DOI: 10.1093/jcsl/krae002 ISSN: 1467-7954

Social network analysis and counterterrorism: a double-edged sword for international humanitarian law

Michael Moncrieff, Pavle Kilibarda, Gloria Gaggioli
  • Law
  • Safety Research
  • Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality


The use of social network analysis (SNA) during the War on Terror has been a topic of significant political and academic discourse. SNA is an empirical method that graphically and mathematically represents interactions or relationships between nodes (eg, individuals, organizations) and the ties that connect them. The nature and degree of interdependence among nodes are believed to provide insights into the relationships and behaviour of members within a social network. The scarcity of precise and comprehensive data on the structure, functioning, and activities of terrorist groups has prompted some states to incorporate SNA into their intelligence efforts and rely on its data for counterterrorism activities, including lethal operations. However, the compatibility of SNA with international law remains underexplored. In this article, we adopt a legal-empirical approach to elucidate SNA in accessible terms and examine the challenges it presents for international law. We contend that SNA is fundamentally incompatible with international humanitarian law (IHL) targeting rules, as the data it provides do not pertain to legally relevant criteria. Nevertheless, SNA offers valuable insights for IHL by illuminating intra-group dynamics to facilitate conflict classification, identifying legally relevant characteristics in armed groups’ internal networks, and determining the strength of relations between armed factions. Our findings underscore the importance of a nuanced understanding of SNA’s applications and limitations in the context of international law.

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