Monday, October 29, 2007

The Invulnerable Networked Insurgency (Part 1)

Armed Liberal at Winds of Change takes on what he describes as the myth of the invincible "networked insurgency". The futility of fighting al-Qaeda  has often been compared to fighting the mythical Hydra and the capture or death of each al-Qaeda "high value target" in Iraq was discounted as being as futile as cutting off the head of the legendary Lernaean serpent since each severed head was immediately replaced by two more. And when the words "network" and "insurgency" are juxtaposed, the public automatically associates the vastness and power of the Internet, the world's best known public network, with the traditional potency of insurgencies to create the nightmare image of an invulnerable al-Qaeda, at once omnipresent and invincible. Armed Liberal writes:
the notion that we can't defeat a networked guerilla force (see John Robb) ... has pretty well taken hold ... there are many heads, and so you can't decapitate such a network, the argument goes. And since every violent act against a member of the network damages the network, and simultaneously helps it heal (by, for example, recruiting others to join the network), the issue is the ratio between damage/healing, and the attacker risks facing an impossible task, since the more damage they do the network, the stronger it may get.
(This has been reprinted from an article I wrote at Pajamas Media)

And those who are  not persuaded by allusions to Greek mythology must surely be silenced by an appeal to mathematics. Network theory, so the public was sometimes told, demonstrates the near-impossibility of disrupting a network like the Internet and hence, al-Qaeda. And as practical proof of this assertion, examples like this, from a.popular primer on networks are cited to put the proposition beyond refutation.
Motivated by the DARPA proposal, in January 2000 we performed a series of computer experiments to test the Internet's resilience to router failures. Starting from the best available Internet map, we removed randomly selected nodes from the network. Expecting a critical point, we gradually increased the number of removed nodes, waiting for the moment when the Internet would fall to pieces. To our great astonishment the network refused to break apart. We could remove as many as 80 percent of all nodes, and the remaining 20 percent still hung together, forming a tightly interlinked cluster. This finding agreed with the increasing realization that the Internet, unlike many other human, made systems, displays a high degree of robustness against router failures. Indeed, a University of Michigan-Ann Arbor study had found that at any moment hundreds of Internet routers malfunction. Despite these frequent and unavoidable breakdowns, users rarely notice significant disruptions of Internet services.
What further proof could one require? What further evidence of the futility of trying to fight al-Qaeda? And yet Armed Liberal wondered what could possibly account for the recent defeats of al-Qaeda in Iraq? How could the AP report that "the civilian death toll in Iraq fell to its lowest level in recent memory"? Could it really be true, as the McClatchy Newspapers claimed, that deaths from terrorism had fallen so low that gravediggers in Iraq were openly complaining of unemployment? How could the apparent defeats suffered by al-Qaeda be reconciled with the confident assurance that it was invincible, however many heads were lopped off; what refutation could be found to the argument that one could remove "randomly selected nodes from the network" ... "as many as 80 percent of all nodes" and still have "the remaining 20 percent" hanging together? The answer to the conundrum is found in a close reading of experiment. What it says is that networks like the Internet are highly resistant to the removal of "randomly selected nodes". It says nothing about how sensitive they are to attacks made non-randomly on  highly connected nodes. Winds of Change notes that the same primer on networks describes a totally different result when an experimental attack is made on highly connected nodes on the Internet. This time the network doesn't shrug it off; it degrades rapidly.
Mimicking the actions of a cracker ... we removed the largest hub, followed by the next largest, and so on. The consequences of our attack were evident. The removal of the first hub did not break the system, because the rest of the hubs were still able to hold the network together. After the removal of several hubs, however, the effect of the disruptions was clear. Large chunks of nodes were falling off the network, becoming disconnected from the main cluster. As we pushed further, removing even more hubs, we witnessed the network's spectacular collapse. The critical point, conspicuously absent under failures, suddenly reemerged when the net¬ work was attacked. The removal of a few hubs broke the Internet into tiny, hopelessly isolated pieces.
But the careful reader would have noticed that neither the "proof" of a network's vulnerability to the removal of key nodes nor the "proof" of invincibility against  random attack necessarily applies to al-Qaeda. Winds of Change could be right in saying that "it's possible to degrade and the destroy the effectiveness of networked insurgencies" -- that attacking high value targets can actually degrade al-Qaeda; but the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the simple analogy to the Internet. In order to show the analysis works, it is necessary to show that the analysis applies. We must ask ourselves in what way the Internet might resemble al-Qaeda -- and why a mode of attack applied to the one might apply to the other. If we could convince ourselves of that, then the analogies presented by Armed Liberal at Winds of Change would be more persuasive. The place to begin is with the structure of al-Qaeda itself. Al-Qaeda's cellular structure is a classic example of what is called a Small World Network. .That's a fancy term to describe an organization where most members know only their immediate neighbors (or cell members) but can reach any other cluster of members by sending messages over a number of "hops" through members who are super-connected -- that is members of more than one cell. The link-men make it possible for any given member to reach another through a very small number of "hops", typically less than six. That's why it's called a Small World Network.. We call these super-connected members "hubs". The diagram below represents this situation. It's clear from the diagram that random members can communicate with the wider organization only through members who belong to two or more cells. With them they can communicate efficiently. Without the link-men they are cut off.  
It is the existence of these link-men (or "nodes") with a high-degree of connectivity that allows a network to expand indefinitely. Without these super-connected nodes communication becomes impractical for a network of a large size. The reason the Internet is scale-free is because it contains a hierarchy of hubs through which a message can find its way. And the speed with which it can find the hub is invariant with respect to size. Another example of the same type is the air-travel network. It's possible to fly to any part of the globe with relatively few connections precisely because of the existence of hubs. Without hubs communications and air-travel become very tedious. Both the Internet and the air-travel system, gigantic though they are, exhibit the properties of a Small World Network because they have nodes which have a high degree of connectivity. Although it is dissimilar in almost everything from the Internet and the air-travel system, al-Qaeda network architecture resembles them in that it shares this crucial property. It might theoretically be possible for al-Qaeda to redesign itself through a supreme effort of will into a random network in which no node is better connected than any other but the cost would be severe. Osama Bin Laden could communicate with his underlings only through a large number of steps in process similar to the game of Telephone or Chinese Whispers and receive a reply only in the same way. In a network with the Small World property the removal of random nodes will hardly affect its operation. For example, there are a vast number of nodes on the Internet and thousands of airports throughout the world and striking one chosen by lottery will probably only damage something trivial. The odds a blow will land on a vital spot purely by chance are remote. An attacker without a detailed knowledge of the system is unlikely to stumble on a critical node purely by accident. Random attacks would probably be futile. But if that attacker understood precisely how the system worked the effect would be very different. Those directed attacks would be devastating. It would be as if an attack were mounted on the Internet Domain Name Servers or O'Hare Airport were shut down. The same applies to attacks on al-Qaeda's hubs. It is the similarity between the structures of the Internet and al-Qaeda that make Armed Liberal's arguments so persuasive. That analysis shows what types of attacks are likely to be effective and which are probably going to be ineffectual.  It suggests that Al-Qaeda will be highly resistant to random damage. Dropping a JDAM on the average Iraqi, Afghan, Saudi or Pakistani walking down the street is unlikely to produce no operational effect on al-Qaeda whatsoever. But dropping JDAMs on a high value target with key contacts and knowledge can be very disruptive. This explains why  intelligence and working in partnership with allied Muslims is so important in fighting a networked insurgency. It explains why General Petraeus has so been effective. By working with Muslims, by "getting into the nodes" is it possible to identify the critical hubs. You can see the network from the inside. Then by taking down the critical hubs is it possible to rapidly degrade al-Qaeda. And by degrading al-Qaeda the effectiveness of its terror operations to intimidate a population into submission correspondingly declines. That's why the partnerships with grassroots communities that the Coalition has formed in Iraq have been so effective. The Iraqis, in partnership with the Coalition have been identifying the hubs. In return the US has used its matchless kinetic warfare assets to take down the hubs. Taken together the partnership between political work and intelligence gathering on the one hand, and targeted attacks on the other hand, have proved very devastating against al-Qaeda. And that's why there's a slump in the graveyard business in Iraq.


Blogger Mutt said...

That is the very best description of what the world faces when dealing with the terrorist network. It supports the failure of the "Whack-a-Mole" strategy and the current success of the “Counterinsurgency” strategy. When people harp that the troop strength and forget to mention the change in the rules of engagement, this is where they need to be directed.

10/29/2007 06:08:00 AM  
Blogger PeterBoston said...

The buzz about conceptualizing AQ as a computer or communications network makes interesting reading but I think it misses entirely the factors that make people different from machines.

AQ, both as a distinct organization and as the embodiment of modern terrorism, is ideologically driven. You can pull Bin Laden's and Zawarhiri's broadcasted speeches straight out of the Koran and the Haidith. Any person anywhere with an education in or access to these writings can develop the very same ideological motivation for killing the infidel with absolutely no connection to any other node.

AQ can bypass the network entirely by broadcasting its message directly to every eye or ear on earth. Recipients do not need detailed indoctrination because they already have a shared ideological foundation.

Granted that autonomous nodes will not act with the same effectiveness as a coordinated network but that does not mean that uncoordinated attacks cannot be effective. What would happen if AQ started broadcasting a stream of messages for all "real" Muslims to converge on and attack the infidel in a particular Western city? Would even perfect knowledge of the identity and location of every AQ high value target prevent Western casualties?

How many casualties would it have taken to make accommodation to the Islamists more likely?

I believe that this AQ strategy has been averted because Iraq/Afghanistan continue to be jihadi flypaper. AQ cannot swarm a Western city while the infidel desecrates Muslim land - at least that is the way this strategy would likely be interpreted in Islamoworld.

10/29/2007 07:20:00 AM  
Blogger 2164th said...

On a previous post, and many others we discussed the moral equivalency argument to multiculturalism. Some of our friends on the left love to balance Islamic terrorism with Israeli aggression. I offer them a little fact:

This year Islam's and Judaism's holiest holidays overlapped for 10 days. Muslims racked up 397 dead bodies in 94 terror attacks across 10 countries.

The Jews worked on their 159th Nobel Prize.

10/29/2007 07:29:00 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

This seems to be a case study of the danger of mixing propaganda with reality, where the OODA loop of certain analysts is corrupted by mixing informational warfare concepts with reality. I’ve been reading John Robb for some time (a bit less lately) and I got his book a week ago (with a bunch of others so it is still unread) and I am certain that he never defined the Sunni insurgency as Al Qaida. It was the US military that labelled it that way for domestic consumption. Robb has always seen the Sunni insurgency for what it was: a patchwork of differing factions of which Al Qaida was a small part. But the important point is that in the end, the Sunni insurgency has won, the US has stopped fighting them. While I agree that no form of organization is foolproof, saying that Robb was wrong about networked insurgency and then pointing to Iraq is incongruous. The networked Sunni insurgency has forced the US to lay down her arms and to abandon her strategic goal of a unified Iraq. The fact that a small foreign portion of this insurgency, Al Qaida, is now facing difficulty does not prove anything.

In addition, I think it is also slight exaggeration to claim anyone called networked insurgencies invulnerable, Although at times he exaggerates, I think Robb’s point is that it is important to face reality and in that all he is echoing the teachings of Col. John Boyd.

10/29/2007 08:53:00 AM  
Blogger Robert said...

Osama would seem to be the most likely node to target except killing him would produce the next hidden Imam (Jesus) for the millions of Sunni Muslims lacking that figure head.

If a Roman didn't nail Jesus to a cross, he would have been just another Jewish guy hanging out with his friends and would have died: or gone to heaven, wondering why no one would listen to him.

Could this be the reason he is being left alone in the cave. To die as a mortal.

10/29/2007 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 10/26/2007 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

10/29/2007 11:09:00 AM  
Blogger eggplant said...

PeterBoston said...

"I believe that this AQ strategy has been averted because Iraq/Afghanistan continue to be jihadi flypaper. AQ cannot swarm a Western city while the infidel desecrates Muslim land - at least that is the way this strategy would likely be interpreted in Islamoworld."

I agree with PeterBoston. I've always supported the Iraq War mainly because of the flypaper implications. Acknowledging 20-20 hindsight, the Iraq War should have been sold with the flypaper argument rather than as a hunt for WMDs.

10/29/2007 11:49:00 AM  
Blogger Alexis said...


You are correct that high resolution warfare is more effective than flailing blindly in dismantling an enemy network. However, motivation is also important. It is difficult to get large numbers of people motivated to fight small scale wars.

It really depends on what one is trying to accomplish. Low resolution warfare accomplishes its task at high moral cost and low political cost. High resolution warfare is more ethical and more effective in the long term, yet it is more difficult to motivate people to support Sherlock Holmes in camouflage than to root for Rambo.


One could argue that alliance with Sunni militias against al-Qaeda is analogous to American alliance with Indonesian rebels in the late 1940's on condition that they turn against the Communists, which they did.

You did get me thinking. Did Germany really defeat the United States during World War II and its aftermath? After all, the Morgenthau Plan was scrapped. The western powers controlled western Germany, with the effect that Germans had a safe haven against Russian atrocities and "ethnic cleansing". One of the reasons why the occupations of Germany and Japan were so successful is because we played the good cop and the Soviet Union played the bad cop. Likewise, Moqtada as-Sadr and Iran have unwittingly acted as "bad cop" to our "good cop".

10/29/2007 02:12:00 PM  
Blogger whiskey_199 said...

Kevin -- wishing the US defeat will not make it so, much as you'd like.

In reality, the Sunni insurgency realized:

1. Without the US the Shia with Iranian support would religiously cleanse them out of Iraq or kill them.

2. AQ was a direct threat to their tribal system and control (there can be only one master in Sunni-land, not two).

3. The US was a more preferable ally because it would not threaten tribal authority nor did it seek to religiously cleanse them out of Iraq.

The US changed goals from (an unrealistic) assumption of liberal, non-tribal democracy to one of a semi-federalized tribal system appropriate for Iraq's social structure, and tamped down the killing (which everyone predicted could not be done). How long that will last and what the fallout will be is yet to be seen.

But the Sunni tribes NEED US protection/influence to stave off religious cleansing and get a share of oil money which otherwise will go the Shias and their Iranian partners who pose existential threats to them.

Hardly a US defeat.

Wretchard --- the ability to defeat the alien presence of AQI is different than preventing terror plots from being carried out successfully. There seems no way at present to stop say, Pakistan from being terror central with nuclear weapons, nor Iran, nor Iraq after substantial US withdrawals.

Kinetic targeting of specialized nodes is both limited and avoids the question -- how does the US stop another 9/11 from happening again?

That answer is not targeted killing of known conspirators (it has it's uses, but is not always possible and unknown conspirators or presence-not-known conspirators are difficult problems not addressed).

THAT answer is only the realistic threat of nuclear destruction of any people reasonably thought to be involved. Is that extremely ugly? Yes. Sometimes survival is.

10/29/2007 03:04:00 PM  
Blogger Fat Man said...

At Strategy Page, Jim Dunnigan has the following to say in "Bin Laden Admits Defeat in Iraq"

"Bin Laden doesn't discuss how the Americans defeated him. It was done with data. Years of collecting data on the bad guys paid off. Month by month, the picture of the enemy became clearer. This was literally the case, with some of the intelligence software that created visual representations of what was known of the enemy, and how reliable it was. The picture was clear enough to maneuver key enemy factions into positions that make them easier to run down."

10/29/2007 03:20:00 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...


Who imposed their will upon the other by means of violence, the Sunnis or the US? Your statement “The US changed goals….” gives us a hint. Let’s see, the US invaded Iraq to overthrow a Sunni dictator and to replace it with a democratically elected government. The Sunnis resisted this by force of arms for they felt they alone should rule Iraq and would never accept being ruled by Shia scum. For four years the two sides fought an unconventional war over these contrasting visions for the future of Iraq. And in the end who cried “uncle”? Who imposed their will upon the other? The Sunnis still don’t accept the central government and they have been given de facto control over their own territory. So they haven’t changed their goals. The US on the other hand has abandoned the idea of a democratic Iraq and is sliding down an inevitable slope towards a reinstallation of a Sunni dictator. The Sunnis won and the US lost.

As for your three points, yes, on THEIR terms, the Sunnis are happy to have US help to accomplish THEIR war aims, (the reconquest of Iraq) why shouldn’t they be? Yes the Sunnis are now happy to rid themselves of Al Qaida, why should they share the spoils of victory with crazy foreigners? Yes the Sunnis appreciate that the US is a good ally, just like after WW2 the US realized that Germany was a good ally; that doesn’t change the calculus about who won and who lost though. However, I doubt the Shia could have slaughtered the Sunni but it is irrelevant at this point.

But in the end, it is clearly the Sunnis who have imposed their will upon the US. It is they who have been victorious. Their war aims continue. The US has been defeated. The dream of a democratic Iraq is dust.

10/30/2007 12:18:00 AM  
Blogger Halbert said...

The Hydra lost, in spite of its many heads. Hercules' new labor is mixing with the Iraqis; modern napalm that will prevent Hydra Head regeneration. Where will the last be buried? The enemy's penchant for cavedwelling suggests a rocky end.

Two rivers in Iraq... stable cleaning, anyone?


10/30/2007 12:25:00 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...


I agree that there are strong analogies between the end of WW2 and the current situation in Iraq. There is a good match up between the Nazis and the Sunnis. We invaded both countries with the intention of overthrowing a tyrant and to install a political system based on our values. And in the Communists to the East and Iran today is there is a good alignment. As the Iraq War started we were de facto allies with the Iranians, who hated Saddam and his Sunni cohorts, just as we were officially allied with Stalin and the Communists against Germany.

But there is a critical difference, in WW2 we defeated the Nazis. In Iraq, the Sunnis defeated us. Now as WW2 was drawing to a close, many saw that the alliance between the US and USSR was unsustainable. Hitler hoped in the end to create a stalemate and then he would offer his services to the highest bidder between the US and USSR, whoever tired first. But in the end it was the US who defeated the Germans (in the West only of course) and it was under these auspices that the future alliance between the US and West Germany were based. This is seen in the eventual victory over Communism, where Central and Eastern Europe were transformed by the US vision of independent states. If Nazi Germany had defeated the US and then joined forces, German vassal states (at best) would have been the result of any eventual victory of Communism.

In Iraq, it is the Sunni vision of the future (the pre-war status quo of a Sunni dictator ruling all of Iraq) that has emerged victorious on the battlefield. Therefore in the coming conflict with Iran any victory over the Shia will result in Sunni hegemony since it is this political framework that held the day on the battlefields of Al Anbar during the last four years.

These two examples vividly illustrate the difference between victory and defeat. Winners impose their will (political vision) upon losers. The US imposed its will upon Nazi Germany. The Sunnis have imposed their will on the US in Iraq.

10/30/2007 01:18:00 AM  
Blogger PeterBoston said...

I think that this article Current Trends in Jihadi Networks in Europe may illustrate the limitations of applying the computer network analogy to defeating Islamofascism cells in the West.

The gist of the article is that nodes can and do arise spontaneously. At formation the only connection between autonomous, spontaneous nodes is ideological commonality. As the article points out the people most attracted to joining these nodes are not deep thinkers, but the combination of a tendency toward antisocial behavior with the romanticism of jihad are enough to make them dangerous.

Although I have no hard evidence to back it up I think the triggering mechanism for terrorist (mass murder) activities is or will be competition between nodes for the most spectacular attack along with recognition of the group. One indication of this possibility may be the current competition between jihadi nodes for the best artwork, slogan, and creative name.

In these situations there is no key node or key person.

10/30/2007 05:12:00 AM  
Blogger PeterBoston said...


In the torture thread you characterize yourself as a strategic thinker then immediately project the behavior of fewer individuals than suit up for a college football game on an entire civilization, as you put it. And then, without missing a beat, declare defeat for the US in Iraq because the Sunni tribes have rejected Al Qaeda. Just saying.

10/30/2007 05:45:00 AM  
Blogger Alexis said...


Was Indonesian independence a victory for Japan over the United States?

Did the survival of noxious regimes in Spain and Saudi Arabia (and the rise of noxious pro-Axis regimes in Argentina and South Africa) consitute Axis victories against the United States?

Couldn't independence for India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Burma all be considered Japanese strategic victories against the United States and the United Kingdom?

Indonesia's present government is a lineal descendant of an Indonesian collaborationist regime under the control of the Japanese Empire. By your standards, it would seem the Axis won a victory by convincing the United States to align with Indonesian nationalists over Dutch colonialists.

So, was the Bandung Conference an ideological resurgence of the Axis with its center of gravity shifting from Europe and East Asia toward Africa and southern Asia?

Didn't Moqtada as-Sadr's rampage through Baghdad change anything in Iraq? Last year's "Battle of Baghdad" is widely perceived to be an unequivocal Shi'ite victory over Sunni dominance. It would seem to me the Shi'ite militia rampage through Baghdad changed the political calculus for Sunni leaders, for America became seen as a potential ally and al-Qaeda became seen as a liability that attracted the attention of Sadrist thugs. Far from being a victory against America, the "Anbar Awakening" should be seen as an act of Sunni desperation against the perceived threat of Shi'ite militias.

10/30/2007 01:36:00 PM  

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