A Thoughtful, Analytical Approach to NGO Security

Twitter and disinformation in Iran

Over the past week there has been a lot of media coverage of the relationship between Twitter, the hybrid online/mobile communication service, and its impact on post election events in Iran. The argument that Twitter service in Iran is a critical opposition activist tool is already over-hyped so I won’t rehash them here. Rather, I think its worth shedding some light on how Twitter is being used to spread disinformation and who is doing it.

Twitspam has a continually updated list of suspected fake accounts that may have connections with Iranian security. I used some of these account names as a starting point for a quick and dirty analysis of their networks.

Suspected AlJazeera English producer impersonator “AJE_Producer” appears to be trying to lure Twitter users in Iran into communicating with him directly through email or telephone with the intent of entrapping them. The diagram below illustrates how easily the suspected impostor was able to disseminate his requests for contacts. It shows only recent ‘active’ direct connections between AJE_Producer and twenty Twitter users and the recent active connections between those twenty users and their contacts. It does not show retweets nor does it reflect how many people may have simply read a message from AJE_Producer.

AJE Producer Twitter connections
AJE_Producer network

Although some of the connections are from people trying to challenge AJE_Producer’s methods there were a surprising number of people who took AJE_Producer at face value including some who actually appeared to be residing in Iran. Given the current level of violence in Iran this is alarming to say the least.

Expanding the network of connections one iteration further gives a somewhat rosier picture. The chart below shows AJE_Producer’s (center of chart) deception being overshadowed by a number of well connected Twitter users (top of chart) who appear to be trying to out AJE_Producer and other fake Iran election Tweeters.

AJE Producer tertiary connections
AJE_Producer extended network

Analysing the Twitter networks of other disinformation purveyors from Twitspam’s list highlights some developing tactics. Iransource and iransource45 are likely the same person. The content of the tweet streams is remarkably similar and composed mostly of overt propoganda. These two entities dominate the chart below because they send tweets directly to other Twitter users and reply to queries. Their relatively innocuous names may be an attempt to reassure potential followers. It is interesting to see the cluster of five anti-spammers trying to counter them.

Centrality view of Iranian Twitter disinformation network
Iranian Twitter disinformation network overview

If we take a closer look at the network on the bottom left we can see a different tactic developing. Ebrahim Ansari (AKA Persian_Guy) uses fake retweets to spread disinformation and confusion. Essentially he is putting his words in the mouths of other users, both real and imagined. The AhmediNej accounts are primarily used to retweet Ebrahim’s content, probably in an attempt to bypass users trying to block obvious proganda. They don’t have a lot of active connections, likely because the account names themselves are so obviously inflammatory.

Twitter disinformation closeup view
Close-up view showing AhmedNej and Ebrahim Ansari networks

For the moment it appears that activists in Iran have the edge when it comes to making use of Twitter to get their message out . However the propagandists are trying to close the gap. They hope to trap gullible users, spread disinformation, and create distrust.

If you want to counter them I suggest you go to Twitspam and block the those on the “
Obvious Disinfo” list. Certainly you should not retweet anything from these people.

Qwam System Charts

A while ago I was struggling to understand influence and social connections in Afghanistan. It seemed to me that more than a few Afghans in positions of authority had trusted contacts on both sides of the conflict. It was something I didn’t really understand until I came across references to the Afghan Qwam (or Qaum) system.

I can’t claim any great insight beyond the simplistic explanation that a Qwam is a shifting solidarity network that exists for the benefit of the group and its members. Qwams compete with one another for influence and resources but there is also competition within the group. It appears that Qwams, at least in Afghanistan’s current fractured society, cut across family, tribal, and even ethnic boundaries.

Afghan Qwam Clip

In an effort to better understand the Qwam concept I mapped some connections in Analyst’s Notebook. Since I never used them for anything beyond my own efforts at understanding I’m making them available here. Maybe some of you smart types out there can make better use of it.

Qwam - Analyst’s Notebook version
Qwam - .pdf version

Maps - Aid worker fatalities in 2008

View Larger Map
Map - Humanitarian Aid Worker Fatalities - 2008

Aid Worker Fatalities in 2008 - Heat Map
Heat Map - Violence Related Fatal Incidents - 2008

Strategic Implications of Global Health

Thanks to Sources and Methods for digging up this resource hidden in the bowels of the NIC servers.

The NIC’s Strategic Implications of Global Health paper is chock full of useful health statistics, predictions, maps and charts.

Print out the map, pin it up over your desk, and use it to explain to the new contractor that he really does need medical evacuation insurance before he heads off to Nepal.

World Health Care Capabilities map

Projected Deaths by Cause for High, Middle, and Low Income Countries

Links: Full Report - Health Care Capabilities fold out.

Somali 'Green Zone' won't improve aid worker security

AU soldiers guard port in Mogadishu
Photo by David Axe Some rights reserved.

A couple of days ago Peter at The Road to the Horizon asked me what I thought of the proposal by the UN envoy to Somalia for a Baghdad-style Green Zone in Somalia. Since I don’t know all the reasons the UN might want a green zone I’ll stick to the question of whether or not a green zone type base would enhance aid worker security in Somalia.

So do I think a Somali green zone could make humanitarian staff safer? No, at least not appreciably so and certainly not cost effectively.

Here is why:

Soldiers required: A Somali green zone would require competent armed troops to protect the perimeter and man the gates. Who would do this? The Somali army is virtually non-existent and lets face it, foreign troops aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms in Somalia. Even if a troop-contributing nation could be found there would still be the issue of feeding the perception of a link between military forces and humanitarian assistance.

Attack magnet: A green zone would become a magnet for attacks just as the original Green Zone was. Even if groups like al-Shabab decided to give up attacks on aid workers they are still going to attack the soldiers manning the facility. Every deluded suicide bomber and wannabe Jihadist would be drawn to this symbolic target.

Exclusivity: It won’t protect Somali aid workers who do most of the direct implementation. After a long day of work in the field they’ll still be returning to their family homes… outside the green zone.

It won’t protect field staff: Ibrahim Hussein Duale and Mohamud Omar Moallim were both killed while they were working in the field. A green zone wouldn’t have saved them. Nor would it protect any other staff going to do actual implementation in the local communities.

It will be a prison: While a green zone might provide some protection to international mangers and such but they will still be almost as cut off from the ground reality of Somalia as they are now in Nairobi.

Culturally inappropriate security: A green zone would not do anything to increase local acceptance of foreign aid organizations. In order for NGO security measures not to risk reducing acceptance they need to be culturally and socially appropriate for the local context. Giant HESCO Bastion barriers are just not part of Somali culture tradition.

It’s a money sink: The problem with protective security measures is that they quickly become obsolete in the presence of a determined attacker. Build thicker blast walls and they will build bigger car bombs. Each escalation requires more spending on security measures.

All in all I think a green zone would isolate and reduce the acceptance of international aid staff, blur the line between military and humanitarian response, waste money and do nothing to make aid workers safer.

Why are ambulances targeted in Gaza?

After last weeks killing or a paramedic in Gaza I found myself wondering how and why such incidents happen. Sure, being a medic in Gaza is dangerous work. They place themselves in harms way in order to save others and unfortunately crossfire doesn’t discriminate.

Could there be other reasons for attacks on ambulances and medics in Gaza? The video link below suggests there is. Watch it carefully. What do you see?

If this video is in fact what it purports to be there is cause for concern. First is that the ambulances seem to show up before the violence starts. They don’t appear to be responding to an incident. Rather, they seem to know in advance that trouble is coming. How neutral and impartial are you if you become the de facto medical support for one side?

Second and more important is the issue of the ambulance itself. The ambulance is clearly marked as such and even has UN markings. Despite this the gunmen are clearly using it as transportation. Using ambulances to transport combatants is a violation of the Geneva Convention.

It doesn’t take many incidents like this to lose the acceptance that humanitarian organizations depend upon to ensure their safety and security.

A Short History of Congo

Thanks to kiwanja for pointing out this excellent videographic mapping of the war in Congo. It maps the relationship between the war, raw resources, and militias.

Women, War, Aid and Reconstruction in Afghanistan

I just ran across this interview with Kathy Ullyott, Homemakers Magazine’s editor-in-chief. I had the pleasure of meeting Kathy during her visit to Kabul. She struck me as thoughtful and perceptive. This interview does nothing to change that opinion. If you want an understanding of the challenges in Afghanistan that extends deeper than ‘body count’ headlines you owe it to yourself to take the time to listen to all six parts of the interview.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

You can also find a three part text transcript of the interview with additional photos at Digital Journal 1, 2. Part 3 should be out shortly.

Terrorism Fatalities


The above chart is based on information from the MIPT Terrorism database. Unfortunately the database does not segregate aid worker fatalities.

N.B. The figures for 2007 only include the first three quarters for the year.

Ahmed Rashid on Afghanistan and Pakistan

Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid discusses the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan with Charlie Rose. This video is a timely summary of the region’s difficulties.

Frontline - Are the Taliban Winning?

In this video from the Frontline Club reporter Hamida Ghafour and author Ahmed Rashid discuss if the Taliban are set to regain control in Afghanistan or if they are they being slowly marginalised.

Human Security Brief 2007 - We Are Winning!

The Human Security Brief 2007 has been released. It challenges the conventional doom and gloom we've become so used to hearing. Maybe, just maybe, the voices of reason are winning.

Number of Reported Battle-Deaths from State-Based Armed Conflict by Type, 1946-2006

You can also listen to a webcast of Andrew Mack's press conference to discuss the report. Sorry but you'll need RealPlayer. Note to UN - why can't you use a non-proprietary format?

The Taliban and Propaganda of the Deed

The Insurgency Research Group has an excellent analysis of the significance of the Taliban attack on Sunday's Afghan National Day parade. The whole post is worth reading but don't do it yet. Read the following paragraph first and then watch the No Comment TV video.

The incident on Sunday demonstrates a classic propaganda of the deed partnership in which the insurgents with growing skill select a media-significant target and with witless incomprehension international reporters beam the most sensationally damning images of the event around the world so as to deliver the worst possible interpretation. There is no need for a Taliban subtext or even a photo caption, the images speak powerfully for themselves sending messages of a stricken regime put to flight in their gilded uniforms by the daring fighters of the Taliban.

OK. Now go ahead and read the whole post.

Black Swan Lessons - The Unknown Unknown

For a brief period, while I was an analyst, I worked for a General who was inclined to say, “tell me what you know, tell me what you think you know, and tell me what you don’t know”. Of course he missed a category of information. It was what we later came to call the ”unknown unknown”. Nicholas Taleb refers to this category of information as silent evidence. It is the vast body of information that we are not aware of, and even worse, are not aware that we are not aware of it.

Does this matter to the NGO security analyst? Of course! If we fail to acknowledge the existence of silent evidence we fool ourselves into believing we know the world better than we really do. We track incidents and develop models to try and predict the future without thought to how incomplete our models are. Worse, if we are naïve enough to believe our models we unknowingly leave ourselves exposed to future unknown risks.


Lesson Learned: I don’t know as much as I think I do. No matter how much information I have the vast bulk of it, the hidden silent evidence, remains below the surface. From this morass of unseen circumstance can spring forth all manner of unanticipated surprises.

Learning Lessons from a Black Swan

Over the past few weeks I've been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable". It has been a very difficult read for me. Not so much because his ideas are complicated... they are, but Taleb explains them very well. No, my difficulty has been that the book challenges, even destroys, ideas that I have long held dear.

I've learned (maybe I should say I'm trying to learn) a lot from Black Swan. Taleb's ideas are changing my view of the nature of knowledge, analysis, and prediction. Over the next few posts I hope to outline some of the lessons that I think NGO security officers can take from this book. It won't be easy and I'm sure that I'll get a lot wrong.

For this post however, I'll take the easy way out. This video clip is of the Taleb himself, explaining the term "Black Swan".

Other Stuff

Subscribe to Patronus in a feedreader
Subscribe to Patronus Analytical RSS Feed by Email

Low on bandwidth? Try this low graphics version

Lijit Search

Bloggers' Rights at EFF Global Voices: The World is Talking, Are You Listening?

Support CC - 2007

Creative Commons License
This work by Kevin Toomer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.
Jun 2008
May 2008
Apr 2008
Mar 2008
Feb 2008
Jan 2008
Dec 2007
Nov 2007
Oct 2007
Sep 2007
Aug 2007
Jul 2007