Friday, January 19, 2007

Using The Enemy's Strength Against Them

Martin Muckian's key insight, expressed in his article the "Structural Vulnerabilities of Networked Insurgencies" in the Winter 2006-07 issue of Parameters, is that Islamic insurgencies are in many ways the opposite of 20th century insurgencies. In contradistinction to "People's War", which relied on the creation of a revolutionary infrastructure and emphasized the painstaking recruitment of cadres, networked insurgencies such as those in Iran are largely built on small cells, such as might be put together by half a dozen people meeting in a room. The glue that holds networked insurgencies together is both their strength and weakness. And the nature of the binding ties explains why information warfare is so important in the current struggle.


In contrast to the Maoist hierarchy, this network of insurgent factions has no central leadership. For this loose organization, consultation, coordination and consensus must substitute for central direction. But far more than simple coordination is required if these organizations are to be effective. Networks need what John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt called shared narrative and doctrine to maintain their cohesion and focus. The narrative is the story the network tells to communicate a sense of cause, purpose, and mission and to engender a sense of identity and belonging among members of the network and potential recruits. The insurgents' narrative centers on the fact they are patriotic and pious freedom fighters battling to expel a foreign occupier and overthrow an illegitimate regime. By simultaneously emphasizing nationalism and Islamism, this narrative offers something for everyone and bonds groups who have little in common.

Shared doctrine enables the network to operate in an integrated manner without central control. For example, the insurgents share information about IED operations: techniques, tactics, enemy vulnerabilities, and target priorities. This allows groups acting independently to conduct IED attacks in a coherent pattern.  In short, the insurgents "compensate for lack of [central leadership] by emphasizing operational and ideological cohesion." Beyond narrative and doctrine, there is another element to the cohesion of the insurgency, information technology. The ubiquity of cellular telephones and computers is largely what makes networked organizations possible. The insurgency is particularly dependent on the internet for communication and organization. This is discussed more fully below, but it is important to keep in mind that information technology is not simply an aid to a network; it is essential to its functioning.

Although Muckian's examples are drawn from Iraq, they might as well have been drawn from the Islamic insurgency in the Philippines. Here if anywhere, the assumption that terrorists are operating according to some strict Bolshevik discipline is wildly misplaced. An individual Muslim terrorist might have multiple associations with one or all of several organizations -- the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Abu Sayyaf Group or the Jemaah Islamiyah. And be able to run from one to the other. Counterterrorism tactics which assume the enemy is pursuing the organizationally disciplined "People's War" model may result in irrelevant "divide and rule" counterinsurgency schemes. For example, the Philippine government is attempting to negotiate a political settlement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, designating them a "peace partner", providing their personnel with certain immunities and promoted "confidence building" measures among them. It's a classic attempt to win over the "moderate" rebels and isolate the "radicals". But the weakness of that approach was illustrated when it became known that the Jemaah Islamiyah had been training its cadres inside Moro Islamic Liberation Front areas. Because the insurgency was based on "narrative" rather than Bolshevik discipline the terrorists could move between organizational boundaries which were really only meaningful to the counter-insurgent. The Western policeman may stop pursuit at an organizational or international border, but a terrorist driven by narrative will walk right through it. (Fortunately, some Filipino counterterrorism operators understood this and countered by enlisting the help of Islamic insurgents with whom they had "personal" relationships and arranged for elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to carry out raids against the Jemaah Islamiyah. This tactic may not always work well, but it illustrates how counterterrorists can turn "network" and "narrative" against the enemy. If organizational fluidity is an enemy strength, it is also an enemy weakness.)

But there are more insights in Muckian's Parameters article, one of which is that an Islamic insurgency operates essentially like a criminal organization. It is not vulnerable to decapitation, but it is vulnerable to disruption.

Counterinsurgencies against Maoists often aimed to destroy the leadership hierarchy. ... The United States is following a similar strategy in Iraq. US intelligence assigns each insurgent leader a position in a tiered structure. A great amount of effort is directed toward capturing or eliminating this leadership. But a networked organization, like the Iraqi insurgency, is very resilient to this type of attack. First, as previously mentioned, this type of organization has no leadership hierarchy. ... often people who are perceived by outsiders as leaders are more accurately described as "traveling evangelists." ...

A better paradigm for a counterinsurgency strategy may be found in studying law enforcement operations against criminal organizations. Criminal networks, like insurgencies, are very hard to completely eradicate. Law enforcement strategies, therefore, often focus on disrupting the network's ability to function rather than its destruction. ... A critical node is a person or cell whose function has a "high level of importance and a low level of redundancy." ... for example, British intelligence believes that there are only a handful of bombmakers producing the bulk of the IEDs. Or, it could mean a node which serves as the sole link between two organizations. Although these individuals may not be high-ranking, they play a vital role in the network, and their elimination will degrade the insurgency's ability to operate more than the removal of its ostensible leadership. This understanding is key to combating a networked insurgency. A network may be hard to destroy, but it can be disrupted.

Although this kind of disruption sounds suspiciously like organizational decapitation by another name and with other metrics the insight is probably fundamentally correct. I was struck by the observation that most counterterrorist efforts in Asia (with the exception of the Philippines where the function has been assigned to the military) were led by the police. And when you think about it, who are better prepared to combat criminal networks and run a stable of informers than cops?

Lastly, Muckian's model fully accounts for the central roles of media warfare and monetary support in a networked insurgency. Since what held the network together was "narrative" that narrative was fragile; and because shared doctrine (i.e. combat techniques) then disrupting the funding for their training and technical support was critical. By questioning the enemy's "narrative" and clamping down on sources of foreign support one could suck the energy right out of the enemy network. Here's how Muckian characterizes the fragility of the enemy narrative.

The [Iraqi] insurgency is balanced between nationalism and Islamic extremism. ... Internally, each organization is a mix of groups representing a spectrum of ideologies. ... To hold this dissimilar coalition together, any discussion of events beyond expelling the Coalition and toppling the government is carefully avoided. ... These issues are potential cracks in the shared narrative that holds the movement together. Further cracks showed when the insurgency tried responding to political initiatives by the government. For example, the January 2005 elections forced the insurgency to state a position. But there was no mutual agreement about how to respond: some groups threatened to attack voters, others urged a boycott. The result was chaos which damaged the insurgency's standing with the populace. ...These examples demonstrate the limitations of the narrative as a means of cohesion. As long as the network confronts issues that are within the shared story of the narrative, it can maintain its unity. If issues outside the narrative arise, however, such as the elections or an agenda for the future of Iraq, the network loses its cohesion as groups respond according to their own ideology. The network may be capable of reaching a consensus, but this takes time. This disjointedness demonstrates that the political cohesion of a networked insurgency is directly vulnerable in a way the Maoist revolutionaries were not.

Muckian's analysis sheds interesting light on the Jihadi obsession with media warfare. Media and communications are their way of holding the narrative together. But if the narrative itself is inherently fragile then media warfare is not only important offensively it is even more important defensively. The loss of narrative control might lead to internecine warfare among the networked factions. Edward Luttwak stumbled on to this effect in his Opinion Journal article yesterday. He claims the Bush Administration is ignoring its greatest achievement in the Middle East. It has set Sunni against Shia and were it cynical enough, could take this fact to the bank.

President Bush has managed to divide and conquer the Middle East. It was the hugely ambitious project of the Bush administration to transform the entire Middle East by remaking Iraq into an irresistible model of prosperous democracy. Having failed in that worthy purpose, another, more prosaic result has inadvertently been achieved: divide and rule, the classic formula for imperial power on the cheap. The ancient antipathy between Sunni and Shiite has become a dynamic conflict, not just within Iraq but across the Middle East, and key protagonists on each side seek the support of American power. Once the Bush administration realizes what it has wrought, it will cease to scramble for more troops that can be sent to Iraq, because it has become pointless to patrol and outpost a civil war, while a mere quarter or less of the troops already there are quite enough to control the outcome. And that is just the start of what can now be achieved across the region with very little force, and some competent diplomacy.

 In refusing to discuss Islam at all -- by declaring it a "religion of peace" -- President Bush had handed the Islamic insurgency control of the narrative. He wasn't going to contest it. But by an absurdist accident of history GWB wound up raising the most divisive and explosive element of all in the Islamic narrative; the one which everyone was loathe to mention but which the toppling of Saddam Hussein raised inadvertently. The age old schism between Sunni and Shi'a. President Bush began by declaiming to the Ummah that Islam was the Religion of Peace and to his surprise the audience erupted with knives one against the other. The result, according to Luttwak at least is an accidental stroke of genius. By sheer luck Bush has wound up with an alliance with the Sunnis against the Shi'a in Lebanon and an alliance with the Shi'a against the Sunni in Iraq.

When the Bush administration came into office, only Egypt and Jordan were functioning allies of the U.S. Iran and Iraq were already declared enemies, Syria was hostile, and even its supposed friends in the Arabian peninsula were so disinclined to help that none did anything to oppose al Qaeda. Some actively helped it, while others knowingly allowed private funds to reach the terrorists whose declared aim was to kill Americans. The Iraq war has indeed brought into existence a New Middle East, in which Arab Sunnis can no longer gleefully disregard American interests because they need help against the looming threat of Shiite supremacy, while in Iraq at the core of the Arab world, the Shia are allied with the U.S. What past imperial statesmen strove to achieve with much cunning and cynicism, the Bush administration has brought about accidentally. But the result is exactly the same.

Whether Luttwak's analysis holds up remains to be seen, but the Sunni-Shi'a uproar is a possible example of what happens when something goes wrong with the narrative of the networked insurgency. Finally, Muckian discusses the role of money and information technology in the networked Jihad. "The Iraqi insurgency has at least three separate means of financing its cause: former regime leaders, overseas fundraising, and criminal activities. ... One of the ways that a network such as the Iraqi insurgency departs from its hierarchical predecessors is its dependence on information technology. It is important to understand that this technology is not simply a communication tool; in large part, it is what makes a networked organization possible." And therefore the key to success lies in:

  • First, attack critical nodes for maximum disruptive effect.
  • Second, networked insurgencies do not necessarily have strong political cohesion. Attack the narrative by forcing the insurgency to respond to issues that are outside its scope - this can disrupt or even fracture the movement as each group responds to the issue according to its own ideology.
  • Third, attack the sources of support.
  • Fourth, attack the information technology infrastructure of the network.

The last point -- attacking the information technology infrastructure -- resonated as I followed news of the encirclement and elimination of Abu Solaiman by Filipino special forces, aided by American "intelligence" support. In an archipelagic theater like Southern Mindanao, the enemy is forced to operate over long distances without landlines. What vulnerabilities his communication infrastructure offered I could only guess. But one thing was sure, Abu Solaiman would never know.

14 Comments:

Blogger Gottlob Frege said...

Two Additional Tactics:

1. If we want our propaganda to succeed and undermine the networks “narrative,” we need to spread information using the forms of communication prevalent in the target cultures rather than the ones prevalent in American culture. Communication in Arab culture relies heavily oral tradition, including rumor and conspiracy theories (read Iraq the Model if you doubt this). The oral spread of information is the Arab version of the old “Bamboo Telegraph.” We should tap into the “bamboo telegraph” lines and use it to spread our “narrative.”

The U.S. government should form an organization of people that carefully study the form and content of successful rumors in the Arab world. What are the elements of successful rumors in the Arab world? Is the wilder the better or should it play on preexisting fears? Which preexisting fears and prejudices get the most mileage?, etc. These people should be familiar with Arab culture and language and apply the lesson of their study of rumors and conspiracy theory by spreading rumors helpful to the U.S. We tend to focus on slick TV commercials and Madison Ave. marketing campaigns that are effective in U.S. political campaigns rather than the oral forms of communication effective in arab cultures.

2. Further, terrorist networks and insurgents us the tribal culture to their advantage. They use the tools and methods used to create and maintain tribal power to form their networks. For example, tribal leaders and tribes that provided materially for people grew in power and prestige (think of the line from Lawrence of Arabia where Omar Sherif says “I am a river to my people.”) Tribal formation and power is largely a story of patronage. Hezbollah and Iran do this in Lebanon. They provide for a local population. The population submits to the leaders because they are patrons of the people. This gives Hezbollah a population base to fight from.

U.S. success in Afghan was unquestionably aided by having an indigenous armed ally (i.e. the Northern Alliance). This allowed local forces with knowledge of the language, culture, terrain, enemy tactics and strategy to fight against the Taliban aided by U.S. air power and special operators. We lacked this sort of ally in our war with Iraq.
We need copy the models of Hezbollah and Hamas and create a power base through patronage. The U.S. can do with by selecting tribal and militia leaders we can work with and supply them with the resources to expand their power base through patronage. We would set certain broad ethical boarders that these leaders agree to work within (e.g. no genocide, etc.).

Use the networks tools against them!

1/19/2007 01:17:00 PM  
Blogger Wu Wei said...

> We lacked this sort of ally in our war with Iraq.

We have connected with local leaders numerous times in Iraq, including a current operation in Anbar. The problem is that insurgents usually overpower our allies, with reports of those who supported us being killed after we leave the area.

It comes down to the basic rule of counterinsurgency that a gun held to the head overpowers every other motivation. Every good or bad feeling towards the army which left the area is meaningless when the insurgent is holding a gun to the villager's head. Fear caused from past violence from the army which left the area is overpowered, as is knowledge that the government has more powerful weapons a hundred miles away, when Al Qaeda is next door watching and waiting to torture and rape the villager's entire family at the first sign of disloyalty.

I agree then with the "new" US Army / Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy which says that the top priority is to protect the population.

The information war is critical too, and I am not disagreeing with that. Was just commenting on the situation in Iraq. The info war is important because citizens can provide varying degrees of support for either the government or insurgency.

Even in a terrorist occupied village, if the citizens hate the terrorist enough, some may be willing to take the risk to pass intelligence to the government, or at least to withhold it from the insurgents.

1/19/2007 01:51:00 PM  
Blogger Wu Wei said...

I forgot to say that the Petraeus approach is to clear & hold & build territory, with the foreign army (US) not moving away from the area until the host nation (Iraq) is fully capable of holding it themselves.

"Build" is something like the very bad phrase "hearts and minds". It doesn't refer to emotion, but simply that the people expect the government to provide the basic services that every government does like safety, law & order, electricity, etc. This fits the real world because insurgents make a strong effort to destroy oil, electric, etc. facilities in Iraq.

By holding ground and providing a government, we end up automatically doing what others have suggested here, building local support. The people in our village are "us", our supporters, as opposed to the insurgents.

1/19/2007 02:00:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Lever said...

Interesting post, Wretchard. Thank you.

One interesting and in some ways analogous political narrative-driven network that many Americans will understand was the 1992 Ross Perot presidential campaign.

It was formed of diverse groups willing to overlook their differences until after the election.

It became especially interesting to watch local organizers after Perot removed himself from the front of the parade. The main bit of adhesion was gone, but the local organizers were looking to keep the narrative going.

Once it was necessary to discuss the future instead of the past, the cohesion was lost.

1/19/2007 02:03:00 PM  
Blogger BigSpaghetti said...

"A better paradigm for a counterinsurgency strategy may be found in studying law enforcement operations against criminal organizations."

In a criminal investigation you build a case, gather evidence, convey a grand jury, etc...

If we're fighting an insurgency that resembles organized crime perhaps we should dispense with building a case, gathering evidence, conveying a grand jury, and just kill. Kill. Kill. Kill.

Kill until everyone we suspect is dead. Let's not conduct investigations. Kill the bomb makers. Kill the transient evangelists. Kill their spouses. “Kill Japs.”

1/19/2007 08:34:00 PM  
Blogger Alexis said...

"A better paradigm for a counterinsurgency strategy may be found in studying law enforcement operations against criminal organizations."

I prefer the tactics of Rudolph Giuliani over the tactics of Benito Mussolini.

1/19/2007 09:50:00 PM  
Blogger Ari Tai said...

Given these are 1st world networks that the 3rd world uses we can choose to disrupt their use of same, assuming our own citizens agree. They should not be able to use our infrastructure with impunity (disrupt if not deny access to our banks, transport, travel, communications, internet, radio spectrum, etc.) If they need this type of infrastructure they should have to build one for themselves, and protect it from our and others traditional armed forces.

Granted, this means our citizens will have to tell our government we will tolerate for a while a more transparent, less-private personal and business life until this succeeds (at least in America). Note this is likely not a lot different in substance than the personal and business intrusions that were required to win the cold-war (by denying the USSR access to the materials, technology and wealth it needed to decisively win wars with its much larger standing army).

In Europe and most other parts of the world they don't have our reluctance to assume that their citizens are subjects owned by the state in nearly all aspects (irrespective of the facade and so-called privacy laws which are written to protect the powerful from those that would expose their corruption). But since they actually operate so little of the infrastructure, we can't rely on them to protect us.

e.g. I think most mid-east (satellite) internet downlinks into Germany, which has rules about hate sites and explicit violence. They could certainly shut down the jihadi narrative (by shutting down network access to the area to sites and web pages full of violence) if they would do for those links what they do for their own citizens. I'm surprised NATO hasn't done this, but then again, governments and militaries are often late-adopters, last to understand the impact and utility of new technologies, to say nothing about deploying solutons based on same. Which isn't unusual, considering it took the big automakers to convince the army to move away from mules (after 20+ years of being embarassed in from of their international peers). It's always been the citizen and their enterprise which solves these problems.

1/20/2007 06:47:00 AM  
Blogger Jamie Irons said...

Wretchard,


Thanks yet again for introducing me to some really original thinking, both Muckian's analysis and your elaboration of it.

I think back to the early part of the war, when we went after, fairly successfully, the "deck of cards" characters. It is now clear to me why that effort had so little effect on our efforts to move Iraq forward.

Another thing that this piece may explain: the fact that the Islamist project has so far, thank G_d, made so little headway in our own country. I think the "narrative" just doesn't work very well here; it has little if any traction with any person who is even marginally wired in to the American dream. And for this reason we must resist forcefully every effort by groups such as CAIR to promote the "special" status of Islam and Muslims.


Jamie Irons

1/20/2007 09:16:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

Perhaps this distributed aspect of the insurgency explains why strident calls for pious lifestyles can co-exist alongside extensive use of drugs by Islamic fighters as well as visits to strip clubs by the 9/11/01 hijackers. If so, this could indeed be a vulnerability if we take some pains to show Islamicists what is being done "in their name."

The other aspect that is interesting is the lack of central control, which has to lead to some problems. When the USSR sent agents into the USA they were informed that they would have to get along on their own, without financial aid from home. Some were forced to become successful businessman as a result. One of these returned to the USSR have years of deep cover in the USA and was given a tour of a state-owned factory. When he was asked to give an inspirational talk after the tour, the assembled workers eagerly waiting to hear words of wisdom from the Soviet hero were distressed to hear him begin with "In the first place, if this were my factory I would fire all of you."

This situation, in turn, led to great suspicion in the USSR over the spies that had been dispatched to the West and then "gone native." Beria ordered most all of them home and had them executed.

1/20/2007 03:32:00 PM  
Blogger Mike H. said...

"If so, this could indeed be a vulnerability if we take some pains to show Islamicists what is being done 'in their name.'"

RWE, the answer to your expose would be cheers for those who used Taqiyya so artfully that they were able to achieve their goal with impunity. The dichotomy would have to be established from their culture not ours.

1/20/2007 03:56:00 PM  
Blogger maryatexitzero said...

Terrorists cells can't eat ideology, and the Koran doesn't teach the intracacies of bomb-building. Terrorists, or asymetric war's 'soldiers' require an extensive support network. The cells are usually well hidden, but their financial, political and weapons support systems are usually out in the open and they're very vulnerable.

Asymetric warfare offers the foot soldiers a fair amount of protection - they're not uniformed, they use civilian shields, they blend into the population. Instead of aiming for the hard targets, we should attack the terrorist infrastructure at its weakest points - the unprotected middlemen. This includes the politicians, the weapon supply chain, the legal and illegal financial network - any part of the terrorist infrastructure that's protected only by implausible deniability.

The goal in a war is to destroy the enemy's infrastructure by the most efficient means possible. Since these terror supporters are part of the terrorist infrastructure, they are enemy combatants and should be treated as such. Since they are relatively unprotected, they can be removed more quickly, and in more massive numbers, than the terrorist foot soldiers. When their support structure is weakened, the foot soldiers might become easier targets too.

1/20/2007 08:33:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

In the book “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” (Hardcover) by Ori Brafman, Rod Beckstrom , the authors describe the characteristics of distributed networks. A “spider” and a “starfish” look somewhat similar, but if you cut off a few of the spider’s legs you cripple it. If you cut off a few of the starfish’s legs, they grow back. Worse, each cut off leg grows into a new starfish. The “starfish” represents a distributed network.

When we entered into the War On Terror, we thought of Al Quada as a traditional top-down hierarchical “spider” network. Cut off the head (kill Osama and his lieutenants) and it would die out. What we discovered was that we were dealing with a “starfish” network held together only by its poisonous anti-Western hatred and desire to overthrow the current world order.

Blowing up Tora Bora made great CNN footage, but even if Osama had been killed, it wouldn’t have mattered much in winning the War On Terror. The terrorist network would merely regenerate.

This doesn’t mean the War On Terror is unwinnable, but unless we change our tactics to ones more suitable to fighting the distributed network, we will merely be lopping off starfish arms and helplessly watching more starfish springing up.

1/21/2007 06:50:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Grynch said...

There are three ways to kill a “starfish” network:
1) Toss it in the fire and destroy it utterly. If we killed all jihadists and all potential jihadists we would accomplish this. This would require killing or imprisoning 1%-5% of the world’s 1.5 billion muslim population.
2) Convert the starfish into a spider and then deal with it using conventional tactics. This is the tactic being pursued with little success in Palestine. By forming a Palestinian government, there will hopefully be an entity with the will and desire to negotiate a peace and with the power to suppress the terrorists.
3) Convert ourselves into a starfish network or develop a starfish network to fight the terrorist network. We could keep muslims busy pitting sunnis against shia, or use the Kurds as our representatives. As the Kurds form a stable, peaceful, prosperous democracy they would serve as one more good example for the backwards Arabs. Iran could be neutralized by fomenting open rebellion against its government by its restive populous.

1/21/2007 07:09:00 PM  
Blogger Wu Wei said...

Speaking of the information war,

> My own view as a pollster is that politicians should indeed be guided by what the public wants from them, but only if the public have been taken through a proper debate about the realistic alternatives.

That quote is from a British pollster and I think says it perfectly. Right before that he said,

> Other polls show that Britons are indeed concerned about losing the ‘War on Terror’, but they haven’t been asked to face up to the consequences of that; in the wake of attempted hijacks, they have said they support a ‘tougher’ policy, but they haven’t been told what that might mean.

1/22/2007 11:38:00 AM  

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