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Through open source intelligence (OSINT), analysts have found critical movements of Russia’s military and an unnerving social media movement in the Middle East and North Africa. These aggregate analyses of open data help inform national security, intelligence and policymakers. OSINT is rightly experiencing a new outlook from intelligence communities in its role to play on the international and digital landscape.
How the intelligence community is changing its outlook
The U.S. intelligence community (IC) has long held that information derived from classified sources and methods is the most valuable intelligence in analytical reports. However, there has been a growing movement to recognize the value of open source information as part of the intelligence cycle. Looking first to publicly available data before leveraging exquisite capabilities is a cultural shift the IC should begin to undertake, according to former IC professionals.
The culture change will be slow, but it's enough to give some members of the field hope for a change in perspective: that OSINT can be immensely valuable for intel analysts and the policymakers they inform
“Instead of being judged on the number of reports produced, for instance, it should be based on evaluating the outcomes the reports assessed as possibilities.”— Patience Wait, Nextgov
The importance of intelligence in the gray zone
The gray zone is what’s known as the area “between routine statecraft and conventional warfare,” according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). In this unique space it becomes imperative for governments to avoid any act that could possibly be seen as escalation, making gathering routine intelligence undetected more difficult. CSIS conducted a study to make recommendations for intelligence reform as it relates to gathering data in the gray zone.
One recommendation is to employ machine learning to analyze open source information and compile reports for intelligence offers, freeing them up for more complex analysis. The risk in the gray zone is making decisions via uncertainty, making intelligence a critical component to the goals of policymakers. Developing a collaborative data catalog of OSINT is one key suggestion that could serve as a central data set for the intelligence community.
“Capturing the nuance of gray zone threats in particular requires a shift in intelligence toward more complex, long-term, and strategic-level analysis.”— Jake Herrington and Riley McCabe, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Russia’s secretive military moves
Satellite imagery and open source intelligence have helped inform a report on Russia’s moves to build up military presence on its border with Ukraine. Intelligence officials note Russia had previously made open movements of equipment and personnel to stockpile borders, the recent changes have been done more covertly under the cover of darkness.
The movements and the lack of transparency surrounding them have renewed concerns for Ukrainian and western officials alike. Operations in several new areas include near the town of Yelnya, in addition to the large-scale operations in Crimea.
“Russia has begun deploying new forces, including some of its best equipped and trained units, to the border area, to sites well outside of their normal training areas close to the border.”— Alex Ward and Quint Forgey, Politico
New social-savvy jihadists are taking note from the “alt-right”
A new generation of jihadists, armed with social media and with their life experience informed by war, have taken to the internet as “alt-jihadists.” Over the course of 2021, Wired journalist Moustafa Ayad worked with researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue to track the group’s movements across social media platforms like Discord, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. They found parallel strategies as the fringe alt-right culture in the west in the form of “truther” movements and promotions of an “ethno-state.” Even the memes the group shared across platforms were originated by the alt-right, including Pepe the Frog.
The coordinated use of internet trolling to propel the popularity of a fringe political group is a playbook that has been written by the alt-right in the United States. The use of social media to radicalize young men to extremism is one that has been seen and been disregarded before. The movement is having success on multiple platforms and in many languages and countries, all while drawing on another fringe source for inspiration and tactics.
“This is a generation that was born into a global war on terror, came of age during the rise of the Islamic State, and witnessed the Taliban taking back control of Afghanistan.”— Moustafa Ayad, Wired
Publicly available information continues to inform intelligence agencies about emerging threats, social movements and radicalizations around the world. As analysts grow savvier in their collection and utilization of OSINT, news of its return-on-investment continues to follow
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