On 28 July 2006, a Pakistani-American man went on a shooting rampage at the Jewish Federation in Seattle, Washington, killing one woman and injuring five others.  In a statement to an emergency dispatcher, the shooter discussed his motivation: “These are Jews and I’m tired of getting pushed around and our people getting pushed around by the situation in the Middle East.” This horrific incident illuminates the critical mission of the burgeoning open-source intelligence (OSINT) industry: monitoring global events through non-identified channels and translating them into actionable intelligence for clients, be they multinational businesses, academia, the government, or the emergency-responder community. For the past several years, OSINT experts have been translating what the shooter means by “situation in the Middle East” into a coherent context with anticipatory threat assessments. In short, OSINT aids both in the prevention of, and response to, terrorist and criminal operations.   

As demonstrated by the shooting in Seattle last month, the still unresolved crisis in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel is critical for U.S. emergency responders to understand. Use of an OSINT database will put the crisis into perspective, typically offering near-real-time updates to significant developments. OSINT can provide an informed forecast, for example, on whether Hezbollah – a more sophisticated international terrorist network than al-Qaeda is – is likely to launch terrorist attacks against Israeli interests abroad. Or perhaps against American interests, almost anywhere in the world, because of the perceived U.S. support of Israel. Incidents Both Real and Simulated In either case, such attacks would seem to be unlikely – unless or until Hezbollah leaders are assassinated or Hezbollah’s existence as an armed militia is legitimately threatened. 

Should either of these two developments occur, U.S. emergency responders would be notified through subscriptions to OSINT services. Security postures around Israeli or Jewish centers then would be heightened and security officers – now armed with additional situational awareness – would be more attuned to Transnational crime is increasing rapidly, national borders are becoming almost irrelevant, and the lessons learned can prove invaluable in the prevention of similar incidents elsewhere     suspicious behavior around high-value targets. Case studies for the preceding scenario can be drawn from the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in reprisal for the assassination of Hezbollah leader Sayyad Abbas Musawi, and from the 1994 Jewish community center bombing, also in Buenos Aires. In the latter incident, it is worth noting, the lead bomber was a former resident of Detroit, Michigan. 

The benefits derived from the use of OSINT sources may perhaps be best illustrated by imagining a hypothetical terrorist incident involving Islamic extremists exploding a so-called dirty bomb in an urban area anywhere in the world. Three benefits derived from the availability of OSINT services would immediately follow: (1) Emergency responders, specifically fire fighters and hazmat teams, would be quickly notified of continuing developments and of similar incidents that have occurred; (2) Law-enforcement agencies would be provided detailed information about the members of the organization alleged to be responsible for the attack (e.g., their nationality, motivations, modus operandi, group dynamics, and – perhaps the most important information needed – whether they take hostages or simply kill those they have captured); (3) Hospital emergency personnel would be made aware of the possibility of contaminated patients seeking treatment – and, therefore, of the need for triage centers with decontamination capabilities to be opened to receive such victims. In providing these and other notifications, it is worth pointing out, OSINT would be simultaneously supporting the emergency operations of each of the three main subtypes of emergency responders: fire fighters, law-enforcement personnel, and emergency medical service technicians.             

Independent International Expertise 

The geo-political risk services offered by OSINT do not compete with news organizations, it should be emphasized, or with domestic and international government sites; they complement them. Independent OSINT firms – with international scope – retain qualified regional and topical experts to analyze political events as they unfold and put them into a context that an action officer can use to move forward effectively to meet specific requirements and goals. Signing up for news alerts is a good start for agencies and organizations considering the use of OSINT services, but emergency responders simply require more in-depth intelligence than that. Fortunately, the FY 2006 Authorized Equipment List (AEL – the list that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) relies on for funding equipment and services) may allow first responders to use DHS Grant Program funds to purchase OSINT databases. 

In November 2005, the federal government itself recognized the utility of OSINT by standing up the national Open Source Center (OSC) in suburban Virginia not far from Washington, D.C. The OSC, which is similar in many respects to other multi-agency national intelligence centers, is built upon the legacy agency known as the Foreign Broadcast Information Service. John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence, has been quoted as describing the OSC as the “centerpiece … for the Intelligence Community to devote more attention and resources to exploiting openly available information.” 

OSINT services are both web- and email-based and require passwords or IP-recognition to access. Leading OSINT services also can be commissioned for customized, tailored reports that emphasize specific needs and interests. These services can be used by incident commanders constructing community response plans, bomb squads interested in new developments in improvised explosive device (IED) technology, customs agents learning of an imminent attempt by terrorists to cross the border, or even emergency medical personnel preparing their triage centers for a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) response. 

A Culpable Vulnerability 

OSINT providers often also release special reports and bulletins explaining late-breaking emergency news or focusing on less time-sensitive issues. Following are a few titles illustrating the scope and breadth of such reports: “Hazardous-materials trucks: terror threat?”; “U.S.-Mexican Border as a Terror Risk”; “Canada Pinches Tamil Tigers’ Pocketbooks”; and “Jihadist Recruitment in U.S. Prisons.” OSINT services have become increasingly essential for emergency responders. 

Transnational crime is increasing rapidly, national borders are becoming almost irrelevant, and the lessons learned from one incident in one part of the world can prove invaluable in the prevention of similar incidents elsewhere. What happens in one city is often plotted for or repeated in another: Madrid, London, Mumbai, and New York, to list just a few obvious examples. For these and a host of other reasons, emergency responders must be given the tools they need – particularly and specifically in the information field – to fully understand the complex issues and developments occurring globally. It may be trite, but it is nonetheless true, that there is no “safe” country anymore.

 Many countries have and/or harbor domestic and international terrorist organizations. Many have little or no control of subversive groups (which also may have cells within the United States). Many have porous and largely uncontrolled borders. And many have less than pro-U.S. agendas. Still other nations are led or governed by paramilitary enforcers controlling media and society. In short, each country is influenced by its neighbors, and for the United States to wear blinders because it shares land borders with only two other countries – both of them friendly (in most important matters) to U.S. interests – is a culpable abdication of responsibility that leaves the American people vulnerable to networks of international criminals and terrorists.


Jennifer Hardwick

Jennifer Demmert Hardwick is the Senior Director for Intelligence and Analysis at the Terrorism Research Center Inc. (TRC). She manages a web-based intelligence service that supports client decision making and global operations. TRC is a best-of-breed provider of intelligence, analysis, training, and operational support for public and private clients worldwide.

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