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.