Crafting An Intelligence Question

Revised 29 January 2022

A good intelligence question leads naturally to an analytical thesis. It is distinguished from a research question in that a research question elicits facts; an intelligence question elicits analysis.

The answer to an intelligence question offers a “what” and a “so what.” The “what” is a factual statement that might derive from your initial research; the “so what” puts the event (or series of events, or virtually any other data set) into context and perspective, and explains to the customer its meaning and significance.

For example, if you want to understand the evolution of terrorist targeting, you may begin with a research question such as:

What types of targets did terrorists attack during the first five years of the decade versus the latter half?

Your research will likely lead to a straightforward finding. For example, you may have found that as time passed, terrorists chose more easily accessible targets:

During the first half of the decade terrorists sought “hard” targets, such as military bases and secure facilities, but during the second half of the decade, they chose “soft” targets, such as shopping centers and movie theaters.

There is no analysis here; it is merely a factual statement that sums up the change in types of targets over the decade. An intelligence question takes a factual statement such as this to a deeper level by seeking the reasons or causes behind it. For example:

Why did terrorist targeting change during the first and second halves of the decade?

Now you have a launching point for your analysis. You will brainstorm possible reasons for the difference, eliminate those with too many inconsistencies to explain the change, and draw a conclusion about what most likely accounted for the evolution. Hypothetically, you found:

The change in the types of targets chosen by terrorists between the first and second halves of the decade may be partly explained by increased security at “harder” targets that restricted or removed access and persuaded terrorists to choose “softer,” or more accessible, venues.

This statement presents a fact, a “what,” which is terrorist targeting evolved between the first and second halves of the decade, and then adds analysis, the “so what,” which is a possible reason for the change was increased security and restricted access to harder targets.

Here are a few other recommendations that might help:

  1. A good intelligence question is narrow and specific, but at the same time, broad enough to robustly explore the topic in the space recommended for the type of product you’re writing. 
  2. Beginning a question with “why” or sometimes “how” will generally lead to analytical findings/conclusions. 
  3. Examining trends can be a successful approach in developing original analysis. Have you noticed an upward or downward movement in your area of responsibility, or a new, unexplained phenomenon? What might be contributing to this change? 

Analysis should meet the needs of a consumer, so keep your customer at the forefront at every stage of your analysis. Crafting a narrow question directed at a specific audience might offer more value than a broad question directed at a general audience.  

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