By John Arquilla & David Ronfeldt

 Fight Networks with Networks

The US must build its own networks and learn to swarm the terrorist network until it can be destroyed. At its heart, netwar is far more about organization and doctrine than it is about technology. 

Assuming that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network is our principal adversary, then we must outperform his network at all five levels at which information-age networks need to excel: the organizational, narrative, doctrinal, technological, and social.

First, at the organizational level, a global confrontation is now raging between hierarchical/state actors and networked/nonstate actors. The age of hierarchies is giving way to an age of networks. It is not yet clear whether the al-Qaeda network has a single hub revolving around bin Laden or has multiple hubs. If it has a single hub, then bin Laden’s death or capture would signal the defeat of his network. However, the more a network takes the form of a multi-hub “spider’s web”  design, with multiple centers and peripheries, as may be the case with al-Qaeda, the more redundant and resilient it will be—and the harder to defeat.

Therefore, the United States, its allies, and friends must learn to network better with each other. Some of this is already happening with intelligence sharing, but much more must be done. It will be a major challenge for the cumbersome American bureaucracy to achieve deep, selective, all- channel networking among the military, law enforcement, and intelligence elements whose collaboration is crucial for success. U.S. counter-terrorism agencies have been headed in this direction for years, but interagency rivalries and distrust have too often slowed progress.

Second, at the narrative level, Western ideas about the spread of free markets, free peoples, and open societies contend with Muslim convictions about the exploitative, invasive, and demeaning nature of Western incursions into the Islamic world. The United States has toughened its  narrative by deeming the terrorist attacks “acts of war” against “the civilized world,” and American public opinion has been galvanized by the revival of the Pearl Harbor metaphor.

The United States may hold the edge in the “battle of the story” in much of the world, but it will have to think deeply about how to retain that edge as U.S. forces take action in the Middle East. More than ever, we must craft an “information strategy” complete with truth-seeking teams of “special media forces” that could discover and disseminate accurate information. And wherever we use military force, we must beware of causing noncombatant casualties, so that we are not vulnerable to the countercharge of being “state terrorists.”

Third, in terms of doctrine (or strategy), the al-Qaeda network apparently grasps the value of attacking from multiple directions by dispersed small units. Bin Laden and his cohorts appear to follow a swarm-like doctrine. Swarming entails a campaign of episodic, pulsing attacks by various nodes of the network at locations sprawled across global space and time. Against this doctrine, the United States has seemingly little to pose, as yet. The offensive part of U.S. doctrine is still based on aging notions of strategic bombardment, which is not likely to be a winning approach. A whole new doctrine based on small-unit swarming should be developed, emphasizing special forces and limited air power. The air power would be used mostly to provide fire support to our swarming teams on the ground.

Fourth, at the technological level, the United States possesses a vast array of very advanced systems, while al-Qaeda has relatively few. Nevertheless, perhaps only a small portion of our technological systems has utility against dispersed, networked terrorists.

Fifth, at the social level, the al-Qaeda network features tight religious and kinship bonds among people who share a tribal, clannish view of “us” versus “them.” In this regard, the United States faces a profound challenge. If the Pearl Harbor metaphor holds up, and if U.S. operations result in successful early counterstrikes, then there may be unusual public solidarity to sustain the war on terrorism. But a different social divide could also emerge between the United States and Europe over whether the counterstrikes should follow a “war” or a “law enforcement” paradigm.

In summary, al-Qaeda seems to hold advantages at the organizational, doctrinal, and social levels. The United States and its allies probably hold only marginal advantages at the narrative and technological levels. Yet there appears to be little room for al-Qaeda to improve. In contrast, there is much room for the United States and its allies to improve, mostly at the organizational and doctrinal levels. Simply put, the West must build its own networks and learn to swarm the enemy network until it can be destroyed. At its heart, netwar—or information-oriented conflict waged by networks—is far more about organization and doctrine than it is about technology. It’s high time we realize this.




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