College students get plenty of assignments, but this one was different.
It came from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as a challenge to think tanks, security companies, collegiate teams and veterans of the U.S. intelligence community.
A team of six applied-intelligence graduate students at Mercyhurst College not only locked themselves away in a computer lab for the better part of a week, they came up winners in the nationwide competition.
The assignment, presented just before Labor Day, was to answer a single question: “Is Al Qaeda a cohesive organization with strong and centralized control, intent and direction?”
The second-year graduate students — Mike Butler, Ray Wasko, Shannon Ferrucci, Dan Somavilla, Drew Brasfield and Chris Hippner — had a week to come up with a PowerPoint presentation and a three-page paper to answer that question, using only open-source or unclassified information.
“It was the quickest turnaround project that we ever had to do that was this large in nature,” said Wasko, a 28-year-old native of Pittstown. “It was very exciting, very fast-paced, everything we thought it would be.”
Ferrucci, a 22-year-old resident of Utica, N.Y., who had just returned from a two-week conference on data visualization, said she worked to find clear and compelling ways to present the group’s findings.
“In this day and age, as decision makers have less time to sit down and read through documents, we wanted to present something that was interesting and would hold their attention,” she said.
The group’s findings were close to what they had expected and mostly consistent with conclusions team member Mike Butler had drawn in his thesis.
“The basic point is, now instead of being one organization run by Osama bin Laden, it’s more like a general ideological banner that includes terrorist groups all over the world,” said Somavilla, 27, of Bethlehem.
“I suppose it’s less reassuring than if they were one group,” he added.
But it wasn’t so much what they found, but how they found it, that seemed to impress many of the 700 people from the intelligence community who recently heard their presentation in Washington, D.C.
Much of what they learned came from the Internet, but it wasn’t as simple as asking Jeeves or getting lucky on Google.
“We relied heavily on the Web 2.0 movement that is really (a way of) having computers work for you,” Wasko said. “We relied on deep Web searches that go in different directions and function differently than a traditional Web search.”
The group also used a method called “crowd sourcing,” which seeks input from experts, authorities, databases and even blogs.
“We created a chain that spanned the globe,” Wasko said. “People responded back with relevant information and pointed us in different directions. Some organizations, private companies that do terrorist tracking and research, gave us subscriptions to their databases.”
Those aggressive sourcing techniques prompted plenty of discussion at the conference, where some wondered about how to ensure all the information was reliable.
“I wasn’t expecting the kind of waves that would be made by what we were doing,” Somavilla said. “We were getting stopped by strangers who had heard about this project and what we did.”
For members of the Mercyhurst team, there was also an element of endurance to collecting and processing the information during a series of 13-hour days.
“It was Labor Day weekend and probably one of the last nice weekends we had, and we didn’t see the outside of this building,” Ferrucci said. “We were here pretty much all day and into the night, working round the clock trying to make things happen.”
Bob Heibel, director of the Mercyhurst College Institute for Intelligence Studies, said he was pleased by the win, but not entirely surprised.
“I feel we do open sourcing as well as anybody,” he said. “We have been doing open-source intelligence for 17 years, and I have seen some amazing products come out of our students, particularly in the last five years.”
In some respects, open-source intelligence is “kind of the redheaded stepchild if you are in the intelligence community,” Heibel said.
On the other hand, he said, it represents the vast majority of all the information analyzed by the U.S. intelligence community and the only kind of information available to his students.
“I was not surprised that we won. What I was really interested in is who would be the other winner,” he said, referring to a second question addressed by some of the 24 competitors.
The winner of that challenge, iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, also had a Mercyhurst connection. Two of the employees on the company’s team were Mercyhurst alumni — 2004 graduate Michael Bogart, who is from Erie, and Bradley Perry, who graduated in 2006.
JIM MARTIN can be reached at (814) 724-6397, 870-1668 or by e-mail.