It Takes a Network


Aug 25, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on August 25, 2002.

MONTEREY, Calif. -- In the last year, our defense posture has shifted. We used to be focused exclusively on nations; now we are also focused on networks. Networks like Al Qaeda are dangerous adversaries. They have loose, difficult-to-trace organizational structures. Vigorous efforts must be made to connect the dots of the network and its various dark allies. Yet, for all our new focus on winkling out networked terror, we seem to have learned few lessons about the nature of "netwar." Our lack of understanding of this network-driven mode of conflict has led to three serious stumbles.

The most egregious error has been to pronounce the effort a "war on terror." The simple war metaphor, which has clearly been used to galvanize public support, implies that the current conflict is of a traditional type, that it can be waged like other wars, where more force is almost always better. Thus, the campaign in Afghanistan began with a month of ineffectual, old-style aerial bombardment, and enormous efforts were made to take out Osama bin Laden. But in a netwar, like the one we find ourselves in now, strategic bombing means little, and most networks don't rely on one--or even several--great leaders to sustain and guide them.

True, the Taliban has fallen, and Al Qaeda's hub in Afghanistan is largely gone. But this resulted mainly from the efforts of highly interconnected special operations forces guiding smart bombs in attacks on fleeting small targets. And the Taliban's fall has done little to eliminate the terrorism network, which has operatives distributed around the world, readying for new strikes. That network will persist even if we conduct another successful special forces campaign, this time in Iraq against Saddam Hussein.

To cope with the continuing threat from Al Qaeda operatives still in the fight, the Bush administration is on the verge of receiving congressional approval to create a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. This is a second major misstep. A hierarchy is a clumsy tool to use against a nimble network: It takes networks to fight networks, much as in previous wars it has taken tanks to fight tanks.

If we are up against opponents who are in close touch with each other and can swarm to the attack, as Mohamed Atta's hub-and-spokes team did on 9/11, then we must build an interconnected strike force of our own that can swarm together to overwhelm such an enemy. This kind of organizational suppleness won't result from creation of a new hierarchy, and in fact a new department-level entity could well slow us down even further.

The third failure brought about by our lack of understanding of networks and networking is our continued insistence upon taking the lead in the current conflict. To be sure, last year's attacks on the U.S. provided just cause for fighting. But if we are to hope for sustained international support in what is likely to be a protracted conflict, we must persuade, encourage and inspire rather than simply command. While we have done well in learning to network our combat forces, there has been much less learned about how to conduct the "battle of the story," which will turn less on spinning propaganda and more on weaving a web of common interests and beliefs.

A network is empowered by the adherence of its members to a shared goal. Al Qaeda operatives, for example, are linked by their devotion to a vision of the world in which the shadow of American power is sharply reduced. Our own network must draw its strength and loyalty from a commitment to fostering a global civil society that promotes and protects democracy and human rights. Care must be given to crafting such a network, and to explaining it in a way that engenders loyalty to it. The kind of network we need can't be formed or sustained through coercive comments about being "with us" or "against us."

Our leadership and, indeed, most other leaders around the world are new to this type of warfare. Clearly, the most important step they all can take right now is to learn all they can about networks and network-style conflict. Raising their level of awareness would open up the possibility of waging this war in new ways, rather than continuing to stumble along in a more traditional and ineffectual fashion. A good way to start is by drawing lessons from those who have already shown some aptitude for networking.

Indeed, we have much to learn from the skillful networking orchestrated by Singapore late last year as it neutralized a major terror network node that was planning an ammonium nitrate truck-bombing campaign against American targets there. Some of our European allies have also moved together skillfully, taking out much of Al Qaeda's logistical and financial support structures there. And in June, the Moroccans captured members of an Al Qaeda terror cell that intended to attack American and British vessels moving through the Strait of Gibraltar. In short, we have the beginnings of a good, functioning counter-terror network. So let's learn from what has worked and not louse things up by imposing too centralized a command on ourselves and our allies.

If we do loosen the reins and see ourselves as just part of a network fighting for civil society worldwide, good things are going to happen. And good things will keep happening as long as our police, military and intelligence agencies come to realize that their strength grows from networked information-sharing with each other. This is a lesson not yet learned at the top, despite the examples provided by real successes of networking achieved by our allies. Failure to learn this lesson would leave us ill prepared to defend the U.S. against either Al Qaeda or other networks likely to rise in the coming years, in emulation of Bin Laden, the dark pioneer of netwar.
John Arquilla is professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey and coauthor of "Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy."

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.