On the Utility of Link Charts
Intelwire recently published a fascinating link chart: Anwar al-Awlaki’s “social network.” I hope they permit my reposting the image here:
This chart is meant to catalog “Awlaki’s current social and inspirational connections to terrorism,” as part of an effort to “illustrate some of his reach and influence.” It is revelatory for several reasons: for one, it shows that Awlaki is something of a hub, but not a node for terrorist activity (in the sense of he seems to connect to loners more than networks for action). For another, he’s just not very good at planning terrorist attacks (which makes it so puzzling that Janet Napolitano would sound the alarm over AQAP, of which Awlaki is middle management).
This chart, however, is also limiting in many ways. This is, in part, because of the assumptions behind it—it doesn’t help us understand who influences or inspires Awlaki himself, for example. Anwar al-Awlaki is more than just a terrorist, he is a person operating in an environment native to his family. Nasser al-Awlaki, Anwar’s father, has been begging the media to stop “demonizing” his son. It is an understandable thing for a parent to not want to believe the worst about his child; but does this make Nasser an accessory to Anwar’s terrorism?
Obviously it does not. But if Anwar’s own father has a hard time publicly condemning his son for terrorism, what of the rest of the Awlaki tribe? What of the communities the Awlaki’s call home? If they are not constraining Anwar’s terrorist activities, should they be included in his social network of aspirational terror ties? What if they’re encouraging Anwar’s militancy, since people in Shabwa tend to vehemently oppose the government in Sanaa?
These are the sorts of expansive questions one must ask when building a network of a single figure’s ties, influences, and targets. Anwar al-Awlaki is not a single figure, standing astride a vast network of eager empty-vessel recruits awaiting radicalization and instructions. He is the product of a system, an environment of factors that inspire, shape, and just as importantly constrain his rhetoric and activities. We in the U.S. have no idea what those really are: we don’t know who his closest friends are, we don’t know what his family tells him in person, we don’t know who either inspires or discourages him in conversation and in his reading and research.
In other words, we lack information that is critical to understanding his exact motivations and capabilities and intent. Yet, for some reason, we feel very comfortable assigning him tremendous importance and blame in both regional and global terrorist circles… based on little more than after-the-fact dot connecting that may or may not reveal useful information about his ties and activities. Until we close that gap, and start researching the relevant social and environmental factors that shape Awlaki’s decision-making process (and thus, by extension, AQAPs), we will continue to grasp in the dark, not knowing what will come next.