Understanding Networks and Netwars

The September 11 attacks on New York and Washington have made all too important the need to understand the kind of organization that could carry out such atrocities. A new RAND report, Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy, was about to go to print just as the attacks occurred, and a special afterword by the editors highlights just how much recent reality underscores the theory and analysis presented in the book.

Netwars, as the editors define them, are low-intensity, societal-level struggles undertaken by networked organizations that operate in small, dispersed units that can deploy nimbly at anytime, anywhere. These organizations may work toward nefarious goals, as is true for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, or they may be civil society activists fighting for democracy and human rights, such as in Burma and the Balkans.

All networks that have been built to wage netwar may be understood through a common analytic framework that includes technological capabilities, social cohesion, a group narrative, organizational structure, and doctrinal aims.

  • Technological capabilities. Technological capability, while important, is not necessarily a determining factor in a network's success. Rather, a social basis for cooperation plays a much more important role, as can be seen most clearly in ethnically and religiously based terror, crime, and insurgent groups.
  • Group narratives. Among civil society netwarriors, many of whom may not share a common ethnic thread, the common sense of purpose achieved through a group narrative may be the most important element, as it ensures that all participants work toward the network's objectives.
  • Organizational structures. For those who seek to confront or cope with a networked adversary, understanding its organizational structure may be the most important factor in determining how to act and react. Focusing on a network's hierarchical leadership structure is often insufficient for analyzing netwar actors, as they may well consist of small, dispersed groups linked in odd ways and without a clear leadership structure.
  • Doctrinal aims. Finally, it is necessary to understand a network's doctrine, or mode of action, to determine how best to counter it. The most lethal doctrine, when employed successfully, is that of swarming -- campaigns of episodic, pulsing attacks by various nodes of the network. It is against swarming networks that nations and other network opponents must prepare.

For analysts and policymakers interested in understanding the kind of war in which America is now involved, the report provides many important recommendations in its Afterword for methods to assess the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and enhance its own strengths at all of these levels.

  • Organizational structures. The United States must encourage deep, all-channel networking among its own military, law enforcement, and intelligence elements -- actors whose collaboration is crucial for achieving success. We must also determine the organizational structure of our adversary -- presumably al-Qaeda -- and whether it operates as a hub-and-spoke model with bin Laden at the hub. If so, bin Laden's capture or demise would signal the organization's defeat, but not necessarily for long: as an example, despite the dismantling of the Medellin and Cali cartels in the 1990s, drug smuggling -- by a plethora of smaller, more nimble organizations -- has continued to flourish in Colombia.
  • Group narratives. The United States may have righteous indignation on its side, and a slight edge in the "battle of the story" in much of the world, but "it will have to think deeply about how to keep that edge" now that U.S. forces have been sent into action in Afghanistan. As the editors note, "The development of the new field of 'information strategy' is needed more than ever."
  • Doctrinal aims. It is fairly clear that al-Qaeda is aware of the value of swarming, and right now the United States is ill-prepared to counter such attacks; thus, "a whole new [U.S. military] doctrine based on small-unit swarming concepts should be developed."
  • Technological capabilities. The United States may possess a vast array of advanced systems, but satellites and other orbital assets may well prove of little use against the nomadic bin Laden. Moreover, al-Qaeda's use of commercial, off-the-shelf technologies may prove a boon to their operations.
  • Social bonds. At the social level, religious and kinship bonds among the terrorists definitely give al-Qaeda an edge, even over a patriotic and nationalistic America. This edge is linked to al-Qaeda's narrative of "holy war" against "infidels" and allows the network to recruit and deploy "hate-filled, death-bound strike forces who evince a singleness of mind and purpose."

Thus, a netwar perspective renders some interesting insights into both the context and conduct of the current conflict, and it highlights the many areas in which the United States can and must improve its methods and organization if it is to win this war.