Paulo Shakarian has an algorithm that might one day help dismantle al-Qaida — or at least one of its lesser affiliates. It's an algorithm that identifies which people in a terror network really matter, like the mid-level players, who connect smaller cells with the larger militant group. Remove those people, either by drone or by capture, and it concentrates power and authority in the hands of one man. Remove that man, and you've broken the organization.
The U.S. military and intelligence communities like to congratulate themselves whenever they've taken out a terrorist leader, whether it's Osama bin Laden or Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the bloodthirsty chief of al-Qaida in Iraq. Shakarian, a professor at West Point's Network Science Center who served two tours as an intelligence officer in Iraq, saw first-hand just how quickly those militant networks regrew new heads when the old ones were chopped off. It became one of the inspirations for him and his colleagues at West Point to craft an algorithm that could truly target a terror group's weak points.
"I remember these special forces guys used to brag about how great they were at targeting leaders. And I thought, 'Oh yeah, targeting leaders of a decentralized organization. Real helpful,'" Shakarian tells Danger Room. Zarqawi's group, for instance, only grew more lethal after his death. "So I thought: Maybe we shouldn't be so interested in individual leaders, but in how whole organizations regenerate their leadership."