Tracking the Nigerian kidnappers

By Eliot Pence
May 14, 2014

nigeria -- candlelight vigil

Abubakar Shekau, the purported leader of Boko Haram, ignited international outrage when he announced that he would sell more than 200 of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls “in the market.” Nations around the globe offered help to Nigeria.

Getting back the more than 200 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped from school a month ago will require a deep understanding of the environment the extremist group that took them operates in.

Thanks to some new tools, and the spread of some older technologies, crucial data can be gleaned to show where the kidnappers, Boko Haram, may be holed up. Everything from cell phone usage to weapons acoustics to satellite imagery can help build a more complete picture of the group and its activities.  Possibly even a map.

nigeria -- child in signAfrica is often mistakenly seen as a “data desert.” But exponential growth in telecommunications coverage, mobile phone and Internet usage is increasingly revealing a continent rich in data and information.

Boko Haram’s shadowy structure presents a unique threat to stability throughout the region. Untangling the group — let alone freeing the girls — ­poses significant challenges to international assistance efforts and local enforcement groups seeking to extend their authority over sparsely settled lands.

New technologies that can pull together wide-ranging sources of information may prove useful in untangling the region’s terrorist and criminal groups, which form a complex network of alliances and factions.

These groups are often both part of and outside of local government systems. Because they are a product of their local environment ­– not merely an outgrowth of religious extremism — those involved in the search need to use innovative methods of more fully understand these men and their surroundings.

Technology experts in places like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, have developed new ways of gathering hyper-local information through tracking mobile phone use and other telecommunications coverage. They gather many different strands of information to help reveal new trends in human activity. They then use this data to create predictive models of community vulnerability. Non-governmental organizations have been relying on this to pin-point where humanitarian assistance and services are needed.

nigeria weaponsOne new app, Way to Safety, can identify the source of gunfire, based on acoustics and other reports. Analyzing long-term, overall patterns may help locate networks of arms traffickers — which could then help identify the source of Boko Haram’s enormous weapons and ammunition supplies.

Another innovative technology has been developed by Swift River, an outgrowth of the  third-party crisis mapping platform, Ushahidi. It gathers as many streams of data about a particular crisis event as possible and then, by applying computer algorithms, can help determine the truth and  importance of every piece of information.

Meanwhile, First Mile Geo, has devised a means to blend mobile information with on-the-ground reports to produce extremely reliable information about, for example, the safety of bread lines in opposition areas of Aleppo, Syria.

Knowing whether food staples are available also helps identify regions that are becoming vulnerable or unstable. One Silicon Valley firm, Premise, collects thousands of different prices from around the world and tracks the scarcity and quality of essential food staples to predict prices and inflation. With complicated algorithms, it can also help in predicting when and where conflict or violence might likely occur.

nigeria -- gadgetsCombining these statistics and other evidence, including satellite and drone imagery, may prove helpful in triangulating the position of terrorist groups. It can also verify information, winnowing out outliers and inconsistencies.

Consider, one reason that intelligence agencies focused on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound was because it was so incongruous. It had substantially higher walls than all adjacent structures and was worth more than $1 million. Yet it was not connected to any telecommunications infrastructure. The intelligence agencies spotted the anomaly of bin Laden’s safe house.

Even if better information about Boko Haram doesn’t solve the basic issue of who will rescue the girls and how, applying these new technologies and resources might be able to address where they might be.

 

PHOTO (TOP): People hold candles during an interfaith vigil praying for the release of the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls in the remote village of Chibok, in Lagos, May 14, 2014. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Women holding signs take part in a protest demanding the release of abducted secondary school girls from the remote village of Chibok, in Lagos, May 5, 2014.  REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Guns, ammunitions and electronic gadgets seized from suspected Islamic sect members of Boko Haram are displayed, following a raid conducted on Monday, in a military barrack in northern city of Kano, September 18, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Electronic gadgets seized from suspected Islamic sect members of Boko Haram are displayed following a raid conducted on Monday in a military barrack in northern city of Kano, September 18, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer

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