Wednesday, August 09, 2006

What do Al Qaida and the Red Hat Society Have in Common?

They're both equally unlikely to be crushed by the combined might of the US military machine.

Ha! Made you look... but there's really an underlying structural similarity that is instructive. Both organizations are loosely affiliated confederation of largely autonomous 'nodes' in a network. The organization may have a central philosophy, but no unbreechable 'chain of command'; that is, each local group can operate independently without getting orders from HQ. And as such, each organization is survivable in ways that more 'brittle' hierarchies are not. As long as the underlying philosophy can gain adherents, the organization will survive.

Back in the '90s, I was fortunate to meet John Arquilla, a guy from RAND (now, I believe, at the Naval Post-Graduate School); there was a relationship between his and my organizations and I attended one of the conferences he hosted at RAND etc. And at that time, he and a colleague were shopping around the concept of 'netwar'. The basic premise was that we, the US or Western Civilization and Thought writ large, were unsuccessful when competing against drug cartels and extra-national terrorists by the simple reason that we were pitting a hierarchy against just such networks as described above. The hierarchy architecture was 'brittle' and liable to disruption - break the supply chain or the chain of command and the hierarchy is crippled until the breaks are fixed. The network-node model has all the survivability features of the internet itself - redundancy and a massive ability to self-repair; a network can 'rout around' damaged portions of itself with no visible loss of capability. You have to take out over half the nodes to effect a network's ability to function. And of course, in an actual war, the very act of 'taking out nodes' creates more nodes. Sound familiar?

Arquilla and his colleague David Ronfeldt have a number publications that further elaborate on this theme here. And for the ultimate in sad reading, here's an article they wrote for the Dec '01 edition of Wired, in which they address specifically how to fight Al Qaida. It's sad because, if they'd actually been listened to by anyone in authority, we probably wouldn't be in the global situation we now find ourselves.

Of particular interest is their section on 'managing the memes'. We have so lost the meme war that I don't know how we'll ever recover the moral ground we've lost.

Another Arquilla article from '03: "9/11: Yesterday and tomorrow - How we could lose the war on terror" - has a brief mention of Israel/Hezbollah conflict at the time that seems strange in light of recent events. And of course, we continue to do everything he suggests we NOT do...


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