Suck an Answer out of your Thumb: A Scientific CIA Analysis of Homegrown Violent Extremism


This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.


Suck an Answer out of your Thumb: A Scientific CIA Analysis of Homegrown Violent Extremism

Zion Miller

tPP’s mission is to explore the relationship between how a crime occurred, who was the perpetrator, and why it was committed. To help us answer these questions, we determine what factors to study, accumulate data, and centralize it within our database for easy access. But a problem arises from having so much data on so many cases: How do we go about utilizing this information to answer our fundamental questions? This can be a difficult task, as explained by McGlyn and Garner in their 2018 book entitled, “Intelligence Gathering Fundamentals.”

Even if you carefully read through all the collected information, as important as that is, it is not enough. Seldom does the correct answer jump out from the collected data. The answers are fragmented and scattered like parts of a 10,000-piece puzzle with half the pieces missing or damaged. Using the collected information, some of which was to be exploited first by translation or other technical means, to be properly understood, the analyst examines each piece of data individually and as a whole to create a meaningful and accurate assessment.

There are several methods of analysis described by the authors for assessing data, collectively referred to as structured analytic techniques (SATs). These range from the simplistic and obvious, such as reading about a subject and then thinking hard about a problem, to the more systematic and professional, such as social network analysis, SWOT analysis, geospatial analysis, and others. Within all of these methods, checking biases and assumptions is a key part of the process.

One of the most common points of analysis in tPP is when we check if a case should be excluded from our database on the basis of ideological affiliation and target. For a case to be included, the crime must be committed ​in furtherance of terrorism, extremism, or political violence (i.e. have a socio-political motive). This is where careful analysis must occur, because not all crimes carried out by extremists or terrorists are committed in the furtherance of their ideology. Sometimes a white nationalist just feels like vandalizing a store and it happens to be a black-owned business. This would not qualify for inclusion under our definitions. However, if the vandalizing occurred because it’s a black-owned business, then it likely would be included. The difficulty in the distinction arises due to imperfect information. We may not know the exact thoughts running through the criminal’s mind, they may not have explained themselves, or the case may simply be too poorly covered for us to get everything we need. When this problem of imperfect information arises, it is key that we do as recommended by McGlyn and Garner, and check our biases and assumptions when performing our analysis.

A recent set of cases made this obvious to me. “Operation Blackjack” was a long running narcotics investigation in Florida that resulted in the arrests of 39 white nationalist gang members from the “Unforgiven” and the “United Aryan Brotherhood” for various drug and firearm trafficking related charges. One of our qualifications for inclusion is that the crime must support that homegrown violent extremist (HVE) network. The question for this case was whether or not the drug and weapons charges were related to the support of the gangs or if it was simply gang members acting for their own benefit. Ultimately, I chose to code the case as included and that the gang members were acting to support their gang’s activities. This was based on a SAT analysis method described by McGlyn and Garner as the “CIA” method, where I read as much of the case as I could, thought about it, sucked an answer out of my thumb, and wrote it down as crisp a manner as possible. I wish it was a more scientific method, but unfortunately, that’s the best we can do sometimes with limited information. 

As stated by the authors, I was forced to go through a variety of different data sources to piece the puzzle together — namely DOJ reports, news articles, and indictments. As I read through the material, I quickly noticed that the ATF was involved, which is a federal organization. It is unlikely that they would be involved in a case of individuals dealing drugs on a non-institutionalized scale. Secondly, the DOJ report on the case led by stating that those arrested were white nationalist gang members. It is, once again, unlikely for this information to be so prominent unless it was relevant to the investigation. Third, several members were convicted of intending to distribute over 500 grams of methamphetamine. The scale of this operation makes it, for a final time, unlikely for it to be a small-scale and non-organized crime. These factors together led me to believe that there was sufficient evidence to include these cases in tPP under providing material support for an HVE network. 

Works Cited:

McGlynn, Patrick, and Godfrey Garner. Intelligence Analysis Fundamentals. Boca Raton: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2019.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *