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Fishing for terrorist starfish
On a recent “Meet the Press,”National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell discussed the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which described increased terror threats due to al Qaeda’s reconstituted attack strength and leadership capabilities. Tim Russert pressed him for a comparison to the earlier April 2006 NIE statement:
“We assess that the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent global strategy, and is becoming more diffuse.” (emphasis added)
Mr. Russert began from the premise that making al Qaeda less centralized would subsequently lead to a reduced terror threat from it and similar groups. The premise is demonstrably faulty, because of one critical and unmentioned assumption: They are just like us.
Most large institutions are organized hierarchically with centralized leadership. Corporations have CEOs, armies have generals, countries have presidents. When competing against centralized organizations, promoting diffusion and disrupting cohesion are considered progressive.
However, al Qaeda has a constantly mutating, horizontal structure composed of an inspirational catalyst in the form of Osama bin Laden and other central figures joined with numerous small groups brought together not by orders but ideology. Here, lack of structure is a strength. Little thought is given, however, to how such a decentralized terrorist network structure affects the strategy for combating it.
“The Starfish and the Spider,” a new book about corporate strategy written for a business audience, has a wider application — combating terrorism — and sheds light on this issue.
A powerful biological metaphor is used to describe two categories of organizational structure — The “Starfish” and the “Spider.” Hierarchical Spider organizations, as described above, have a central command and control (head), and dependent parts (legs). Although relatively strong, it is easy to devise a strategy for attacking and destroying a Spider; survival is futile without a head.
Starfish organizations, on the other hand, have little central command and control. They typically have an inspirational leader — a catalyst — and a decentralized, hypermutable, amorphous organizational structure. Because of this, despite superficially appearing like a spider each “leg” is somewhat autonomous. In nature, when a leg is cut off a starfish, the base will regenerate the leg, and the leg can grow into a new starfish. The same holds true for Starfish organizations.
Highly successful decentralized organizations like Craigslist (advertising), eMule (music), Skype (telecommunications), Wikipedia (information), and Alcoholics Anonymous (support) promote small contributions by the masses sharing an overall goal. Collective knowledge is diffusively stored throughout the system, making adaptation easy and destruction difficult.
Indeed, the Internet itself — making all this possible — was originally built to function as a secure communications system after a destructive nuclear attack.
In this context, al Qaeda is not unlike Alcoholics Anonymous. Overall strategy is laid out, but operations and tactics are largely left to a network of small, sporadically networked groups. Within this diffuse and fluid structure, it is very difficult for outsiders to determine individual group size or location, or inter-group relationships.
Further, the Starfish structure readily promotes formation of franchise, splinter and copycat groups operating under an umbrella ideology. One might consider an al Qaeda splinter group the intellectual equivalent of Narcotics Anonymous — slightly modified strategy, same tactics.
Attacking a Starfish with an old-fashioned frontal assault makes it more open and decentralized and eventually stronger. The nature of Starfish ensures that temporary deathblows double the threat, and this trajectory is reflected in the 2006 vs. 2007 NIEs. How, then, should U.S. global counterterrorism strategy be modified? A pair of tactics could be effective in combination.
First, the DNI could decentralize overseas operations, simultaneously making them more flexible for us and ambiguous to the adversary. For example, Google is a Spider within which creative engineers work in a Starfish atmosphere via autonomous groups of three. Following an Army model in the intelligence community, knowing the commander’s intent would allow for strong strategic guidance on purpose, mission, and end state while allowing significant tactical flexibility during field operations.
Second, al Qaeda can be maneuvered to partly centralize into a hybrid Spider-Starfish. Extremely decentralization is currently possible because al Qaeda does not govern land nor control scarce resources; if it did, some centralization would be necessary to manage property rights. Within the larger framework of the 19th-century “Indian Wars,” the Apaches, a Starfish organization with inspirational catalysts (including Geronimo), violently opposed foreign rule for decades. However, after American gifts of cattle to the Apaches, power was concentrated among the leaders for control of this new resource. Following the assembly of hierarchical leadership, Apaches were easier to deal with, and ultimately, control.
The U.S. and her allies have made progress combating global terrorism, but we should not be overconfident in our victories. Starfish that are bisected have a tendency to duplicate, stirring visions of mythical Hydra. Was either NIE wrong? Only in the sense they assumed we were fighting a Spider.
Mark D. Drapeau is the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy of the National Defense University. These views are his own and not the official views of the National Defense University, the Defense Department or the U.S. government.
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