Indications and Warning Methodology for Strategic Intelligence

Susann Kimmelman


Today’s U.S. intelligence community lacks the human-centric intelligence needed to develop a forward-looking intelligence estimate. A better understanding of homeland security challenges can come from modern indicators that inform intelligence community practitioners about emerging actors and changing situations. These new indicators must include factors about the human condition, and necessitate an understanding of how people and circumstances can cause change in the world.

In an unstable situation, environmental factors and socio-political activities incentivize people to take action. Motives and conditions can cause people to act in ways that are unacceptable by societal standards, or even criminal. This call to action comes from opportunities like legal actions, strains in the economy, or changes in the sociopolitical environment.[1] By reviewing information, intelligence, and operations knowledge together, the homeland security community can discover contextual indicators that allow practitioners to evaluate “motives, conditions, opportunities, triggers, and momentum.”[2]

The U.S. Army Special Operations Command is currently exploring “gray zone” indicators of bad actors; in doing so, they:

  • look for signs that an actor has new or changing motives, or may act on motives.[3]
  • “apply multidisciplinary lenses to study the conditions in the operational environment, evaluating the potential energy between the mix of motives and conditions.”[4]
  • look for opportunities through which can actor may gain a positional advantage.[5]
  • “measure the concentration of triggers indicating the direction and magnitude of an actor generating momentum.”[6]
  • calculate the actor’s momentum along a potential trajectory to determine the appropriate zone in which to alter the condition and change the trajectory.[7]

Evaluating these open-source gray zone indicators can help the homeland security community develop—or determine the appropriateness of—a modern indications and warning methodology. The U.S. Army Special Operations Command continues to develop strategic indicators for activities in the gray zone theatre, which includes a broader sociocultural framework with a “greater understanding of how we think about and visualize cognitive maneuver.”[8] Social, informational, cultural, physical, and psychological elements inform intelligence collection activities and help Army strategists understand the human dynamic in the Special Operations Command battle space.

Gray zone indicators offer a set of criteria that the U.S. intelligence community can use to develop people-centric modern indicators. This research proposed modern indicators based on the gray zone indicators, and concluded that there is sufficient publicly available information to construct a modern indications and warning matrix for use in the homeland security field today.

This thesis recommends that the U.S. intelligence community adopt a more human-centric approach to intelligence collection and analysis; the approach should treat the actor—who has the capability to change the stability of an operating environment—as the main security challenge. The proposed framework examines social, cultural, political, informational, and psychological elements related to the actor. Each of these elements, compared against the actor’s indicators—which include motive, conditions, opportunity, triggers, and trajectory—can begin to provide a broad picture of an emerging situation (see Table 1).



Table 1.   Modern Indicators Matrix

ELEMENT Social Cultural Physical Informational Psychological


Possible homeland security indicators arise from each element, such as increased social media activities, sentiment analysis, availability of food, stability of food prices, directed Internet searches, and demographic changes. Human-centric indicators can help intelligence professionals identify actors in an operating environment, or even identify an activity advocated for by an external party who can potentially move a person to become an actor. The homeland security field is in need of developments for indications and warnings; if strategists adopt a human-centric approach, they can use these modern indicators to mitigate future attacks and detect future actors.



[1] U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Perceiving Gray Zone Indications (Fort Bragg, NC: U.S. Army Special Operations, 2016), 12–13,

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid., 13–14.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Special Operations Command, Perceiving Gray Zone Indications, 13–14.

[7] Ibid., 13–14.

[8] Ibid., ii.

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