The Front Behind The Front


Interview with Cynthia Storer, Intelligence & Terrorism Analyst


THE OBSERVATION TOWER THAT WAS NOT MADE OF IVORY

Back in 2013, The Wall Street Journal did a review of the HBO documentary Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden - the movie that presents the two-decade struggle of the United States to fight the Al Qaeda terrorist organization and to catch its leader, Osama bin Laden. The Journal wrote at that time that the movie depicts "the passion, the anger, the regrets and the fearful determination" of the CIA agents with "the loneliest profession on Earth".

Quite the contrary, says Cynthia Storer, (introductory paragraph - when she spoke to us) one of the original female analysts who have been called The Sisterhood, who tracked al-Qaeda since the mid 1990s, and found Osama bin Laden in 2011 in his hide-out in Pakistan.

“We continuously worked together to analyze all the data that we were receiving from so many different sources... Information came incrementally in fragments and any bit of it could change the reality - you had to constantly collaborate, discussing the data and issues, and be extremely exact about what you knew and what you don’t know to reinforce or redesign the overall picture.”

Storer knows what she is talking about. She is a veteran intelligence analyst, having worked for more than 20 years in the CIA from the early 1990s to 2007.

“The CIA is a much more collaborative organization than one would think - everyone is talking, debating, and brainstorming about a multitude of topics, across multiple disciplines... Academics are not as collaborative as the analysts at CIA.”

HOW MANY STEPS AND STORIES AHEAD ARE WE?

This collaborative approach is transforming young students into aspiring data analysts who will be able discover – faster than expected – threat patterns. Trends such as Big Data or cloud analytics will only add to the power of counterterrorism programs.

”Terrorist organizations can use new tools, as well - they have their own computer people - but up to now they were focused more on the communications technologies so I think that we are at least one step ahead in what regards data analytics. It depends on us and the next interdisciplinary generation taking data analytics classes in college to maintain the gap or even increase it.”

For this generation to be motivated to stay ahead, documentaries such as Manhunt should not be singular cases.

“A myriad of conditions had to be met in order for the documentary to come to life. Back then and even now, people go to men to find out what happens in the world.” So Nada Bakos, Cindy Storer, Barbara Sude Susan Hasler, Gina Bennett and Jennifer Matthews were the heroes - surprising even for the audience for which Greg Barker, the director of Manhunt, created the movie. “There was a tiny number of people who were no longer in the CIA and who were willing to talk on camera back then. I was surprised when Greg approached me. But I saw in him a director interested in telling - not spinning - the story. It doesn’t have to be this story again but doing documentaries on how this field of data analysis is at the core of counterterrorism has to continue.”

GOVERNMENT.EXE - DIGITALIZATION LOADING

The change is not only happening in the intelligence agency office or the college classroom. It is emerging - even though at a slower pace - throughout government and many other instituions. Cynthia has been a speaker at many state-level IT-related conferences in the last few months and thinks that the concept of digital government is still a work in progress.

“One needs to retool an entire HR system and hire people with new skills, people who know how to work in the cloud and who can easily manage the growing amounts of data that are generated by the new data-driven cities, for example. In addition, while Big Data may seem like a major opportunity for local governments, when there is a lot of data, decisionmakers have a tendency to skip steps in the analytical process - there are inherent biases and this is why the basic analytical process elements have to be constantly reinforced. You need more analysts, not less.”

Even as these decision-making bodies are trying to manage larger and larger amounts of data, Cynthia Storer believes that movements such as citizen journalism, open data and analytics in the cloud will successfully create a collaborative bridge between them and the public because they are easier to learn and use.

THANKS TO THE WAR?

Cynthia has designed and taught undergraduate courses in Terrorism and Political Violence, Intelligence Analysis, and National Security at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina, and will be teaching in the graduate program at Johns Hopkins University in the fall, in order to prepare the generation of students that, by making use of new trends such as Big Data and new technologies such as the cloud, will in fact transform the data analysis career into one of the most collaborative professions on Earth.

National security and intelligence agencies are becoming more and more data-driven in their decision-making, but the path to this point was extremely difficult. Cynthia remembers that she and her colleagues wrote to decision makers about possible threats but they did not respond in the way she expected. She also feels that the same applies to the business world - because it’s about changing the whole business model, not just individual decisions.

“There is a difference here between wartime and peacetime. These organizations learn best how to apply data to their decisions during wartime and this process is happening especially in those special units that deal with the threat at hand. It does not always spread across the whole system after peace is reached.”

However, Cynthia feels that as more and more students graduate from prestigious schools with quantitative analysis and computer science degrees and with an interest to join the public field, a generational change is about to happen in the way these organizations work across all their departments.

REPLACING THE WHITEBOARD IN THE CLASSROOM

We are also talking about new academic methods. The last 10 years of buzz around counterterrorism have certainly given a boost to the academic field of analytics, as funding for universities and think-tanks working on research in this field increased after 9/11. The CIA even set up its own company to work with developers to create and refine data algorithms in this area.

“It would have happened anyway - but not so quickly,” Cynthia believes. “Nowadays, students have an impressive array of new technologies to analyze data in real time and they have the multi-disciplinary knowledge to do so. However, increasingly, organizations are hoarding information on the web. There are great databases on counterterrorism research, but more every day are requiring hefty fees. I had hoped that the online era would help us have an even more open society, but there is too much money to be made from the data itself, not just the analytics.”

And Cynthia Storer is pushing the limits of the new academics. She was acknowledged for developing the Ziggurat of Zealotry, a pyramid model that describes how people ascend from normalcy to terrorism, used for analyzing individuals as well as small groups or entire societies. Nowadays, she is integrating research with evolving technology to help students experience the world and the effect of their decisions within it. Having started using online city data for simulations, she is hoping to eventually incorporate RTS and RPG games to help students and researchers understand terrorism and patterns or outliers in human behavior that may drive the drift from normalcy to terrorism.

“We used to do this kind of role-play in the CIA - thinking about the world from the terrorists’ point of view - with pen, paper and whiteboards. But now the online virtual worlds offer academics a chance to explore issues in more depth, including radicalization. And these games are similar to the real world - you have to spend hours of your life planning, building strategies, deciding who to trust or when to walk way.”

Furthermore, Cynthia, working with another professor at Coastal Carolina University, had plans to incorporate motion detection devices (such as Xbox Kinnect) in her classroom to collect data on the psychology of the individual in a defined virtual environment. She is hoping to find a means to conduct this research in the future.

She is constantly diversifying her teaching methods and using new tools to analyze terrorism data. This is why we wish her good luck because she is truly preparing the next generation that will be one step ahead in solving global threats.

For more information about how real-world applications of data analytics, you can contact me through Twitter - @bimeanalytics and @tiberiu_iacomi.