Every morning at 7:30 a.m., in the picturesque woodlands of rural Ontario, a retired auto shop manager named Janice Clinch helps her grandson get ready for school and fires up her computer for another day of battle in the Libyan desert.
The 59-year-old has never met anybody from Libya. She has not visited the Arab world; chronic pain makes it hard for her to get around. But from her home near Seeley's Bay, 40 kilometres northeast of Kingston, she joined a committed cadre of social media users who have become, in effect, volunteer intelligence analysts. On Twitter, Facebook and other services, they discuss satellite images, vessel tracking data and the latest gossip from their sources inside the country.
In the past few days, NATO officials have acknowledged that social media reports contribute to their targeting process - but only after checking them against other, more reliable, sources of information.
A Twitter account with apparent links to the British military has even taken the unusual step of asking users to submit the precise co-ordinates of troops loyal to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.
Ms. Clinch was among the first to respond. Months of online activism earned her a role as administrator of the Libyan Youth Movement page on Facebook - the only non-Libyan honoured with the job, she says - and on Monday she noticed that a regular member, somebody located in western Libya, had pinpointed a gas station converted into a temporary headquarters for Col. Gadhafi's forces. She tweeted the co-ordinates, along with the longitude and latitude of a few other targets passed along from the same source, asking NATO to "clean up" the government troops.
Ms. Clinch was not sure whether NATO had bombed those locations, but she continued to scour the Internet for more leads.
"I don't believe in dictatorships," she said. "It's inconceivable to me that people could live in these conditions."
Twitter is no replacement for the forward air controllers who have guided bombs from the ground since the Second World War. Canadian and U.S. forces now call these specialists Joint Terminal Attack Controllers; some elite foreign troops are rumoured to be among the advisers helping the Libyan rebels, but they apparently do not include JTACs. This leaves an important gap in NATO's view of the war: for all its sophisticated eyes overhead, the alliance suffers a shortage of real-time intelligence from below.
This shortcoming is part of the reason why air power has never succeeded in overthrowing a regime, analysts say, a historical record that fuels skepticism about the campaign.
Those precedents may not be entirely valid in the new age of social media, however. In a press briefing on June 10, Wing Commander Mike Bracken, a NATO spokesman, described the so-called "fusion centre" that pulls together intelligence.
"We get information from open sources on the Internet; we get Twitter," Wing Commander Bracken said. "You name any source of media and our fusion centre will deliver all of that into usable intelligence."
Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, the Canadian who commands the operation, ultimately decides whether to trust what he's hearing.
"He will decide, 'That is good information and I can act on it,' " the spokesman said. "Where it comes from, it's not relevant to the commander."
Some online activists have been contacted directly for their input. NATO staffers also appear to have set up unofficial accounts to solicit information; one user selected the name "HMS Nonsuch," a term sometimes used by the British navy to indicate a hypothetical ship during exercises. That account describes itself as "unofficial, not run by the Royal Navy," and offered assurances that Twitter is only a method of gathering tips that will be corroborated with other sources.
Robert Rowley, 48, supervisor of a Dairy Queen in Arizona, said he has already seen results from his Twitter activism. He was among the first to notice fuel tankers slipping past NATO warships and docking at ports controlled by Col. Gadhafi, which led to NATO interdictions.
He also wonders whether his tweets might be connected to the bombing of a Gadhafi communications centre in Tripoli. Combing through satellite images, he noticed that a property listed as a commercial warehouse had a yard containing what appeared to be military vehicles. He published his observations; 10 hours later, the spot was hit by a NATO air strike.
"I'm 5,000 miles away," he said, in an interview before his shift at the ice-cream parlour. "It's a very weird feeling."
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