January 23, 2004

The Downside to Being Organized Like the Internet

Everybody marvels at the survivability of the Internet. Al Queda's organizational resemblance to same is providing a lot of business for the ulcer medication people. Here's a relevant part of a recent post on StrategyPage:

Al Qaeda was organized, unintentionally, like the Internet. Al Qaeda has no central headquarters or base. Itís members are scattered in cells all over the planet. You can destroy many parts of al Qaeda, and the organization will reconfigure itself. Al Qaeda members are still trying to pull off spectacular attacks against the "enemies of Islam" (which basically includes everyone who isn't a Moslem.) It will probably take a generation for al Qaeda to fade into utter impotence. In the meantime, the War on Terror will be a low level war that always has the potential to show up in any Americans home town.

I think this overestimates Al Queda qua Al Queda's strength and fixes our attention too strongly on an organization that suffers from an unexamined weakness. Al Queda is not just a network. Al Queda is a community and the rules for community survivability derived from the Internet are far less friendly to Al Queda than the rules on network survivability derived from the Internet.

Below a certain magic point, usually called 'critical mass' any Internet forum will start shrinking and inevitably die out. Often, only a dysfunctional shell remains containing some bitter enders who wonder where everybody else went. The same is likely to happen to Al Queda.

The network of nodes will reconfigure but it will not necessarily reconfigure into the same network or even into the same kind of network. After all, are there any ARPANet nodes around? No, there are not even though I would guess that all or most of the institutions that made up ARPANet are still with us and even some of the physical infrastructure that housed ARPANet (racks, cable conduits, copper in the wall) might still be around but ARPANet's dead and has been for a long time (though it survived as a mostly irrelevant zombie for far longer than most people noticed).

So, you're a cut off Al Queda node. Your link to the mother ship is sitting at Gitmo along with 35% of your membership. Do you want to stick your hand into the meat grinder and reconnect to Al Queda? Or would you rather connect to Hizb ut Tahir which doesn't seem to be attracting so much unwelcome attention?

Obviously local response will differ but you can guess that some people will go back to Al Queda, as the conventional view fears, others will join other groups or maintain isolated independence. This choice is a wave of opportunity. More moderate, actually islamic groups can work to bring these isolated nodes out in from the cold. Radical, ineffective front groups can be created to siphon away support and sucker these isolated nodes into total compromise. The opportunities for counter-intelligence/counter-terrorism work are there but only if you have the right intellectual model.

Al Queda's point of critical mass needs to be discovered and the organization needs to be driven below that point and kept there so it will wither. At the same time there needs to be a cleanup crew to deal with the isolated leftovers and not let them contribute to a new organization's growth and race towards its own appointment with terrorist network critical mass.

Posted by TMLutas at January 23, 2004 02:41 PM