- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2004

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — Terrorism takes brains.

You don’t need political influence, military might or economic resources to plant bombs or take hostages; but without brains, terrorism is nothing more than random violence.

Consider the September 11 attacks. It required a force of only 20 men armed with box cutters, yet it was so meticulously planned and keenly attuned to global politics that it changed the world.

“Terrorism is a thinking man’s game,” said terror expert Gordon Woo.

That’s why a small group of thinking men and women convened at Rutgers University last month to consider how order theory — a branch of abstract mathematics that deals with hierarchical relationships — could be applied to the war on terror.

It almost seems ridiculous for people who inhabit a world of concept lattices and partially ordered sets to think they can affect a war fought on the streets of Baghdad and in the remote mountains of northern Pakistan. But the war on terror is also fought in cyberspace and in the minds of people from Lahore to Los Angeles. Mathematicians are right at home in such abstract realms.

“It’s not just theoretical,” said Fred Roberts, director of the Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science, the Rutgers research institute where the conference was held.

Gary G. Nelson, a senior researcher at the quasi-governmental Homeland Security Institute, said he attended the conference in hopes of finding research projects for the institute to support.

Some ideas sounded promising, Mr. Nelson said. The most intriguing were those that could help intelligence agencies boil down the vast amounts of data they receive.

For example, a program might discover that everybody involved in a given attack attended the same London mosque. Or it might find large numbers of e-mail messages between members of one terrorist cell in Germany and another in the United States, suggesting that they may be working together.

Such data-mining techniques are nothing new, but the explosion in computing power in the past few years has spurred innovation in the field.

Jafar Adibi, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California, is developing ways to find hidden links between known terrorists and their as-yet-unknown confederates.

“You’re trying to detect major groups of these bad guys,” Mr. Adibi said.

The technique relies on having an initial group of known terrorists. Then it analyzes things those known terrorists have in common with other people in the database, such as phone calls, places of worship, political affiliations or blood relation.

The program concludes that anybody who has enough connections of the right kind with a known terrorist probably also is one.

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