The Underside of Netwar

By Arquilla, John; Ronfeldt, David | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Underside of Netwar


Arquilla, John, Ronfeldt, David, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


THE fight for the future makes daily headlines. As in the bombing in Bali, its battles are not between the armies of leading states, nor are its weapons the large, expensive tanks, planes and fleets of regular armed forces. Rather, the combatants come from dark, violent terrorist networks like Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, drug cartels like those in Colombia and Mexico, and militant anarchists like the Black Bloc that ran amok during the Battle of Seattle. There is also a bright side to this fight, one that often benefits state interests, for it features networked civil-society activists struggling for democracy, economic freedom and human rights around the world. Both these dark- and bright-side protagonists are heralds of a new mode of conflict favoured by networked nonstate actors: netwar.

From the activists' Battle of Seattle to the terrorists' attack on Bali, these networks are proving very hard to deal with; indeed, some are winning. What all have in common is that they operate in small, dispersed units that can deploy nimbly-anywhere, anytime. All feature network forms of organization, doctrine, strategy, and technology attuned to the information age. They know how to swarm and disperse, penetrate and disrupt, connect and disconnect, as well as elude and evade. The tactics they use range from battles of ideas to acts of sabotage-and 'cybotage,' as some tactics involve the Internet.

So far, across this new landscape of conflict, the edge has gone to the networks. Hierarchy-oriented states must learn to transform themselves along networked lines, or they will face the increasingly daunting prospect of struggling against an uncontrollable, rising tide of civil and uncivil society networks enabled, and impelled forward, by the information revolution.

In September 2001, the `age of networks,' which seemed to be dawning with such democratic promise, yielded an astounding `attack on America,' signalling the onset of an archetypal netwar. Transnational terrorists, organized in widely dispersed, networked nodes, showed how it is possible to swarm together swiftly, on cue, then pulse to the attack simultaneously. They relied on the Internet, sometimes communicating via encrypted messages. But what really distinguished themin particular Osama bin Laden's al-- Qaeda (`the Base')-is the highly networked organizational form that they built, based on unusually tight social, religious, and kinship ties. US Secretary of State Colin Powell put it aptly: To win against terror, this network must be `ripped apart.'

The league of hierarchical nation-states that has formed to fight this terrorism will have to build its own set of nimble networks. In the military realm, this means relying more on networks of agile special forces-of all allied nations-than on the missiles, tanks, bombers and aircraft carriers that, until now, have been the sine qua non of national power. Just as the terrorists' power derives more from their organizational form than from technology, so too must the military power to defeat them become more reliant upon organization and doctrine than upon advanced technical systems.

The intelligence world faces an equally urgent need for institutional redesign-away from notions of 'central' intelligence, toward the construction of transnational intelligence networks able to share what they have on a realtime basis. Swift movement of important information has played a major role in the success of networked businesses over the past decade. Now it is time for networking to redefine the approach to intelligence-the quality and timeliness of which will determine whether bin Laden's or any other terror network can indeed be `ripped apart.'

Improved international networking among military and intelligence organizations can help win this war against terror. But this will not suffice in the long run. A balanced strategy for countering terrorist networks should also involve a much improved capacity to work with networks of civilsociety NGOs around the world, many of which are engaged in social netwars. …

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