Small Wars Journal

Viral Targeting of the IED Social Network System

Wed, 03/28/2007 - 6:02am
The following is a summary of an article that will appear in Volume 8 of the Small Wars Journal online magazine to be published in April. Scott Swanson is an intelligence specialist who advises military and government special projects in the area of irregular warfare and counterinsurgency. He can be reached at


Viral Targeting of the IED Social Network System

By Scott Swanson

Extremist groups, insurgents, and resistance elements continue to use Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) to attack coalition forces to thwart "infidel Crusaders'" occupation activities and assault rival sectarian factions. The effective and low-cost IED weapon in Iraq hides as a tool created within an elusive social network system and its use will persist in opportunistic attacks if the status quo does not shift. This IED system further devastates Iraq with evolving ambush accuracy and component sophistication, creates supply-chain income opportunities within the community, and beckons the youth who require a social-psychological outlet. Regrettably, IEDs will continue to be a weapon to channel the three "Rs" attributed to insurgencies: resentment, resistance, and revenge, unless social improvements can be rapidly implemented or the supporting networks can be debilitated.

Cutting off the regenerative hydra- heads of disparate insurgent networks is nearly impossible. Excessive direct action without timely intelligence runs the risk of civil infringements and insurgent propaganda opportunities. Capture and kill counter-IED solutions being used today have significant counter-effects of alienating and angering many Iraqis. The perceived social infractions create more discontent within the Iraqi communities and increases resistance participation.

Iraq's IED use persists as a highly effective weapon against coalition forces. Many counter-IED solutions appear to be focused on reactive tactics (sniffers, frequency jammers, convoy procedure changes, etc.) and conventional mindset, with an outcome of specific incident successes. To change the counterinsurgency advantage, a full understanding of the IED's complex system is required to shift from reactive conventional approaches to more aggressive small-war initiatives that stun and damage the IED sources.

Most reading this would agree that social networks enable resistance activities, and outsider military forces soon find an inability to penetrate tight family, tribe, and clan relationships. The IED system in Iraq leverages this network requiring a solution to destroy elusive alliances from within without adding to insurgency growth. Viral network penetration built on adversarial insights is a disruptive tool that can change COIN targeting.

This seemingly germ-warfare associated "viral" attack does not actually use bio weaponary but is built on similar physiological weaknesses.

In short, social and psychological information operations are conducted to push misperceptions and rumor carried by a human communication "virus" in a lytic cycle similar to a biological or computer system attack. The virus is created by a contrived solution that directly correlates to the target and damages or ostracizes the group from within. While it damages individuals' credibility and trust, it also decelerates the flow of knowledge and information, creates some bottlenecks, and reduces IED innovation enablers.

Viral targeting is highly effective in counterinsurgency for a number of reasons. First of all, it directly concentrates on the human factors that are involved in resistance activities: demographics, culture, tribes, clans, class, ethnicity, and key actors. Second, threats are often indistinguishable between insurgents, active/tacit supporters and general population, so a solution must not inflict irreparable "friendly casualties" to incite more sympathy towards resistance. Third, and only the final for this particular argument, is the targeting follows decentralized operations that can slip outside of pattern and incident network analysis used to formulate typical COIN tactical missions. All of these reasons are contrary to most Conventional Operations and a conventional solution to the current IED threat.

The white paper, "Viral Targeting of the IED Social Network System" assesses the IED system and further defines this unconventional method of disruption.