DoD White Paper: Anticipating Rare Events

Anticipating Rare Events: Can Acts of Terror, Use of Weapons of Mass Destruction or Other High Profile Acts Be Anticipated?

  • 205 pages
  • November 2008


The body of work before you should be viewed as the commencement of a journey with a somewhat murky destination – an exploration of terra incognita. Indeed the challenge addressed in this white paper, that of anticipating “rare events” is daunting and represents a gathering threat to national security. The threat is supercharged by the increasing lateral connectedness of global societies enabled by the internet, cell phones and other technologies. This “connected collective” as Carl Hunt has termed it, has allowed violent ideologies to metastasize globally often with no hierarchical, command-directed rules to govern their expansion. It is the emergent franchising of violence whose metaphorical “genome” is exposed to constant co-evolutionary pressures and non-linearity that results in continuous adaptation and increasing resiliency making the task of effectively anticipating their courses of action all the more difficult.

So what distinguishes a rare event in the context of national security? The easy response is to describe them as unlikely actions of high consequence and for which there is a sparse historical record from which to develop predictive patterns or indications. I would offer that the “rare events” problem is rooted in the principles of fourth generation warfare (4GW) characterized by decentralized, non-state or transnationally-based antagonists applying political, economic, social and militarily networked strategies in complex and protracted engagements directed against populations and cultures. These are often low-intensity conflicts that employ terrorism to achieve the greatest psychological impact. By examining the struggle between a state and a violent ideological network there is an implied asymmetry toward which we have developed a consuming preoccupation over the past seven years. In truth, asymmetric warfare is not a new concept but it is the idiosyncrasy of the 4GW threat that makes it peculiarly dangerous. Since these are rare events, the study, much less the prediction, of idiosyncratic asymmetric warfare is more an abstraction than an operationally relevant approach. This must change.

We are all familiar with the fine print in the semi-annual financial investment reports that states that “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” But it is past performance that gives us our best glimpse of possible futures. Indeed it is the absence of well-understood historical patterns for which there is a rich corpus of supporting data (evidence) and observable indicators that makes this challenge all the more unnerving. So it becomes unmistakable that traditional approaches alone will not be enough.

When addressing the rare events problem among the underlying challenges facing the national security community are the highly distributed nature of these adversary networks and the endemic non-linearity of the idiosyncratic asymmetric event course of action chain. This implies that a massively data intensive, wide search space (global, multi-lingual) must be interrogated to sense inimical perturbations in the mosaic of these networks and overcome what could be an almost indiscernible signal through the noise. We must reform the way that we examine and marshal “evidence” and constantly explore the predictive qualities of discrete variables alone, or in combinations, or in their absence. We will need to overcome biases in hypothesis generation where instinct and intuition may only distract us from the correct path. It points to the necessity for “smart automation” support to the analytical community both on the “front end” data ingestion and “back end” analytical techniques. Also present is the need to “marshal all the elements of national power to shape rather than just react, and anticipate as well as innovate” in order to provide strategic warning of “an existing threat, either in terms of intention or capability, and provide sufficient time for policymakers to assimilate, plan, and provide resources for offsetting responses.” To succeed we must employ practitioners from across the government, academia and the private sector brought together in collaborative environments that are as yet, unconceived and “emphasizes the importance of approaching national security challenges as multiple risks – such as the possibility of nuclear or bioterrorism – that may never occur but need to be managed and minimized, rather than as an overriding threat that can be eliminated.” The contributors to this white paper were expertly selected from across many specialties. They are perfectly suited to colonize this new domain and to initiate this very necessary conversation.

This white paper covers topics related to the field of anticipating/forecasting specific categories of “rare events” such as acts of terror, use of a weapon of mass destruction, or other high profile attacks. It is primarily meant for the operational community in DoD, DHS, and other USG agencies. It addresses three interrelated facets of the problem set:

1. How do various disciplines treat the forecasting of rare events?

2. Based on current research in various disciplines, what are fundamental limitations and common pitfalls in anticipating/forecasting rare events?

3. And lastly, which strategies are the best candidates to provide remedies (examples from various disciplines are presented)?

This is obviously an important topic and before outlining in some detail the overall flow of the various contributions, some top-level observations and common themes are in order:

1. We are NOT dealing here with physical phenomena. Rather these “rare events” that come about are due to human volition. That being the case, one should not expect “point predictions” but rather something more akin to “anticipating/forecasting” a range of possible futures. Furthermore, the difficulties are compounded because these forecasts, to be relevant, have to be done on a global scale and chronologically as far in advance of the rare event occurrence as possible. Therefore, caution is in order when dealing with these phenomena and the reader should approach this topic with a critical disposition and eyes wide open. Hubris is NOT a recommended frame of mind here!

2. The reader will be disappointed if she/he expects a linear menu-driven approach to tackle these problems. Brute force approaches are NOT feasible. Or stated differently, the problem set is NOT amenable to a “blueprint” driven reductionist approach! The approach taken here is heavily tilted towards a dynamic methodological pluralism commensurate with the magnitude and scale of the problem set. Emphasis is placed on judiciously incorporating uncertainties and human foibles and attacking the problem set with approaches from various disciplines. These involve analytical, quantitative, and computational models primarily from the social sciences.

3. On the other hand, the reader who is disposed to eclectic approaches to this very critical problem set will NOT be disappointed. Inductive, deductive, and abductive approaches will be discussed along side themes from gaming theories. Key to all this is a mix of creative intuition and the age-old scientific method. The concepts from the fields of complex adaptive systems, emergence, and co-evolution all contribute to a sustained strategy. The process of objective multi-disciplinary inquiry is at the heart of any success in this challenging domain.

4. The vast majority of the data for such assessments come from open sources. The reader will encounter approaches that take advantage of such data. Equally important is development of an appreciation of the “cultural other” within their own “context” and “discourse”. This is critically important. On the other hand, this massive amount of data (the good, the bad, and the ugly!) brings with it its own share of problems that will need to be dealt with. There is NO free lunch in this business! In all circumstances however, a prudent frame of mind is to let the data speak for itself!

5. The points made so far point to a multi-disciplinary strategy as the only viable game in town. On top of that, we don’t expect single agencies to be able, on their own, to field these multi-disciplinary teams. Agile, federated approaches are in order. The reader who approaches this topic with that frame of reference will resonate with the report.

6. Finally, and most importantly, rare events, by their very nature, are almost impossible to predict. At the core of this white paper is the assumption that we can do a better job of anticipating them, however, if we learn more about how our brain works and why it gets us into trouble. Although we may not be able to predict rare events, we can reduce the chances of being surprised if we employ measures to help guard against inevitable cognitive pitfalls.

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