Getting Intelligence Collection Right: The Names Analysis Methodology

Blog | August 31, 2016


The international NATO-led military intervention in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks—and later in Iraq—brought to light the urgent necessity to change the way intelligence is gathered and processed in remote tribal territories. Classic military intelligence, which puts a heavy emphasis on orders of battle, supply lines, communications and weapons seems to have lost its primary focus, or to put it mildly, its relevance. After suffering significant losses, the U.S. military and its allies started developing new intelligence tools more suitable for present-day realities on the ground.  

The most prominent among them was the "Human Terrain System" (HTS) project, which was conceived by the U.S. Army in 2005 and continued until 2014 when the United States and NATO decided to pull most of its forces from Afghanistan and Iraq. The concept at the core of this project was that military planners should have a clear idea about the population structure and its cultural values and practices in their theaters of operations—specifically local communities—and thus, achieve better results and avoid unnecessary, tragic and deadly mistakes. Like many other concepts and methods, this one also drew a lot of criticism from many quarters.

However, the fact that the HTS did not deliver the expected products and was essentially closed down does not mean that the Socio-Cultural Analysis (CSA) methodology has lost its validity or relevance. Rather, it should be recalibrated and supplemented by additional layers of data. One should note that the areas of concern have shifted drastically since the 2011 outbreak of the "Arab Spring:" from Afghanistan and Iraq into Syria, Yemen and Libya, and since 2014—with the appearance of ISIS—into continental Europe, North America and Australia.

Instead of looking into Far Arabia and the Khyber Pass, the intelligence agencies and military planners are forced to look into their own backyards, at home. This has become even more acute after Europe was engulfed by huge waves of refugees from Africa and the Middle East, including Afghanis, Pakistanis and Kurds posing as Syrians. To this, one can add the new phenomenon of “lone wolves”—home-bred terrorists who have never traveled to fight in Syria or Iraq.

A recent report describing the way Europol is trying to assist Greece in checking on suspect immigrants by consulting its databases in the Netherlands illustrates the Achilles’ heel of this system. It seems that Europol has a list of suspect persons that can be cross-checked with the databases. But what about the common challenge of establishing the identities of those who do not have proper documentation? Also, what is the policy for dealing with persons who produce documents that are clearly counterfeit or those whose names or surnames are not in Europol's database?

Until circumstances improve, consideration may be given to the adoption of the Names Analysis Methodology (NAM). Building on certain lessons drawn from the HTS project, this method helps to establish—to a certain degree—an individual's geographic, ethnic and religious origins by analyzing his given name and/or the surname (in combination). It is not universal but is applicable in tribal societies where population mobility on a noticeable scale started only in the second half of the 20th century and where cultural norms are defined; for example, women traditionally keeping their maiden names throughout their life, irrespective of marriage or travel.

The first step is to build a consolidated list of surnames on a regional/geographic basis. The best available sources for collecting or harvesting surnames are anthropological and demographic literature, business and telephone directories, voter’s lists, parliamentarians or death announcements and obituaries, as conducted by this author in a 2014 article on the Syrian civil war.

Social media may also serve to supplement the construction of such lists, despite certain challenges pertaining to transliteration, and false identities and profiles. However, once those initial databases are developed, border control officials and intelligence officers can try to accurately verify the identities of refugees and, more capably, process them.

While such an approach would require a great deal of time and effort, is not foolproof and necessitates constant updating, it would be more inclusive than the current lists of "suspected persons" utilized by various governmental agencies and departments. NAM may also prove useful in reviewing the citizenship and refugee applications of those who have already entered European countries and in reconstructing their family and clan connections, perhaps even helping uncover persons who are on various "black" or suspects lists.

Arguably, the Human Terrain System is not dead, though it temporarily has lost its glitter. The Socio-Cultural Analysis methodology is a useful tool for understanding the unfolding chaos and conflict in countries like Syria, and helping create potentially valuable systems, like NAM, that safeguards the interests of refugees and their host countries. Ultimately, this methodology can continue to play a critical role, recognizing that it requires constant reassessment and adjustment to reflect ever-changing realities.


Ambassador (ret.) Jacob Rosen served as Israel's ambassador in Jordan (2006-2009). He is currently an independent consultant on demographic mapping and collects books about "Lawrence of Arabia."

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.