July 12, 2005

Discussion Primer: Understanding terror networks, asymmetric warfare

Follow-up to Discussion Primer: War on terror from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

An interview with Lord King and an American whose name I missed on the Today programme (Radio 4) this morning demonstrated how there are in fact people outside of party politics with a more sophisticated understanding of the current situation.

Tom King has much experience of terrorism. He has a detailed and personal knowledge of Irish terrorism, having been Northern Ireland Secretary during some of the worst times. His response to the recent attacks on London is that of an informed and intelligent expert. The American interviewee seemed equally infiormed, and I think had held a senior post in the US government. Here's a list of some of the points that I think they made:

  • terrorist networks work in a very different way to conventional armies;
  • al-Qaeda and other new terrorist networks may well be quite different to the terrorist organisations of the past;
  • civil society is now so complex and so big that defending against terrorism using conventional approaches may be impossible (although of course not entirely futile);
  • Tom King stated that responding in the wrong way could in fact make the situation much worse (he cited internment in Nothern Ireland as such a mistake);
  • we need new concepts and models to describe this situation;
  • one such concept mentioned was 'asymmetric warfare', which I take to mean conflict between radically different types of force. (this is a useful but unimaginative definition).

The task then is to understand each side of the asmmetrical engagement, and then how the sides feed-off each other positively and negatively, how they learn from each other, and how they may form a symbiotic relationship locking each other into an ongoing engagement.

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  1. Chris May

    The mystery American was Prof. Phillip Bobbit. If you missed it, you can listen to the interview here , if you have RealPlayer installed.

    12 Jul 2005, 10:37

  2. Robert O'Toole

    Thanks Chris. Prof. Bobbit seemed quite sensible. He has restored my trust in Americans! The interview is really worth listening to.

    12 Jul 2005, 10:56

  3. Robert O'Toole

    And if you think the House of Lords should be abolished, listen to Tom King and think again.

    12 Jul 2005, 10:57

  4. Julie Moreton

    I'm intrigued that experts are now talking about terrorist networks and how they 'may be different to terrorist organisations of the past'.

    What evidence is there for this? What constitutes a network exactly? How do they know that this is a network? It may be a few random people scattered about that choose to carry out a particular action. Some may share the same beliefs, some may have things in common of course, and may be able to communicate with one another quickly if they are an organised group, but no more or less than any other group of individuals. It takes very few people with a relatively small amount of equipment to cause major damage and chaos – reports suggested there was less than 10lb of explosives in each of the bombs. The damage could have been far greater and death toll much higher if someone had really wanted to do it. No it was just enough to create attention in one place and divert attention from somewhere else.

    The implication is that this so-called terrorist network is huge and being controlled, organised and manipulated by some major players, perhaps the big OBL himself. If all que'da does exist, then this sort of publiciity is the very thing they need. I think all the talk about 'defeating terrorism' and 'they will not win', blah blah, only adds to the self-perpetuating mythology surrounding it.

    And how do we know which groups are responsible and why do we think they 'operate differently'? Differently from whom? Is it because they have the audacity to use such modern technical devices as mobile phones or the internet? Tools largely developed by the military? Isn't it inevitable that people will use whatever communication methods are available at the time?

    Is this not just the globalisation of terrorism? Is this the thing so hard to deal with and why we need 'new concepts and models' for dealing with 'asymetrical warfare'? or does it just make it easier to redefine it new terms because we're at a loss on how to deal with it, whatever it is?

    12 Jul 2005, 12:07

  5. Chris May

    The implication is that this so-called terrorist network is huge and being controlled, organised and manipulated by some major players, perhaps the big OBL himself.

    I think that what's being implied is slightly different; that this network isn't really an organisation at all in the strict sense of the word; it's a collection of more-or-less autonomous cells. Take out OBL and, well, everything continues largely as before. New centres of power emerge, the old cells keep on going. As Rob observed in an earlier post, this entity might possibly be better described as a set of shared ideas or principles than as an organisation.

    That's why it's asserted that there's a difference in coping with this kind of threat, as compared to the more 'traditional' terrorist organisations like, say, the IRA or ETA, which had a strong top-down command and control leadership, and were therefore more amenable to being engaged in military combat and ultimately political dialogue.

    And that's why it's assymetric warfare. 'We' are a centralised, top-down governed society, 'they' are a distributed set of people sharing some common set of goals and ideals. We can't engage effectively by using our traditional techniques (either millitary or political) because 'they' aren't interested in playing by our traditional rules of conflict.

    12 Jul 2005, 13:08

  6. Robert O'Toole

    Thanks for that Julie. Your closing remark identifies a very important warning. Often concepts get created as a means of diverting attention from an otherwise painful truth. In this case, we may just have to accept that this kind of globalised violence is an inescapable part of the increasingly uncontrollable economic, social and political world that we otherwise enjoy. It might be argued that these 'comfort concepts' are usually either anachronistic or excessively futuristic, but in both cases, devoid of evidence.

    Even so, having concepts that help us to know how to reduce the threat is a good thing.

    I suppose the position that I am promoting is this:

    1. keep an open mind, don't let evidence gathering and the definition of a response be defined too early by the concepts that we already have;
    2. remember that the world does sometimes change radically, with new phenomena suddenly emerging and demonstrating that our cherished models of the world are no longer adequate;
    3. use the latest and best available methods for concieving of organisations, networks, institutions, ideas, information, economies and ecosystems, but remember even these concepts may not be adequate;
    4. create new concepts, new models, and lots of them, as conjectures to be tested.

    People may wonder how someone locked away in a university in the Midlands should have anything relevant to say about these terrible events. The answer is simple. The concepts that are used daily by people and politicians came from somewhere. Indeed in many cases they were produced by academic discourse. For me the role of a university, and a philosophy department in particular, is at least in part to act as a producer and tester of concepts.

    12 Jul 2005, 13:15

  7. Robert O'Toole

    Following what Chris said. We should be really very concerned if it turns out that there is no 'organisation' in the traditional sense behind al-Qaeda. If it really is just a meme, then the response of the politicians and the media is entirely wrong. All that they are doing is actually increasing the rate with which the meme is communicated and replicated. The idea of "al-Qaeda" as an abstract opposition to Capitalism, may be powerful enough to attract otherwise unconnected radicals into a distributed regime of violence.

    And furthermore, the fact that such a network needs no beaurocracy, no chain of command or resource flow, makes it even more easy for individuals to adopt the label "al-Qaeda" and carry out further attacks. Islam is historically fragmented. It would be dangerous if the idea that proves powerful and abstract enough to unite its extremes were to be "al-Qaeda".

    Yes, I am suggesting that things are starting to go horribly wrong.

    12 Jul 2005, 13:22

  8. Julie Moreton

    I agree with both of you. If 'it' isn't an organisation, as Chris suggests, more a collection of autonomous cells, then what makes these supposedly unconnected cells a network? What is that links them? If it is more a meme, as Rob suggests, then 'the response of the politicians and the media is entirely wrong' echoes my thoughts about the self-perpetuating mythology.

    However, I'm not sure about Chris' point about the IRA or ETA being more amenable to political dialogue than these 'new' organisations. I don't know too much about the historical development of the older organisations, but it could be argued that the political wings only became more prominent after the military wings had started the ball rolling – perhaps they thought they had to resort to extremism to get peoples' attention in the first place. After all, the 'traditional rules of conflict' only work if you're a big country with a big stick to begin with!

    12 Jul 2005, 15:14

  9. Robert O'Toole

    The history of the IRA is quite complex. But it certainly always was 'political' in the sense of an organisation that has held meetings, discussions, has had policies (beyond just blowing people up), and where possible has sought elected and un-elected office. In fact, it was always closely tied to the attempted formation of a nation state. The British state did surpress its political activity from the start, and hence it could be said that it was always illegal and violent at the same time as being political.

    The history of the IRA is interesting as you can see how its form evolved symbiotically over a long period with the British state response.

    This seems quite different. Is it nationalist? Is it political? If not then what? That's the kind of questions that must be asked.

    12 Jul 2005, 15:39

  10. Chris May

    The IRA always had an extremely clear motive too. Their position was always (AIUI) that their activities would stop as soon as the Brits were out of NI. Similarly ETA. But it seems to me that the goal of al' qaeda is much more ill-defined.

    Depending on who you ask, it could be an end to US occupation of Iraq, the creation of an Islamic empire, the destruction of the state of Israel, any number of minor and not-so-minor political goals or simply an unfocussed desire to do harm to the US and it's allies. This lack of a clearly articulated goal is what makes an appropriate response so hard to define.

    To a certain extent, our politicians are victims of their own success here. It suits their agenda (particularly in the US) to portray the al' qaeda threat as something which seeks to put an end the the western capitalist lifestyle – much in the same way that the threat from the USSR was portrayed in the '70s and '80s. The side effect of this is that groups that have a clearly defined local objective (settlers out of the west bank, say) are lumped together, along with those who have a more nebulous greivance against 'the west' in general. The effect of this is that it's not possible to reach a negotiated solution with each local group in turn, and instead you end up with this huge and ill-defined 'enemy of freedom' that really can't be effectively worked with as a single entity.

    12 Jul 2005, 21:16

  11. Robert O'Toole

    For an example of the utterly woeful state of British party politics, and its inability to think clearly on these matters, see the response to Charles Kennedy's recent speach on internationalism

    12 Jul 2005, 22:26

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