The Unrealized Value of Open Source Intelligence for Irregular Warfare

On any given day, Facebook adds 500,000 new users, which equates to 6 new profiles every second. Five million Tweets are sent every day, roughly 5,000 tweets a second. By 2014, Google had indexed over 30 trillion internet pages, a number that continues to grow dramatically as content is generated at an exponentially increasing rate.[1] While this interconnectedness has allowed society to take great leaps forward, social media and the internet remain an ungoverned space for nefarious actors. Violent extremist organizations, criminal groups, and state actors have all taken advantage of the anonymity and access afforded by modern technology to plan, execute, and support operations, gaining relative superiority over traditional security structures.[2] As adversaries become more technologically savvy, the United States and its allies must become more adept at leveraging these trends. Open source intelligence, especially when coupled with rapidly improving big data analysis tools, which can comb through data sets that were previously too complex to derive meaningful results, has the potential to offset this growing problem, providing intelligence on enemy forces, partners, and key populations.[3]

Open Source Intelligence

In modern terms, open source intelligence means utilizing publicly and commercially available information and seeks to leverage the wealth of information easily available on the internet. Today, social media is an especially prevalent source of open source intelligence. This information includes what is publicly available, as well as the wealth of information available from companies which track user activity, which is easily accessible as commercially available information. On a website like LinkedIn, publicly available information includes everything you post and put on your profile, while commercially available information includes things like other jobs you have viewed, which is especially valuable for targeted advertising. Open source intelligence companies are also expanding their collection to new domains, like foreign social media platforms and the dark web, gathering more and more potentially useful data. Intelligence and operations are closely intertwined, particularly in irregular conflicts, where finding the enemy is one of the most difficult parts of targeting and where the allegiances of the population and the development of friendly forces are often just as important as offensive operations. This is crucial because internal conflicts usually have fence-sitters and free-riders, who attempt to avoid the negative consequences of defined allegiances while still benefiting from security and service. However, emerging supercomputing technologies matched with advanced analytical techniques present the opportunity of identifying where the support of each citizen truly lies. This potential capability lends itself to the tactics of “insurgents behind insurgents,” where a counterinsurgent must find a way inside an insurgent network, and use their information and networks against them.[4]

Open source intelligence can provide information and cueing well before many other sources at a relatively low cost and risk.

Through architectural innovation, existing technologies including social media, search engines, big data analytics, cookies, and metadata have been leveraged to create tools that can rapidly scrape intelligence from the wealth of information available on the internet, whether for commercial or military purposes.[5] Open source information can be extremely valuable in cueing intelligence collection and operations, as well as supporting target analysis and development.[6] However, modern technology has allowed open source intelligence analysis to rapidly move past its historical focus on supporting other forms of intelligence. While open source intelligence is not as capable in certain aspects as other forms of collection, it can be used to identify events, activities, and patterns that other assets are not specifically looking for. It can also be used to build an intelligence picture of a target before combining this information with other assets, especially since open source intelligence can provide information and cueing well before many other sources at a relatively low cost and risk.[7] Open source intelligence can serve as the foundation of the information pyramid going forward, enabling other forms of intelligence collection and classified tools and techniques.

Open Source Intelligence in Irregular Warfare

If we accept that irregular warfare is generally fought in various human cultures and contexts, understanding the population is the key to success.[8] For example, social network mapping can be used to build an understanding of tribal dynamics, and the tracking of hashtags can be used to gauge public opinion and attitudes as they relate to actions by the government or insurgency.[9] Admittedly, the feedback from open source intelligence will need to be carefully measured and interpreted, since social media is far from an accurate picture of populations and their beliefs, but it could identify certain trends in thinking. There is a wide range of involvement on social media in many modern populations, and this trend is growing, especially in developing countries. Without fully understanding the dynamics of social media usage and effectively linking online activity to key populations and individuals, the successful use of open source intelligence will prove far more difficult, to the point of being nearly impossible.[10]

Open source intelligence can also be effectively tied into signals intelligence, human intelligence, and imagery intelligence. Social media posts can link phones and other devices to terrorist and/or insurgent activities. This linkage analysis can also be used to build an understanding of violent extremist organization networks, linking known members of the complicated web together, while illuminating previously unknown members.[11] It can even be used to identify insurgents that geotag their location by accident.[12]

Open source intelligence can also be used to build an organizational pattern of life. A sudden drop in communication on social media could indicate a shift to different modes of communication, which can then be targeted by other assets.[13] With open source intelligence, human intelligence collection can help build an overview of the human terrain in an area of operations, allowing intelligence specialists to identify key nodes for exploitation, approach interrogations with a better understanding of suspects, and better inform the employment of operational enablers such as civil affairs and psychological operations forces. It has already been demonstrated that in the modern age a source can be identified, recruited, vetted, and developed all through the internet, thus opening the door to intelligence sources from otherwise denied areas. Linking open source intelligence with other forms of intelligence will allow more conventional surveillance and reconnaissance assets like remotely piloted aircraft and satellites to focus on key targets, rather than randomly sifting through data. This allows these limited assets to be used efficiently and places the burden of effort on linking assets to targets, rather than finding targets to collect on. This creates a new set of problems, but one that will inevitably lead to new solutions.[14]

Mindsets and Assessments

When targeting particular adversaries, it is invaluable to understand how they think. While tactics, techniques, and procedures are frequently classified or closely guarded, attitudes are more difficult to conceal. Open source intelligence gives analysts and planners a better understanding of how adversary organizations think through the thought patterns of individual members. These individual profiles can give a better understanding of the internal workings of networks than could be gained by observing official channels. The recruiting and public relations aspects of violent extremist organizations give valuable insights into the ideology of the groups, including their leadership as well as the rank and file. Most state adversaries do not publicly release strategy, planning, or tactics materials, but there is still a wealth of information available. Officers and other military professionals that are creatures of habit, products of their systems, and a reflection of the materials they study as well as their publications can provide valuable insights into the military cultures of different adversaries.[15] Even unintentional information releases or public affairs material can illuminate how opponents operate and think about their craft.

While open source intelligence will not singlehandedly solve the campaign assessment challenges facing modern military forces, it will offer a new approach to examining the impact of military operations, and understanding which way societal undercurrents of opinion are moving.

All military operations are planned and conducted to influence another actor, whether it is an adversary, ally, or neutral player. However, measuring this influence is extremely difficult. Deliberate assessment of partner forces or local populations is seldom scientific, as individuals are dynamic and often change their answers and views in order to maximize their own benefit based on the threat environment.[16] Enemy mindsets are even harder to gauge, with intercepted communications and prisoners serving as the only way of gaining insights into how an adversary might be thinking. Open source intelligence can provide indicators for changes in mindsets and behaviors that in aggregate would not be easily observable using traditional intelligence collection methods. These indicators can shed light on otherwise vague measures of effect, like confidence in the government or local trust in security forces.[17] The Islamic State and its followers are extremely adept at using social media, but this use has also allowed outside observers to gain insight into its organization and strategy. Access to social media-based communications gives planners a new tool to gauge how an enemy feels about changing circumstances and friendly actions, providing realism in what is often a theoretical endeavor. While open source intelligence will not singlehandedly solve the campaign assessment challenges facing modern military forces, it will offer a new approach to examining the impact of military operations, and understanding which way societal undercurrents of opinion are moving.


Open source intelligence is not a panacea for the intelligence community; it is best used in conjunction with other intelligence disciplines and fully integrated into operations and planning. The foundation of intelligence remains analytical tradecraft. Volume, velocity, variety, and noise are challenges to all forms of intelligence collection. Open source intelligence has the potential to fundamentally disrupt the way intelligence is collected, analyzed, and disseminated in the modern world. The civilian world led the development of many of the tools leveraged in open source intelligence with the advertising field, in particular, continuing to lead innovation. As those tools have been applied to the intelligence field, capabilities have dramatically increased. Open source exploitation of social media is one of the first steps in a collection of architectural innovations that may fully leverage the increasing interconnectivity of society toward the conduct of modern warfare. Working through legal issues of using this information and understanding the capabilities and limitations of information on social media will be required to continue this process. However, the U.S. must fully integrate the open source intelligence approach into military operations and strategy if it wants to be successful in 21st century warfare. The technology to facilitate this advance already exists in the data collection methods and algorithms used every day for targeted advertising by companies like Facebook and Google. Through online searches and spending habits, advertisers can send you an ad for just the right cruise ship to just the right vacation spot, in just the right economic bracket, without you ever realizing your information was being collected and analyzed. If these websites can reach this level of detail simply from online activity, imagine the impact this understanding of the human environment could have on battlefields such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Riley Murray is a U.S. Air Force officer and recent graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force Academy, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] Smith, Kit. "96 Amazing Social Media Statistics and Facts." Brandwatch. June 05, 2017. Accessed November 05, 2017.

[2] Gregg, Aaron. "For This Company, Online Surveillance Leads to Profit in Washington's Suburbs." The Washington Post. September 10, 2017.

[3] Blanken, Leo James., Hy S. Rothstein, and Jason J. Lepore. Assessing War: The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure. Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2015.

[4] Walker, J. B. (Buddhika B. Jayamaha), Nightcap at Dawn: American Soldiers' Counterinsurgency in Iraq, Skyhorse Publishing. Kindle Edition, 2012 Kindle Location 541.

[5] Ibid.

[6]  Sather, Jon. "The Tools of Intelligence Analysis Are Getting Smarter." Stratfor Worldview. October 06, 2017. Accessed October 09, 2017.

[7] United States. Department of Defense. Headquarters, Department of the Army. ATP 2-22.9 Open Source Intelligence.

[8] Kilcullen, David. The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. London: C. Hurst & (Publishers), 2017.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Nicks, Denver. “New Zealander ISIS Fighter Accidentally Tweets Secret Location,” TIME, January 1, 2015,

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ponder-Sutton, Agate M. "The Automating of Open Source Intelligence." Automating Open Source Intelligence, 2016, 1-20. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-802916-9.00001-4.

[15] Heuser, Beatrice, and Eitan Shamir. Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies: National Styles and Strategic Cultures. Cambridge: United Kingdom, 2016.

[16] Gartner, Scott Sigmund. Strategic Assessment in War. Yale University Press, 1997.

[17] Blanken, Leo James., Hy S. Rothstein, and Jason J. Lepore. Assessing War: The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure. Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2015.