National Nuclear Security Administration

NNSA-developed simulation seeks to understand and stop terrorist recruitment

April 29, 2016

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As NNSA verifies and maintains the U.S. nuclear deterrent without underground explosive nuclear testing, computer simulation has become a key capability and a vital part of the nuclear security enterprise. By modeling the extreme physics that make up nuclear reactions, scientists can ensure our stockpile is safe, secure, and reliable. The simulation science developed through pursuit of NNSA’s missions has also enabled models to help explain and predict non-nuclear phenomena from weather to effects of asteroid impact, and even human social behavior.

One such project from Sandia National Laboratories used computer simulation to study recruitment and group formation, such as in inner-city gangs and terrorist groups. The Seldon tool, named after a fictional social scientist, aims to provide a unique environment where researchers can evaluate the effectiveness of intervention strategies on the emergence and persistence of these groups.

The Seldon project meshes sociology, psychology, agent-based technology, modeling, simulation, and cognitive science to develop software to model recruitment and group formation. The tool is unique because it portrays cliques, gangs, schools, and houses of worship through social conceptualization and not just as physical or economical institutions. Specifically, the researchers showed how recruitment occurs through the formation of cliques; terrorist organizations build their ranks this way.

Because Seldon also specifically models Middle Eastern terrorist recruitment in a European setting, the project is especially relevant to current events. Before Sandia’s creation of the toolkit, there had not been a computational tool for analyzing the interdependence between individuals and society. The highly sophisticated simulation science enabled by the nuclear security enterprise has been helping world leaders in the effort to crack the code of terrorist recruitment and stop the spread of extremism.

Learn more about NNSA’s advanced computing initiatives and work at the labs.