OSINT Collection in the MENA Region – Challenges and Opportunities
By Nachum Shiloh
OSINT collection and especially internet search are considered by many as a general skill applicable in any open cyberspace arena around the world. People who think that way also assume that an information specialist whose English is fluent and who is familiar with information collection skills in English will necessarily show good performance in any other open cyberspace arena. However, upon exploring the open cyberspace of the MENA region, we acknowledge that there are many parameters and issue which turn OSINT collection in the MENA open cyberspace to a very different experience and to a unique skill.
First of all, an information specialist in the MENA open cyberspace does not enjoy the advantage of free access to countless pieces of accurate governmental information provided in the West as a direct product of proper legislation like the American Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In the MENA region, official information published in the internet by governments can be partial and in many cases may be deliberately incorrect. A good information analyst specializing in the MENA open cyberspace will take this fact into consideration and will bypass this problem by directing his focus to the informal virtual social networks.
The language barrier turns OSINT collection in the MENA open cyberspace to a complicated mission, since lack of knowledge of these languages narrows significantly the potential of achieving good results. Many pieces of information are available of course in English, but this is definitely not enough. Knowing Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew makes the OSINT collection in this arena much more effective. Furthermore, due to the fact that the usage of virtual social networks is expanding very rapidly, knowing the street spoken languages of the MENA region and even the slang sub-languages will turn a good information specialist into an excellent professional and will enable him, together with advanced technical OSINT collection skills, to reach almost any piece of information in the net.
Another challenge facing information analysts in the MENA open cyberspace is religion. While information specialists who operate in the Western open cyberspace do not need any exceptional knowledge in religious affairs, the situation in the MENA open cyberspace is quite different. Information specialists operating in this space must understand well Islam and Islamic issues since in many cases finding the needed information requires the information specialist to approach databases in Islamic websites, like databases of Islamic religious rulings (Fatwas). The information specialist must know the most prominent Islamic scholars and the differences between religious streams. Sometimes such differences may be perceived as negligible by common information specialists, but actually they are highly important.
Understanding the social structures in the MENA region is crucial for information specialists who strive to become experts in the MENA open cyberspace. For example, an information specialist who is aware of the fact that many aspects of the political, social and economic life in the GCC States depend on tribal norms, understands that websites of tribes, clans and families may include some hidden but highly important databases. In contrary, those who do not understand the importance of tribes and clans wouldn’t even think about such websites as potential databases.
In the strategic arena, information specialists operating in the MENA open cyberspace must understand the meaning of the tectonic geopolitical changes in the region since the eruption of the Arab Spring. They should acknowledge that the borders which existed for almost a century are being reshaped every day and that the weight of non-state actors like terrorist and insurgent organization, religious and social movements, exiled opposition leaders, etc, is growing. Such actors produce lots of web material and show massive presence in the open cyberspace.
To sum up, OSINT collection in the MENA open cyberspace is very different from OSINT collection in other, general open cyberspaces, and is actually a special professional arena in the world of OSINT experts and information specialists. As times passes, the level of difficulty and complexity goes higher and higher and those who keep develop their OSINT collection skills in this unique cyberspace will experience not only the difficulties, but also the benefits of being professionals in this arena.