Disruptive By Design: Using Analytics to Combat Human Trafficking

January 1, 2016
By J. Ryan Larson

Authorities should view modern emancipation not as a movement founded upon an emotional response to injustice, but as a tactical achievement using analytic methodologies to eliminate the despicable trade of human trafficking. The global threat of this human rights violation inherently is convoluted and requires an integrated response to mitigate root sources.

The U.S. government’s response to human trafficking largely is reactive, built on law enforcement frameworks that focus on prosecution of apprehended traffickers and awareness campaigns to educate the general public. While these methods have been effective, a unified intelligence community offers the potential to incorporate proactive measures, such as identifying networks and their preferred trafficking routes. An effective strategy also pinpoints patterns associated with these groups and provides targeted intelligence to disrupt their operations. This must be paired with dynamic methods of reintegrating trafficked people.

Although some reports are difficult to validate, the 2015 U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report put the most recent number of affected adults and children at an estimated 20 million. Comparatively, a cumulative 350 years of trans-Atlantic slave trade operations yielded an approximate total of 14 million people sold into slavery. This drastic increase, a sobering fact given the global paradigm shift on slavery’s legality, points to a fine-honed enterprise implemented by dangerous nonstate actors. Robust network analysis and strategy assessment to identify points of disruption will target these criminal organizations and work to dismantle their operations. Experts should focus on three actions.

First, they must identify what motivates others to traffic humans. Many groups resort to the practice because it is a lucrative supplement to other illicit activities. Terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabaab, and the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram operating in several African countries recognize that trafficking humans introduces multilayered opportunities. The black market trading of people earns pure profit and diversifies revenue streams from operations such as dealing weapons or other crimes. Women who are not sold are used as sex slaves, usually as incentives for groups’ fighters. Children are separated from families and indoctrinated as forced combatants, often conditioned into compliance through drug use. These groups tend to traffic their victims from one specific ethnicity, a para-genocidal tactic used to demonstrate their power and dominate through fear. Outside of the terrorist organizations exists a vast smuggling nexus for criminal enterprises in the drug and weapons trades that exploits slaves as a cheap, expendable resource to cultivate drugs, transport deadly munitions or perform menial labor.   

Second, analysts must identify the factors or conditions that drive the initial demand for slaves. Classifying groups by motive and category provides indicators of the world’s regions where the demand for slavery is high. Further analysis, called microtargeting, can indicate the possible fate of those trafficked into sex, labor or forced combatant status and divulge network perpetrators. Microtargeting is best accomplished using human intelligence assets, social network monitoring and deep Web transaction investigations. After countertrafficking analysts gather a sufficient amount of intelligence, they can create a database of offenders and their affiliated groups. Using network visualization software tools such as Palantir or Analyst’s Notebook, analysts can identify overlapping points of contact between suppliers and consumers for the greatest disruption at the demand level. Integrating this intelligence analysis technique with law enforcement efforts, particularly within the United States, would maximize anti-trafficking operations.

Finally, analysts could build victim profiles to identify areas or groups vulnerable to abduction. The profiles would provide tracking metrics such as money sources, geographical data and abduction or coercion techniques. These metrics would enable law enforcement to focus on fighting traffickers proactively. But analysts would have to be cognizant of developing biases that could blind them to new target areas or means that trafficking groups might employ.

The greatest opportunity that dynamic analysis produces is actionable liberation of enslaved people trapped within a barbaric system. However, policy efforts so far have stopped short of this point because reintegration of victims is complicated and messy. Authorities need a thorough response to effectively transition these people to their native cultures and societies, mostly because the psychological scars are huge. Establishing a collaborative effort between the intelligence, law enforcement, humanitarian and psychological health professional communities would begin the healing process for them. Should the United States fully commit resources toward this element of eliminating human trafficking, it will contribute greatly to our display of smart power.

This approach is not an exhaustive solution to quell the disruptive and disgusting trade of human trafficking, but it serves as a foundational analytic framework to address the problem. Governments already have made great strides to expose the trafficking element of international crime, but more must be done. Analytic methodologies will maximize this good work, and when coupled with compassion, will improve the standard of living for millions.

J. Ryan Larson is course production manager and research associate at Pherson Associates, an analytic training company in Reston, Virginia. He is a recent graduate of James Madison University’s intelligence analysis and political science programs. The views expressed here are his alone.

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