Covert network analysis: An exchange network theory perspective

Elisa Jayne Bienenstock, Michael Salwen

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The ultimate objective in using social networks to understand covert groups is to reliably and accurately leverage small amounts of revealed information about the social structures of these groups to gain insight into their operations. The rush to achieve this has put a priority on creating tools to apply graph-theoretic metrics more widely and to larger data sets with the underlying assumption that the metrics are valid regardless of the character of the connection, and that these metrics carry the same meaning regardless of context or scale. This chapter questions whether this headlong rush has "put the cart before the horse," and advocates for more basic and deductive research testing metrics under a broad swath of conditions to develop standards to measure the reliability and validity of results. To make the point explicit, and to recommend a path for new research, this chapter revisits the classic research on social exchange networks, unfamiliar to many who study covert networks, that casts doubt on some fundamental assumptions that underlie the current approach. Two different types of risks are associated with the use of data on social networks in operational settings before the requisite science is completed. The first is that shortcomings attributed to the approach may discredit the method, discouraging its use when it is appropriate and can provide real value, proverbially throwing out the baby with the bath water. The second is that the naïve application of network metrics to data can yield results that are incorrect, which in an operational environment can have serious implications. Consider, for instance, the case of Abu Zubaydah, also known as Zein al-Abideen Mohamed Hussein. In 2002, President George W. Bush described him as "al-Qaeda's chief of operations," thought to be "the number three name" in the organization (Finn & Tate, 2009). As a consequence Abu Zubaydah was captured, detained at Guantanamo Bay, and subjected to "enhanced" interrogation eighty-three times. Four years 9later, in 2006, journalist Ron Suskind revealed that in fact Abu Zubaydah was only "a minor logistics man, a travel agent" (2006). Having been wounded in an earlier jihad, he was considered mentally limited, and al-Qaida used him to book the travel of wives and children.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationIlluminating Dark Networks
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages11
ISBN (Electronic)9781316212639
ISBN (Print)9781107102699
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)


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