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Osama bin Laden and The Advent of Netwar
John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt are directors of the "Networks and Netwars" project sponsored by the office of the US assistant secretary of defense for command, control, communications and intelligence. this article is an excerpt of their introduction to that forthcoming report.
The "age of networks," now dawning with such promise, has just yielded an astounding "attack on America," heralding the onset of an archetypal netwar of the darkest kind. Transnational terrorists organized in widely dispersed, networked nodes have shown how it is possible to swarm together swiftly, on cue, then pulse to the attack simultaneously. They relied on the Internet, communicating via encrypted messages-sometimes even embedding them in photographic and other images on the world-wide Web. But what really distinguishes them-particularly Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda ("the Base")-is the highly networked organizational form that they have built, based on their unusual social, religious, and kinship ties. US Secretary of State Colin Powell has put it aptly: To win against terror, this network must be "ripped apart."
The league of hierarchical nation-states forming to fight this terrorism will have to build its own set of nimble networks. In the military realm, this means relying more on networks of agile special forces (e.g., the US's Delta Force; Britain's Special Air Service; France's Commando Hubert; and Germany's Grenzschutzgruppe-Neun) than on the missiles, tanks, bombers and aircraft carriers that, until now, have been the sine qua non of national power. Just as the terrorists' power derives more from their organizational form than from technology, so too must the military power to defeat them become more reliant upon organization and doctrine than upon advanced technical systems.
The intelligence world faces an equally urgent need for institutional redesign-away from notions of "central" intelligence, toward the construction of transnational intelligence networks able to share what they have on a real-time basis. Swift movement of important information has played a major role in the success of networked businesses over the past decade. Now it is time for networking to redefine the approach to intelligence-the quality and timeliness of which will determine whether bin Laden's or any other terror network can indeed be "ripped apart."
Improved international networking among military and intelligence organizations can help win this war against terror. But this will not suffice in the long run. A balanced strategy for countering networked terror should also involve a much improved capacity to work with networks of civil-society NGOs around the world, many of which are engaged in social netwars to advance human rights, pressure authoritarian regimes, and foster ethical norms of behavior. Nurturing this emergent global civil society offers the best chance to create an "integral security system" that could free all of us, ultimately, from terror. For in a truly networked world, joined together by common values rather than just common "wires," there will simply be little space left for such a scourge.
Above all, US strategy should avoid getting mired in a "clash of civilizations." The war against terror is not a war of Western values against Islam. Rather, it is a "time war," in this case between an emerging global civilization of the 21st century and a xenophobic religious fanaticism of the 14th century (or earlier). Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are tribal, medieval, absolutist and messianic. The more clearly terrorists are revealed as such, the sooner they will be rejected by the vast majority of the Muslim world for which they purport to be fighting.
Los Angeles-The information revolution is altering the nature of conflict across the spectrum. We call attention to two developments in particular. First, this revolution is favoring and strengthening network forms of organization, often giving them an advantage over hierarchical forms. The rise of networks means that power is migrating to nonstate actors, because they are able to organize into sprawling multiorganizational networks (especially "all-channel" networks, in which every node is connected to every other node) more readily than can traditional, hierarchical, state actors. This means that conflicts may increasingly be waged by "networks," perhaps more than by "hierarchies." It also means that whoever masters the network form stands to gain the advantage.
Second, as the information revolution deepens, the conduct and outcome of conflicts increasingly depend on information and communications. More than ever before, conflicts revolve around "knowledge" and the use of "soft power." Adversaries are learning to emphasize "information operations" and "perception management"-that is, media-oriented measures that aim to attract or disorient rather than coerce, and that affect how secure a society, a military or other actor feels about its knowledge of itself and of its adversaries. Psychological disruption may become as important a goal as physical destruction.
These propositions cut across the entire conflict spectrum. Major transformations are thus coming in the nature of adversaries, in the type of threats they may pose, and in how conflicts can be waged. Information-age threats are likely to be more diffuse, dispersed, multidimensional, nonlinear and ambiguous than industrial-age threats. Metaphorically, then, future conflicts may resemble the Oriental game of Go more than the Western game of chess. The conflict spectrum will be remolded from end to end by these dynamics.
An illustrative case of netwar was the effort by Serbia's reformist Radio b-92, along with a supportive network of United States and European government agencies and NGOs, to broadcast its reportage back into Serbia over the Internet, after b-92's transmitters were shut down by the Milosevic regime in 1998 and again in 1999. For a seminal case of a worldwide netwar, one need look no further than the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. This unusually successful movement consists of a loosely internetted array of NGOs and governments, which rely heavily on the Internet for communications. Through the personage of one of its many leaders, Jody Williams, this netwar won a well-deserved Nobel peace prize.
DEFINING NETWAR | To be precise, the term netwar refers to an emerging mode of conflict (and crime) at societal levels, short of traditional military warfare, in which the protagonists use network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies and technologies attuned to the information age. These protagonists are likely to consist of dispersed organizations, small groups and individuals who communicate, coordinate and conduct their campaigns in an internetted manner, often without a precise central command. Thus, netwar differs from modes of conflict and crime in which the protagonists prefer to develop formal, stand-alone, hierarchical organizations, doctrines and strategies as in past efforts, for example, to build centralized movements along Leninist lines. Thus, for example, netwar is about the Zapatistas more than the Fidelistas, Hamas more than the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the American Christian Patriot movement more than the Ku Klux Klan, and the Asian Triads more than the Cosa Nostra.
The term netwar is meant to call attention to the prospect that network-based conflict and crime will become major phenomena in the decades ahead. Various actors across the spectrum of conflict and crime are already evolving in this direction. This includes familiar adversaries who are modifying their structures and strategies to take advantage of networked designs-e.g., transnational terrorist groups, black-market proliferators of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), drug and other crime syndicates, fundamentalist and ethnonationalist movements, intellectual-property pirates, and immigration and refugee smugglers. Some urban gangs, back-country militias and militant single-issue groups in the US have also been developing netwar-like attributes. The netwar spectrum also includes a new generation of revolutionaries, radicals and activists who are beginning to create information-age ideologies, in which identities and loyalties may shift from the nation state to the transnational level of "global civil society." New kinds of actors, such as anarchistic and nihilistic leagues of computer-hacking "cyboteurs," may also engage in netwar.
Many-if not most-netwar actors will be nonstate, even stateless. Some may be agents of a state, but others may try to turn states into their agents. Also, a netwar actor may be both subnational and transnational in scope. Odd hybrids and symbioses are likely.
Furthermore, some bad actors (terrorist and criminal groups) may threaten US and other nations' interests, but other actors (NGO activists in Burma or Mexico) may not-indeed, some actors who at times turn to netwar strategies and tactics, such as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), may have salutary liberalizing effects. Some actors may aim at destruction, but more may aim mainly at disruption and disorientation. Again, many variations are possible.
The full spectrum of netwar proponents may thus seem broad and odd at first glance. But there is an underlying pattern that cuts across all variations: the use of network forms of organization, doctrine, strategy and technology attuned to the information age.
MORE ABOUT ORGANIZATIONAL DESIGN | In an archetypal netwar, the protagonists are likely to amount to a set of diverse, dispersed "nodes" who share a set of ideas and interests and who are arrayed to act in a fully internetted "all-channel" manner.
Networks come in basically three types or topologies:
--The chain or line network, as in a smuggling chain where people, goods or information move along a line of separated contacts, and where end-to-end communication must travel through the intermediate nodes.
-- The hub, star or wheel network, as in a franchise or a cartel where a set of actors is tied to a central (but not hierarchical) node or actor and must go through that node to communicate and coordinate with each other.
-- The all-channel or full-matrix network, as in a collaborative network of militant peace groups where everybody is connected to everybody else.
Each node may be an individual, a group, an organization, part of a group or organization, or even a state. The nodes may be large or small, tightly or loosely coupled, and inclusive or exclusive in membership. They may be segmentary or specialized-that is, they may look alike and engage in similar activities, or they may undertake a division of labor based on specialization. The boundaries of the network, or of any node included in it, may be well-defined, or blurred and porous in relation to the outside environment. Many variations are possible.
Each type may be suited to different conditions and purposes, and all three may be found among netwar-related adversaries-e.g. the chain in smuggling operations; the hub at the core of terrorist and criminal syndicates; and the all-channel type among militant groups that are highly internetted and decentralized. There may also be hybrids of the three types, with different tasks being organized around different types of networks. For example, a netwar actor may have an all-channel council or directorate at its core but use hubs and chains for tactical operations. There may also be hybrids of network and hierarchical forms of organization.
For example, traditional hierarchies may exist inside particular nodes in a network. Some actors may have a hierarchical organization overall but use network designs for tactical operations; other actors may have an all-channel network design overall but use hierarchical teams for tactical operations. Again, many configurations are possible, and it may be difficult for an analyst to discern exactly what type characterizes a particular network.
Of the three network types, the all-channel has been the most difficult to organize and sustain, partly because it may require dense communications. But it is the type that gives the network form its new, high potential for collaborative undertakings and that is gaining new strength from the information revolution. Pictorially, an all-channel netwar actor resembles a geodesic "Bucky ball" (named for Buckminster Fuller); it does not look like a pyramid. The organizational design is flat. Ideally, there is no single, central leadership, command or headquarters-no precise heart or head that can be targeted. The network as a whole (but not necessarily each node) has little to no hierarchy; there may be multiple leaders. Decision making and operations are decentralized, allowing for local initiative and autonomy. Thus the design may sometimes appear acephalous (headless) and at other times polycephalous (Hydra-headed).
The capacity of this design for effective performance over time may depend on the existence of shared principles, interests and goals-perhaps an overarching doctrine or ideology-which spans all nodes and to which the members subscribe in a deep way. Such a set of principles, shaped through mutual consultation and consensus-building, can enable members to be "all of one mind" even though they are dispersed and devoted to different tasks. It can provide a central ideational and operational coherence that allows for tactical decentralization. It can set boundaries and provide guidelines for decisions and actions so that the members do not have to resort to a hierarchy because "they know what they have to do."
The network design may depend on having an infrastructure for the dense communication of functional information. This does not mean that all nodes must be in constant communication; that may not make sense for a secretive, conspiratorial actor. But when communication is needed, the network's members must be able to disseminate information promptly and as broadly as desired within the network and to outside audiences.
CAVEATS ABOUT THE ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY | Netwar is a result of the rise of network forms of organization, which in turn is partly a result of the computerized information revolution. To realize its potential, a fully interconnected network requires a capacity for constant, dense information and communications flows, more so than do other forms of organization (e.g., hierarchies). This capacity is afforded by the latest information and communication technologies-cellular telephones, fax machines, electronic mail (e-mail), Web sites and computer conferencing. Such technologies are highly advantageous for netwar actors whose constituents are geographically dispersed.
But two caveats are in order. First, the new technologies, however enabling for organizational networking, are not absolutely necessary for a netwar actor. Older technologies, like human couriers, and mixes of old and new systems may do the job in some situations. The late Somali warlord, Mohamed Farah Aidid, for example, proved very adept at eluding those seeking to capture him while at the same time retaining full command and control over his forces by means of runners and drum codes. Similarly, the first Chechen War (1994-1996), which the Islamic insurgents won, made wide use of runners and old communications technologies like ham radios for battle management and other command and control functions. So, netwar may be waged in high-, low-, or no-tech fashion.
Second, netwar is not simply a function of "the Net"; it does not take place only in "cyberspace" or the "infosphere." Some battles may occur there, but a war's overall conduct and outcome will normally depend mostly on what happens in the "real world"-it will continue to be, even in information-age conflicts, generally more important than what happens in cyberspace or the info-sphere.
Netwar is not solely about Internet war (just as cyberwar is not just about "strategic information warfare"). Americans have a tendency to view modern conflict as being more about technology than organization and doctrine. In our view, this is a misleading tendency. For example, social netwar is more about a doctrinal leader like Subcomandante Marcos than about a lone, wild computer hacker like Kevin Mitnick.
SWARMING | This distinctive, often ad-hoc design has unusual strengths, for both offense and defense. On the offense, networks tend to be adaptable, flexible and versatile vis-à-vis opportunities and challenges. This may be particularly the case where a set of actors can engage in swarming. Little analytic attention has been given to swarming, which is quite different from traditional mass- and maneuver-oriented approaches to conflict. Yet swarming may become the key mode of conflict in the information age, and the cutting edge for this possibility is found among netwar protagonists.
Swarming is a seemingly amorphous, but deliberately structured, coordinated, strategic way to strike from all directions at a particular point or points, by means of a sustainable pulsing of force and/or fire, close-in as well as from stand-off positions. This notion of "force and/or fire" may be literal in the case of military or police operations, but metaphorical in the case of NGO activists, who may, for example, be blocking city intersections or emitting volleys of e-mails and faxes. Swarming will work best-perhaps it will only work-if it is designed mainly around the deployment of myriad, small, dispersed, networked maneuver units. Swarming occurs when the dispersed units of a network of small (and perhaps some large) forces converge on a target from multiple directions. The overall aim is sustainable pulsing-swarm networks must be able to coalesce rapidly and stealthily on a target, then sever and redisperse, immediately ready to recombine for a new pulse. The capacity for a "stealthy approach" suggests that, in netwar, attacks are more likely to occur in "swarms" than in more traditional "waves." The Chechen resistance to the Russian army and the Direct Action Network's operations in the anti-World Trade Organization "Battle of Seattle" both provide excellent examples of swarming behavior.
Swarming may be most effective, and difficult to defend against, where a set of netwar actors do not "mass" their forces, but rather engage in dispersion and "packetization" (for want of a better term). This means, for example, that drug smugglers can break large loads into many small packets for simultaneous surreptitious transport across a border, or that NGO activists, as in the case of the Zapatista movement, have enough diversity in their ranks to respond to any discrete issue that arises-human rights, democracy, the environment, rural development, whatever.
In terms of their defensive potential, networks tend to be redundant and diverse, making them robust and resilient in the face of attack. When they have a capacity for interoperability and shun centralized command and control, network designs can be difficult to crack and defeat as a whole. In particular, they may defy counter leadership targeting-a favored strategy in the drug war as well as in overall efforts to tamp organized crime in the United States. Thus, whoever wants to attack a network is limited-generally, only portions of a network can be found and confronted. Moreover, the deniability built into a network affords the possibility that it may simply absorb a number of attacks on distributed nodes, leading an attacker to believe the network has been harmed and rendered inoperable when, in fact, it remains viable and is seeking new opportunities for tactical surprise.
The difficulty of dealing with netwar actors deepens when the lines between offense and defense are blurred or blended. When blurring is the case, it may be difficult to distinguish between attacking and defending actions, particularly where an actor goes on the offense in the name of self-defense. For example, the Zapatista struggle in Mexico demonstrates anew the blurring of offense and defense. The blending of offense and defense will often mix the strategic and tactical levels of operations. For example, guerrillas on the defensive strategically may go on the offense tactically, as in the war of the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the 1980s, and in both recent Chechen wars with the Russians.
OPERATING IN THE SEAMS | The blurring of offense and defense reflects another feature of netwar (albeit one that is exhibited in many other policy and issue areas): It tends to defy and cut across standard boundaries, jurisdictions and distinctions between state and society, public and private, war and peace, war and crime, civilian and military, police and military, and legal and illegal. This makes it difficult if not impossible for a government to assign responsibility to any single agency-e.g. military, police or intelligence-to be in charge of responding.
Thus, the spread of netwar adds to the challenges facing the nation state in the information age. Its sovereignty and authority are usually exercised through bureaucracies in which issues and problems can be sliced up and specific offices can be charged with taking care of specific problems. In netwar, things are rarely so clear. A protagonist is likely to operate in the cracks and gray areas of a society, striking where lines of authority crisscross and the operational paradigms of politicians, officials, soldiers, police officers and related actors get fuzzy and clash. Moreover, where transnational participation is strong, a netwar's protagonists may expose a local government to challenges to its sovereignty and legitimacy by arousing foreign governments and business corporations to put pressure on the local government to alter its domestic policies and practices.
NETWORKS VERSUS HIERARCHIES: CHALLENGES FOR COUNTERNETWAR | Hierarchies have a difficult time fighting networks. There are examples of this across the conflict spectrum.
Some of the best are found in the failings of many governments to defeat transnational criminal cartels engaged in drug smuggling, as in Colombia. The persistence of religious revivalist movements, as in Algeria, in the face of unremitting state opposition, shows both the defensive and offensive robustness of the network form.
The Zapatista movement in Mexico, with its legions of supporters and sympathizers among local and transnational NGOs, shows that social netwar can put a democratizing autocracy on the defensive and pressure it to continue adopting reforms.
It takes networks to fight networks. Governments that want to defend against netwar may have to adopt organizational designs and strategies like those of their adversaries. This does not mean mirroring the adversary, but rather learning to draw on the same design principles that he has already learned about the rise of network forms in the information age. These principles depend to some extent on technological innovation, but mainly on a willingness to innovate organizationally and doctrinally, perhaps especially by building new mechanisms for interagency and multijurisdictional cooperation.
Whoever masters the network form first and best will gain major advantages. In these early decades of the information age, adversaries who are advanced at networking (be they criminals, terrorists or peaceful social activists, including ones acting in concert with states) are enjoying an increase in their power relative to state agencies. While networking once allowed them simply to keep from being suppressed, it now allows them to compete on more nearly equal terms with states and other hierarchically oriented actors. The histories of Hamas and of the Cali cartel illustrate this; so do the Zapatista movement in Mexico and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
Counternetwar may thus require very effective interagency approaches, which by their nature involve networked structures.
It is not necessary, desirable or even possible to replace all hierarchies with networks in governments. Rather, the challenge will be to blend these two forms skillfully, while retaining enough core authority to encourage and enforce adherence to networked processes. By creating effective hybrids, governments may become better prepared to confront the new threats and challenges emerging in the information age, whether generated by ethnonationalists, terrorists, militias, criminals or other actors.
Recent netwar conflicts feature an uneven split between those about globalist issues-aimed at fostering the rise of a rights- and ethics-based civil society-and the more frequent, somewhat darker "autonomist" variety of netwar, featuring nonstate actors trying to get out from under state controls. Most of the limited successes that have been achieved thus far are globalist in orientation, while most of the substantial successes (save for the Battle of Seattle and Serbia) have been autonomist. It will be interesting, as the instances of netwar increase over time, to see whether this pattern holds. The outcomes of the globalist cases suggest the prevalence of negotiated solutions, while the autonomist conflicts may, in general, have a much more inherently desperate character that drives them to greater violence and less willingness to reach accommodation. All this we will watch in the years to come. For now, these early cases have helped us to develop this taxonomy of netwar, further refining the concept.
Will netwar continue to empower nonstate actors, perhaps reducing the relative power advantage enjoyed by nation states?
Civil society networks have already made much use of social netwar as a tool for advancing a globalist, ethics-based agenda focused on broadening and deepening human rights regimes-often in the context of an ongoing effort to foster movement from authoritarian rule to democracy (e.g., Burma). But there is another side of nonstate-actor-oriented netwar, characterized not by globalist impulses, but rather by the desire to avoid state control of a network's criminal, terrorist or ethnic-separatist agenda (e.g., Hamas and Chechens). While the globalist netwars seem devoted to nonviolent tools of struggle, the autonomists may employ both means of engagement-often with a greater emphasis on violence.
VARIETIES OF NETWAR-DUAL PHENOMENA | Netwar can be waged by "good" as well as "bad" actors and through peaceful as well as violent measures. From its beginnings, netwar has appealed to a broad cross-section of nonstate actors who are striving to confront or cope with their state authorities.
Ethnonationalists, criminals and terrorists-all have found new power in networking. But so too have emerging global civil society actors who have emphasized nonviolent efforts to win the "battle of the story"-a more purely informational dimension of netwar-rather than the violent swarming characteristic of its darker side.
The duality of netwar in the real world-dark-side criminals and terrorists on the one hand, but enlightening civil society forces on the other, is mirrored in the virtual world of cyberspace, which is increasingly utilized for crime and terror, along with social activism.
At present, social activism is far more robust and established in the cyber realm than is crime or terror. Will this continue to be the case? We think so. Activists will become more adept at integrating the mobilizing force of the Internet with the power and appeal of messages aimed at spreading and protecting human rights. Even so, criminal and terrorist organizations will learn how to manipulate the infosphere with increasing skill.
Thus, netwar has two faces, like the Roman god Janus. Janus was the god of doors and gates, and thus of departures and returns, and new beginnings and initiatives. This, in a sense, meant he was the god of communications, too. His double face, one old and looking back, the other younger and peering forward, conveyed that he was an inherently dual god. At the beginning of creation, he partook in the separation of order from chaos. In Roman times, he was identified with the distinction between war and peace, for the gate to his temple at the Forum was kept ceremoniously closed in times of peace and open in times of war-which meant the gates were rarely closed. At the start of the 21st century, the world is again at a new beginning. It is uncertain whether it will be an era of peace or conflict; but how matters turn out will depend to some degree on which face of netwar predominates.
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