Searching for Saddam: A five-part series on how social networking led to the capture the Iraqi dictator.

The social network that caught a dictator.
Feb. 22 2010 8:06 AM

Searching for Saddam

A five-part series on how the U.S. military used social networking to capture the Iraqi dictator.

(Continued from Page 2)

By June, insurgent attacks began to pick up speed and ferocity. Bradley Fighting Vehicles were struck by RPGs and a brazen attack on a military building left 19-year-old military police officer Pfc. Jesse Halling dead. The worst seemed yet to come. The Republican Guard in the area had not engaged with coalition troops during the first phase of the war, leaving abundant supplies of weapons and people willing to use them.

James Hickey. Click image to expand.
Col. James Hickey

In mid-June, Col. James Hickey took command of the 1st BCT and prepared for a major series of raids, known as Operation Desert Scorpion. Hickey's goal was not simply to kill or capture as many insurgents as possible. The archetypal warrior-scholar, Hickey holds advanced degrees in diplomacy, public policy, and Russian. "War is a thinking man's game," he told me in his office at the Pentagon. This war effort, Hickey emphasized to his troops, was foremost about reconnaissance: Who were all these insurgents, and where were they coming from?

Diagnosing the insurgency in these early stages proved close to impossible. While the 1st BCT's intelligence shop had gathered a great deal of information about individual bad guys, nobody had put it together into a coherent picture. Hickey wasn't pleased. What he needed, the colonel told his intelligence officer, Maj. Stan Murphy, was a chart that showed the personal relationships of everyone they captured or wanted to capture.

Saddam Chart.

This chart would become a social network diagram of the bad guys in Tikrit. The lines connecting their faces delineated who belonged to which of several influential families, how those families were intertwined by marriage, and who among them connected directly to Saddam Hussein. As Desert Scorpion continued over the next several months, the diagrams ballooned into sprawling networks. They showed no explicit hierarchy since none existed. Unlike in a traditional organizational chart, The Butcher of Baghdad was not at the top of this diagram. He was at the center, a yellow dot labeled "Saddam Hussein."

This shift in thinking about how the enemy organized itself was a long time coming in the Army. Through World War II, the U.S. military was accustomed to fighting an enemy structured like we are, making combat a clash of egos between generals. Prof. David Segal, an expert on military sociology at the University of Maryland, recalls the scene in Patton when the general, having beaten back a Panzer division, reacts angrily when he is informed that his archrival Erwin Rommel was not present due to "severe nasal diphtheria." While that brand of warfare might be 65 years old, Segal maintains that the American military perpetually refights "the last war we liked." In that model, the enemy is always organized in a hierarchy, like in this 1945 organizational chart of the Nazi military from a contemporary U.S. handbook.

Hitler chart.

Modes of warfare have evolved since 1945, of course, but the vertical image of the enemy has persisted. Part of the trouble is that, until very recently, soldiers received very little exposure to sociology—a subject that views a group of people more like a blob or a network than a totem pole. As Joint Forces Quarterly laid out in a 2005 article (PDF), the military had almost none of this in its curriculum at the time of the Iraq invasion. Most of the soldiers I spoke with said they had little or no formal training in network theory—they built their social networks by instinct, moving around the faces when intelligence revealed an unknown connection. (It didn't hurt, though, that one influential officer—Maj. Brian Reed, who we'll meet in the second part of the series tomorrow—had a masters degree in sociology.)

The Fat Man.
The Fat Man

Social networks have two fundamental units, nodes and edges. In a visualization of one's Facebook friends, for example, every node would be a person and every edge would indicate a friendship. (Incidentally, Saddam was captured about three months before Facebook was founded.) In a network of your friends, you'd be at the center—everyone would be connected to you. Of course, everyone would not be connected to everyone else. Your friends from school would exist in one highly connected clique, your friends from work in another. There would also be some unexpected connections; perhaps a co-worker went to high school with a friend from college. (You can see a visualization of your Facebook friends here.)

What Hickey was looking for were those unexpected connections—surprising bonds that might eventually lead to Saddam Hussein. As the Saddam social network came together, it started looking a lot like the New York Mafia. There were five families in Tikrit with close ties to Saddam's operation: the Hasans, Majids, Musslits, Hadooshis, and Heremoses.   It was this network, as well as a similar one maintained by the special operations forces in the area, that would eventually lead them to the "Fat Man," and from there to Saddam. To get there, they were going to have to start banging down doors.

Read Part 2: Saddam Family Photos.