The U.S. military is increasingly concerned about the risks to social, political and economic stability from resource stress and climate change, and whether they might lead governments to collapse. That’s the upshot of the latest call for proposals from the Pentagon’s flagship social science research program, the Minerva Research Initiative.
Minerva is a multi-million-dollar research program led by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and founded in 2008 under the watch of then-defense secretary Robert Gates. The final deadline for submissions for the latest research round is next month.
Preparing for "Shocks"
The research call, which was put out near the end of last year by the Office of Naval Research, shows that the Pentagon is particularly taken aback by sudden “societal shifts like those seen recently in North Africa and the Middle East,” as well as in “Central Eurasia.”
The 2011 Arab spring saw the toppling of western-backed dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, and the breakdown of Syria and Libya into protracted civil war. Various studies have repeatedly highlighted the previously overlooked role of droughts, food crises and economic problems caused by climate change in dramatically undermining the capacity of the region’s largely authoritarian states to maintain a cap on domestic grievances.
Now the Minerva program wants to fund researchers examining “the factors that affect societal resilience to external ‘shock’ events and corresponding tipping points.” This year the Pentagon is investing a total of $8 million in projects from almost any academic discipline, which must of course be relevant to “contemporary DoD strategic priorities.”
Given that the upheaval in the Arab world took all observers by surprise, it is not surprising that “the Department of Defense is interested in better anticipating and identifying potential areas of unrest, instability, and conflict,” particularly in “regions and states… of strategic interest to the DoD.” The Minerva announcement specifically requests policy-oriented research that will “inform strategic thinking about resource allocation across defense missions (including in the cyber realm)”—in other words, to help determine where the U.S. military should focus operations.
Unlike previous Minerva projects, this year’s program is explicitly for both “basic and applied scientific research,” which means that the research could be applied to directly support military operations.
The research call contains an entire section dedicated to “Resources, economics, and globalization,” including an appeal for contributions that explore “a causal relationship between the effects of environmental stress and/or climate change and stability and security.”
A major factor for study is the role of “resource scarcity or imbalance, including food and water insecurity” in aggravating “state instability.” The variables this could cover include “resource supply, ownership, control, and access”; “rising energy consumption—including impacts on human health and prosperity”; and “changes in global energy markets, including evolving patterns of energy production and use.”
The Pentagon also wants to see modeling of the interplay between demographic trends and population growth, as well as wider economic issues like “wealth distribution.” The research call, for instance, mentions the security implications of “aging populations and shrinking working age populations worldwide.”
The demographic issue of the disparity between aging and working age populations is not relevant to regions like the Middle East or Africa, which mostly are experiencing a youth bulge. Rather, as a sobering report published last August by the ratings agency Moody’s, these trends apply mostly to the industrialized western world, and could have serious economic consequences.
The Minerva research call doesn’t mention this, but in recent years leading economists have warned that in the U.S., U.K. and western Europe, the decline in people of working age compared to the rise of a non-working elderly population may pose a serious problem for developed economies as pension pay-outs become strained against a reduced workforce, declining productivity, and a diminishing tax base. Some argue that this alone could contribute to a renewed economic recession—and persistent widening inequality, looming debt issues and resource stress, could amplify the danger.
The Pentagon’s concern about such economic questions in the context of resource stress, raises questions about whether the U.S. military anticipates a risk of domestic unrest due to sustained economic crisis.
Also mentioned are changing patterns of migration, which are placing a strain on national identities while also bringing up new dangers from “immigrant assimilation and segregation.”
Some scientists warn that the increasing exodus of rural populations into cities could see an urban future dominated by crowded megacities—cities with more than 10 million inhabitants. In the context of future climate change and resource stress, the question of how such megacities could meet the needs of their populations is palpable.
No wonder the Minerva program is keen to measure the risk of social and political collapse for large urban centres. Its new announcement calls for research to analyze “factors determining societal resilience in megacities. Under what conditions might a governing body fail to cope with rapid urbanization?”
The Pentagon also wants to understand how all this links with the dynamics of social and political change more generally, with another section requesting input on “mobilization for change.” The research call mentions a specific concern with how political activism can lead to terrorism and violence, and its overall approach tends to see an individual’s or group’s interest in change activism as implying vulnerability to "radicalization":
“The Department of Defense is interested in better understanding what drives individuals and groups to mobilize for change and the mechanisms of that mobilization, particularly when violent tactics are adopted. This research will help inform understanding of where organized violence is likely to erupt, what factors might explain its spread, and how one might circumvent its dissemination.”
At first glance, this seems fairly innocuous, but it reveals a disturbing ideological bias in the Pentagon’s conception of social and political dissent. The assumption that the adoption of “violent tactics” is linked to the issues that motivate people to “mobilize for change” conflates the dynamics of change activism in general with a risk of being involved in “organized violence.”
Given this assumption, state efforts to circumvent the “dissemination” of violence could end up on the slippery slope of seeing political activism itself as a potential threat, which must therefore be monitored or even suppressed—as is already happening.
But the Pentagon is not just interested in the question of violence. The DoD wants to understand the precise dynamics of political dissent for its own sake, too.
The Minerva announcement asks for proposals investigating “underlying mechanisms of mobilization”; “factors that foster or inhibit an individual’s transition from passive support of fringe social movements to active political mobilization”; “analyses of the topology, power structure, productivity, merging and splitting, and overall resilience of change-driven organizations. Why and how do groups merge or splinter?”; as well as “approaches exploring contributors to and mechanisms for political mobilization.”
This is a general demand for wide-ranging research on the nature of civil society, and the operations and interrelationships of activist groups campaigning for social and political change.
Mapping Muslim Discourses via Non-Muslim Antiwar Groups?
Previous Pentagon-funded Minerva projects have similarly conflated violent and non-violent political activists by defining activists working with NGOs and political parties as both “sympathetic to radical causes” and “supporters of political violence.” The thrust of much of this earlier research has focused on trying to understand “social contagions,” and the risk of “insurgencies” due to various forms of social breakdown—both in the U.S. homeland and in foreign theaters of strategic interest to the U.S.
The focus of a range of such projects has been on developing new quantitative tools and models, including advanced data-mining methods and algorithms, by which to automatically categorize activist groups and rank them on a threat-scale to U.S. interests. Last year, I obtained exclusive access to some of the online research tools connected to a project based at Arizona State University (ASU) examining “radical” and “counter-radical” Muslim discourses and movements in Southeast Asia, West Africa, and Western Europe.
One ASU project paper, "Multiscale Modeling of Islamic Organizations in the U.K.," presented at an academic conference in Washington, DC in 2013, reveals the Orwellian scope of such research.
The study's authors describe their development of “a ranking system that utilizes ranked perspectives to map 26 U.K. Islamic organizations on a set of socio-cultural, political and behavioral scales based on their web corpus.” In reality, the list of organizations studied included 10 more organizations, some of which were non-Muslim organizations.
Data for the Pentagon-funded research project consisted of a collection of nearly 10,000 documents downloaded from the websites of 36 U.K. organizations that were then ranked on various scales by three independent experts.
Prof. Sajjad Rizvi of the University of Exeter’s Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies was one of the independent academics asked to rank the U.K. organizations. He said that he was not informed of the project’s relationship to the U.S. government or military, and thought the research design was poor.
“A colleague asked me to do it," said Rizvi, "but my understanding was that it was to develop a tool for social science research. I had no idea about government links. I thought the questions and concepts did not make sense and I wasn’t at all convinced about the overall method.” He also criticized the tool’s abject inability to meaningfully define violence, political radicalism, religious belief, and distinctions between them – and complained that his feedback to the project investigators was ignored.
The project gathered some of its data via an "expert wisdom gathering tool," a bespoke website for academic experts to grade and scale these organizations. According to the online tool, the organizations rated for their threat-level included largely peaceful civil society organizations such as British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Islamic Relief, Islamic Society of Britain and the Quilliam Foundation, as well as activist pro-Palestinian organizations which have been critical of U.K. government policy, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Committee U.K., Cage Prisoners and Interpal.
Despite the claim of focusing on Muslim discourses of extremism, included on the list are non-Muslim organizations opposed to U.S. and British foreign policies—namely the 32 county sovereignty committee (32CSM), the Irish Republican separatist group often described as the political wing of the Real IRA; and the Socialist Workers Party, which since 2003 has run the U.K.’s leading anti-war network, the Stop The War Coalition (STWC).
STWC’s supporting organizations include the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the National Union of Journalists, the Centre for Nuclear Disarmament, Friends of Al-Aqsa, the Green Party, Military Families Against War, Media Workers Against War, the Kurdish Federation, and Britain’s major trade unions, Unison and United.
The "expert wisdom gathering tool" also showed intent to scale or rank organizations in Germany, France, Europe generally, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, although only the U.K. and Indonesia sections contained active lists of groups.
In addition to above, the ASU project has also produced a powerful visualization tool called LookingGlass, capable of identifying and locating individuals and ranking their propensity for terrorism, based on long-term tracking and automated discourse analysis of their social media posts. Algorithms are applied to “large amounts of text collected from a wide variety of organizations’ media outlets to discover their hotly debated topics, and their discriminative perspectives voiced by opposing camps organized into multiple scales.”
These are then used to “classify and map individual Tweeter’s message content to social movements based on the perspectives expressed in their weekly tweets.” The LookingGlass platform is able “to track the geographical footprint, shifting positions and flows of individuals, topics and perspectives between groups.”
Unlike previous systems, the Pentagon’s appropriation of LookingGlass can provide “real-time contextual analysis of complex socio-political situations that are rife with volatility and uncertainty. It is able to rapidly recognize radical hot-spots of networks, narratives and activities, and their socio-cultural economic, political drivers,” and is able to identify and track specific “radical” and “non-radical” individuals, along with shifts in their beliefs and affiliations to “radical” and “non-radical” movements and organizations.
Tweets Can Kill
Unbeknown to many, Arizona State is officially an NSA-designated university. Its Information Assurance Center (IAC), based in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision System Engineering – where the programming of data-mining tools for the Pentagon has occurred – is a certified National Center of Excellence in education and research by the NSA and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Arizona State's IAC also collaborates with the school's Center for Emergency Management, which provides training for “homeland security professionals” in “government/industry” on “disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery and management.”
According to NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, a former senior executive of the agency, the algorithms being developed by ASU’s data-mining projects were similar to algorithms used by U.S. intelligence to identify targets for the CIA’s "signature" drone strikes against unidentified groups of terrorism suspects.
When I asked Drake whether the ASU algorithms could in fact be used to fine-tune the intelligence community’s algorithms for drone strikes, he told me:
“Your hunch is right. Having the U.S. government and Department of Defense fund this kind of research at the university level will bias the results by default. This is a fall-out of big data research of this type, using algorithms to detect patterns when the patterns themselves are an effect – and mixing up correlation with causality. Under this flawed approach, many false positives are possible and these results can create an ends of profiling justifying the means of data-mining.”
Projects like LookingGlass could therefore be used to augment not just the Pentagon’s capacity for mass surveillance at home and abroad, but also to identify targets for terrorism watch-lists, and worse, extrajudicial assassination. In the unforgettable words of Gen. Michael Hayden, former NSA and CIA chief: “We kill people based on metadata.”
The Pentagon’s Minerva initiative demonstrates that the military’s alarming propensity to see a politically active citizenry as a potential terror threat is directly linked to the growing recognition that ‘non-traditional’ security issues like resource stress are already undermining state legitimacy. Unfortunately, such short-sighted responses focused on expanding military intelligence powers will only undermine it further.
Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist and international security scholar. He writes the System Shift column for VICE’s Motherboard, and is the winner of a 2015 Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his former work at the Guardian. He is the author of "A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It" (2010), and the scifi thriller novel Zero Point, among other books.