nature may be the perfect storm of unpredictability.

Miles O’Brien, the “PBS NewsHour,” College Park, Maryland.

GWEN IFILL: And tune in tomorrow night, when Miles continues his look at the efforts to stem the tide of terrorism online and asks what social media platforms can and should do. You can watch his entire film, “9/11: 15 Years of Terror,” on “NOVA” Wednesday night.

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