John Arquilla Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

International Relations in the Information Age: Conversation with John Arquilla, Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey; March 17, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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The Structure of Networks

In Networks and Netwars, in your concluding chapter, you and your collaborator identify five levels of analysis, ways of measuring the performance of networks. book coverYou've already talked about organizational design, which is whether it's a chain or a hub, or all channels. Let's walk through these. The story being told; what do you mean and why is that important for a network?

A network is a very amorphous organization. What we find from our research is that the networks that are strongest are the ones whose members are tied together by a common story. In the case of al Qaeda, it's a story about a sacred mission to protect Islam from this lengthening shadow of American power. This has a tremendous galvanizing effect. It's reinforced in that bin Laden deliberately cultivated [narrative] ties to the great Muslim heroes of the past, who in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries first defeated the Western crusaders and then, ultimately, defeated the Mongol invader from the East. Bin Laden simply turned it around and said, "In the twentieth century we defeated the Eastern invading Russians once again, and in the twenty-first century, we will defeat the Western crusading Americans."

This is a powerful glue that holds a network together, and we are trying to build a network around the idea of Western liberal values. That's why it's so important that one lives up to such values, in order to maintain the cohesion of one's own network. And why such things as getting into major conventional wars with Islamic countries like Iraq might tend to fray around the edges the notion of a common goal in the Western network.

The name al Qaeda actually means "the base" -- the base from which to engage the West, and what is perceived as the West's efforts to re-impose colonialism and so on. In your book you talk about embedded information. The idea is that organizations have information embedded that provides signals as to how to interpret events and how to act in the world.

Yes. This is tied not only to what we call the narrative dimension or the overall story that tells you how to believe and how to behave, but it also goes to the norms of social interaction. Any society, from tribal to modern American, has a whole set of things that you do to get along, things by which you know what to do under which circumstances. The good networks have all figured this out as well. Again, we're trying to look at something that is not a nation state. It's not even a particular clan or a tribe. It's something in which members are brought together strictly on the basis of belief. So these social norms become incredibly important. This is an area, of course, where our opponents are quite strong. We're far, far weaker in terms of the social cohesion of our own network.

In looking at these networks, you identify another element as the doctrinal level. That is, the various strategies and methods by which networks can operate. Under that umbrella, you identified two points: one is that these networks can be leaderless, and that the action can best be understood as swarming. Explain those two concepts to us.

A true network doesn't require a great leader, a single person directing things. In the case of the Palestinian Intifada, for example, for decades, Arafat is the single great-man leader. If you look at something like Hamas, who's the leader there? Nobody. It's basically people believing in the need for a Palestinian state and doing everything they possibly can to create it, but doing so without centralized control. When that happens, when you have a network of people distributed all over the place, acting semi-autonomously, or perhaps fully autonomously, you end up with actions taken against an adversary all over, wherever that battle space is, whether it's in Palestine or in Chiapas, or in the embassies of countries around the world.

This also took place in the Chiapas case, where various countries were pressured by nongovernmental organizations and other civic activists to send démarches off to Mexico to ask them to leave the Zapatistas alone. So this idea of swarming is to come at the opponent from every direction. There's no frontal attack; there's no flank attack. It's omni-directional.

In the act of swarming, essentially scattered, dispersed actors suddenly move toward a particular point. This can take various forms. So what you're talking about here is they could all come together to blow up a building or blow up the twin towers, or they could come together to organize a protest against an international meeting.

Yes, exactly. Any time you look at a swarm, you see something that is ordinarily distributed quite far apart. The term Ronfeldt and I like to use is "pulsing": they hit a pulse, all together, like the great antiwar demonstrations of recent months around the world, or the 9/11 attackers, who were distributed all over the place, not only in the United States but also in Europe. At the right moment, the right time, the al Qaeda members converged together on those several planes and turned them into missiles for a short period of time.

In Afghanistan, we did the same sort of thing with distributed Special Forces teams all over the country, who were able by means of their connections to missile and aircraft, and other assets, to bring down a swarm of fire on Taliban and al Qaeda, wherever they were. The enemy simply had no idea where they'd be hit next.

That brings about this principle of Information Age conflict: that with a little bit of disruption, you may do a lot more than by focusing strictly on destruction. In our book, before the campaign in Afghanistan took place, we suggested that the United States was likely to do two things, and those were a) to try to kill Omar and bin Laden; and b) to engage in strategic bombardment. We thought both of those would be problematic, and it turned out they were -- both Omar and bin Laden got away. And the bombing wasn't doing very well. In fact, we hit the Red Cross warehouse three times in the first four weeks of bombing in Afghanistan. But once we decontrolled and allowed the network of Special Forces to operate, within two weeks the campaign was decisively won. That, of course, we recommended, too, that this is something that has to do with small distributed units, not large hierarchical, traditionally powerful ones.

That's a very, very important lesson, as we talk increasingly about transforming the American military. The transformation lies right before us. We understand that this future must be one of the small and the many military units, not the few and the large -- the few carrier battle groups, the large, heavy divisions. It's about small teams, because the disruptive and destructive power of the few has grown enormously in the past century.

Let's go through this also, because we're learning a lot for audiences for whom this may be new material, but very relevant to what we've been going through since 9/11. You also talk about the technological level. In this regard, what seems to be very important is that the Information Age has given us tools that [facilitate] the flow of information. Securing those tools is a logistical problem for the military, but [an individual] can begin by getting themselves a cell phone, a fax machine, and so on.

The technology here is two-edged for the American military, in particular. On the one hand, it allows this decontrol that I'm talking about. It allows people to connect to anybody else, whether it's in Afghanistan or in Iraq, or any campaign setting. On the other hand, this great connectivity is an inducement to overcontrol. The people at very high levels can now be looking at what the fellow in the field is looking at, and the temptation is almost too much to resist. We have to be very, very careful about this. In Afghanistan, we successfully resisted that tendency and did allow the empowerment of distributed units.

I would say, also, that there's a very important technological point about the difference between voice and data communication and video. The requirement for real-time video conferences gobbles up bandwidth like nothing else, and the opportunity cost is enormous. If you are doing a daily videoconference, as happened in Kosovo, that restricts your other communications choices. Now that said, before the Afghan campaign, a very wise chief technological officer in the Pentagon by the name of Dawn Miricks chose to lease as much bandwidths as she possibly could over South Asia; that is, broadcasts that were typically sending reruns of Gunsmoke and such to places in Central and South Asia were now are being used for armed military purposes. This turned out to be a tremendously prescient choice on Dawn's part.

In the 9/11 attack, one can go through the list of uses of the net -- the transfer of funds, the visit to the ATM, the purchase of tickets, and on and on. In the case of bin Laden in Afghanistan, I believe it was the Wall Street Journal that reported he had given his telephone to somebody else and sent them off; and hence, we missed him in a bombing attack. In other words, the weaker party that has built a successful network has, through technology, the ability to communicate and thereby enhance their flexibility in taking action.

Absolutely. Al Qaeda, in particular, is an interesting mix of old and new means. They pretty much stay away from telephones, because they know we spend billions of dollars each year to be able to listen to phone conversations. So they maintain a global network that's distributed over about sixty countries by web and net-based means, largely. And they move money, for example, in an old traditional Muslim system called hawala, in which the money doesn't physically move but a single e-mail will direct where money is taken out of pots that sit in different parts of the world, and move it from one place to another at the command of an e-mail.

The other problem, of course, is that our efforts to try to follow money usually are based on the idea of crime fighting, in which we're trying to watch for dirty money that's being made clean -- so-called laundering. In the case of terrorism, all too often we're talking about clean money that's being made dirty. That's a very, very much harder problem if we're talking about the actions of a distributed network, where money moves in little packets of maybe $100 at a time with individuals putting money in a bazaar in Pakistan or in a candy store in Los Angeles. Very, very hard business.

Finally, you talk about the social level, the personal ties that assure loyalty and trust. That's very much evidenced in everything from criminal organizations to terrorist organizations to, on the positive side, the NGOs involved in human rights movements.

Unless the social basis of a network is strong, it's doomed to fail. When we look at crime, we see crime families, for example. The whole idea of being a made person means you are initiated into some kind of brotherhood. Terrorists go out of their way to do this. In fact, al Qaeda had an interesting university structure in Afghanistan, until we took it away from them, in which the social ties were reinforced. For example, there was an Algerian House at the main training camp in Afghanistan, and a Chechnya House, these various different efforts to solidify ties, and then bin Laden made sure to mix them together so that they had some cross-connection. But your basic membership was in a group of people of your own descent and often your own family. Remember that bin Laden and Omar, themselves, are related, at least a couple of times, by marriage -- brother-in-law and I think there's a father-in-law relationship there as well.

So the social tie is very important. It's something we don't spend enough time thinking about. We're a very atomized society. We're the society of "bowling alone." It suggests for us the need to cultivate the social tie very strongly, not only [among] ourselves, but with our allies. That's why I'm greatly concerned about the tensions of past months between ourselves and our European allies. We must work very hard to repair those, because the social dimension of the network we've built with their military intelligence and law enforcement officials is a very, very important relationship.

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