Monday, July 03, 2006


Lessons Unlearned

Grim at Milblogs links to a great article by Philip Bobbitt in the UK Spectator, The London bombings: one year on.

As the subtitle of Bobbitt’s piece suggests, “We haven't absorbed the lessons.”

The lessons unlearned include continuing to view our extra-state enemies as aspiring Nation States. I’ll explain my formulation, “extra-state,” following an excerpt from the Spectator:

In the 20th century, national liberation and ethnic secessionist groups used terror to gain the power exercised by nation states. Indeed, terrorism in the period immediately past typically represented nationalist ambitions — the PLO, PKK, Tamil Tigers and the Stern Gang are all examples — pitting established powers against embryonic ones in a struggle to control or create states.

Terrorism in the 21st century will present an entirely different face. It will be global; it will be decentralised and networked much like a multinational corporation; it will outsource many of its operations. This terrorism, of which al-Qa’eda is only the first exemplar, does not resemble or seek to become a nation state. Terrorism in its new guise has no national focus or nationalist agenda; it operates in the globalised marketplace of weapons, targets, personnel, information and media influence. Neither Europeans nor anyone else can claim familiarity with this phenomenon.

Second, the analogy to 20th-century, nation-state terrorism has led some to conclude that there is no more to fear from al-Qa’eda than there was from the IRA. When we realistically compare the apocalyptic visions of Osama bin Laden and the practices of the Taleban when they were in power, however, we ought to realise that we are not dealing with Michael Collins. Yet there are quite a few commentators who, still pressing the IRA analogy they think they understand, have simply concluded that there is no al-Qa’eda. It is a myth, concocted by the government to instill fear in order to increase the power of the state. The killers of 7 July are, in this view, a few self-generated sympathisers who identify with a distant struggle. Because they are not structured along the hierarchical lines of 20th-century terrorist groups, it is thought that angry Muslim bands spontaneously appear, and then manage to carry out complex, synchronised atrocities. In reality, as Peter Neumann concludes in the current issue of Survival, ‘this is a ridiculous distortion’. We can see that when we compare the 7 July conspiracy with the terrorist plot recently interrupted in Miami, where a true group of amateurish misfits tried to link up with al-Qa’eda and connected only with an FBI agent. Simply because the al-Qa’eda networks are less structured and are based on personal relationships rather than corresponding to military hierarchies — because, that is, they organisationally resemble Visa or Mastercard more than the IRA — does not mean that al-Qa’eda is an imaginary enterprise.

I think Bobbitt describes the situation perfectly. This rehashes my earlier criticism

of Michael Hirsh in Newsweek, whereby flawed and incomplete analytic frameworks leads to inaccurate analysis and misjudgments. I first posted on some of the reasons for this in the context of how our Intelligence Analysts displayed similar or at least analogous patterns of analysis.

Bobbitt alludes to the same illogic that bedevils Hirsh and his sources within the Intelligence community, whereby the absence of attacks are taken as proof that the threat was exaggerated. Is it not rather more likely that the demonstrable examples of broken plots and failed attempts reflect success against an enemy that was all too capable, were we to go back to ignoring the threat?

Note on Terminology

I use the term “extra-state” to try to isolate this phenomenon of state-support of non-state modern terrorism agents and entities.

In network terms, there is the “Internet.” This describes, however minimally, a network of many external servers and platforms that exist between networks. An “Intranet” is a network internal to an organization, similar to the Internet, but distinctly imilited within an organization or platform or series of platforms.

Increasingly, network architects and managers refer to an Extranet, or a locally managed and maintained external network, available outside of an organization but nevertheless managed distinctly separate from and contained within the broader Internet.

Okay, non-techies, shake your head and refrain from going all glassy-eyed, I here tie it back to our discussion.

The Extranet allows an organization to take advantage of the openness of the world wide web, and use those resources as an extension of your own resources and capabilities. This gains you advantages without additional expenditures. You lose some control, but gain a “force multiplier” in a sense. (That got your interest back, didn’t it?)

International terrorist affiliations like Al Qaeda (and proponents of its Wahabist philosophical underpinnings) to act like a kind of geopolitical Extranet for cash rich but resource limited agents of mayhem. Whether Mullahs in Iran, America haters in Central America, or the psychopathic subjects of marionette parodies in East Asia, all can access the Terrorist Extranet as an extension of their foreign policies, intelligence and military operations. At very low cost, with “plausible deniability,” as was said in a former generation.

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