Why the Human Terrain Matters in Conflict, Community Security, and Emergency Preparedness – Forward Observer Shop

Why the Human Terrain Matters in Conflict, Community Security, and Emergency Preparedness

Iraq and Afghanistan have plenty lessons learned for our mission in community security during the upcoming national instability. One of those is the Human Terrain, which is incredibly important for us to understand. In Iraq and Afghanistan, understanding tribal dynamics, tribal history, human beliefs and attitudes, and the outlook and opinions of the populace toward governance (among other factors) was supremely important to district and village stability programs. In some cases, commanders knew this and got it right. In other cases, commanders got it really wrong. Today, I’m writing about some human considerations for community security because we can’t afford to get it wrong.

Everything we do in intelligence revolves around the mission. If we don’t understand the mission, then we can’t properly support it. I’m really big on writing down mission statements for our community security efforts, and those mission statements are based on threats or conditions. When everyone involved in community security understands the mission, we can all work together to achieve success. If we don’t understand it, then we probably won’t accomplish the mission. For instance, during the next hurricane or tornado (or earthquake or riot, etc.), the mission statement might be Protect the community from looters, predators, and other criminals, establish basic security in the neighborhood, and aid in humanitarian and disaster relief efforts. Your mission statement is going to vary, but you’ll need to define your mission at the very least. Once the mission is defined, then we can start identifying mission requirements.

So let’s think this through… In our scenario, a hurricane is threatening our region, we expect major flooding, lots of property damage, a lot of needy people (especially women and children), and the potential for criminals to threaten us, our neighbors, and the community at large. This event is going to heavily impact human beings, which is why we in intelligence need to understand the human terrain. Here’s what it looks like…

One of the first tasks for my intelligence team is to figure out which areas are likely to be impacted by flooding. We can look up flood plain maps and historical data on flooding to get a good idea of our problem areas. Then we need to look at the human factors in these areas. Who’s going to be affected? We cross-reference the likely impact areas with demographics and other factors: socioeconomic status, income, race/ethnicity, property crime rates, violent crime rates, and home values are a good start, but these are really just surface-level data points. (I use City-Data.com to find some of this information.) Answering How will groups of people respond to instability, need, and a loosened rule of law? is what we’d like to achieve. To answer this question, I’d start looking at historical and/or likely Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid stations, schools, churches, food banks, and other locations that are traditionally a magnet for refugees. Identifying the likelihood that our neighborhood could be directly impacted by the presence of hundreds or thousands of needy individuals is going to be a significant accomplishment. Identifying what neighborhoods — especially if it’s our neighborhood — are at a higher risk of out-of-area refugees, looters, and organized criminals is another step we can take to determine what could or what’s likely to happen in the future.

Once we can answer these question, we can produce intelligence that informs decision-makers about about what they can expect in the future. That’s going to enable them to make informed decisions about how best our community can prepare to deal with the third-order effects of this hurricane: extreme need, displacement, criminality, widespread systems disruption, and other effects.

In this scenario, a few of the intelligence requirements I’d be trying to satisfy include:

  • Which individuals or households in our neighborhood could become a threat?
  • Where are the nearest impacted areas that could produce threats to our neighborhood?
  • Which avenues of approach will out-of-area threats likely utilize to threaten our neighborhood?

I’m sure you could come up with a much longer list of intelligence requirements, and you should. This is Phase One of the Intelligence Cycle and it’s a good starting point. (Read this for more on the Intelligence Cycle.)

Demographics and socioeconomic data are a good starting point for understanding who’s in your community. Get out and talk with your neighbors, go to city hall or county commission meetings, observe the people who attend, and maybe ask them some questions. Meet a community leader for a cup of coffee. Knowing race and income is not enough to answer complex questions; we have to understand community members at a deeper level: who are they politically and ideologically? What’s their opinion on local government, state government, federal government? How do they perceive local law enforcement? How self-sufficient are our neighbors? Which of our neighbors don’t have two nickels to rub together? Which of our neighbors could pose a threat to us during an emergency? Which of our neighbors are going to get on-board with our community security effort? Which of our neighbors are veterans, or nurses, or engineers, or first responders? Which of our neighbors are also concerned about the state of the country and our current trajectory? These are questions that can’t be answered by online databases, and they’re going to require some leg work, either in person or perhaps via social media.

The bottom line on human terrain is this: any terrain is a tool that can be used against our security or for our security. The better we understand who lives around us, the better we can anticipate security needs in the future, and especially during an emergency where cooperation makes the difference between security and insecurity.

If you want to get head and shoulders above your competition, then do an Area Study. We’ve built out an e-course that makes this process easy and efficient. Put in the work, and you’ll get the results that will help you navigate emergencies, whether they’re national or local.

If you enjoyed this article and want more of my thoughts on intelligence, security, and defense for an uncertain future, be sure to subscribe to my email updates.

Always Out Front,

Samuel Culper


PS. If you’re concerned about where we’re headed as a country, whether on the near-end of the spectrum or the far end of the spectrum (social, political and economic instability; domestic conflict; or collapse of empire), and want to stay informed on what the headlines don’t cover, then I invite you to try us out. Our special operations and intelligence veterans track the day-to-day risk of global and domestic conflict. If you’re not happy within the first two weeks, I’ll refund your monthly or annual subscription cost – no questions asked. You can get access to our intelligence reporting and training area here.



Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

1 Comment

  1. County assessor records cross referenced against social media accounts will usually give the researcher a good idea of the owners political orientation and demographic group. Of course if the home is a rental or recorded as a trust owned property that makes it harder to determine the specifics of the actual persons living in the house.

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