I have been meaning for a while to post on a couple articles that I found a few weeks ago related to the use of networked information technologies by guerrillas, insurgents, and terrorists.  Two events have inspired me to get on with it already: 1) installation of the Performancing plugin for Firefox which makes it easier than ever to write posts and 2) the U.S. airstrike yesterday which killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

In their recent post on DefenseTech.org, “Winning (and Losing) the First Wired War”–and in the article of the same title in Popular Science–Noach Schachtman and David Axe argue that while the new U.S. strategy of network-centric warfare (NCW) “worked more or less as promised” during the initial invasion of Iraq,

more than three years into the Iraq conflict, the network is still largely incomplete. Local command centers have a torrent of information pouring in. For soldiers and marines on the ground, this war isn’t any more wired that the last one.

They continue:

And that’s a problem, because the insurgents are stitching together a newtwork of their own. Using throwaway cellphones and anonymous e-mail accounts, these guerrillas rely on a loose web of connections, not a top-down command structure. And they don’t fight in large groups that can be easily tracked by high-tech command posts. They have to be hunted down in dark neighborhoods, found amid thousands of civilians, and taken out one by one.

Their ideas and “observations” of the situation are not new.  Rather, they reflect the new conventional wisdom accepted by both the U.S. military and its critics alike: Networked forms of IT favor loose, decentralized organizations such as guerrillas, insurgents, or terrorists over tightly coupled, hierarchical organizations like the U.S. military.  These ideas have been offered by a number of authors from a variety of backgrouns and disciplines, including John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, Pippa Norris, and John Robb, among others.

I will address the problems with Schachtman and Axe’s argument specifically.  Next, however, I will use recent reports of events in Kashmir and Iraq to question the new conventional wisdom of which they are a reflection.

Since Schachtman and Axe share the same underlying assumption about the value of networked-IT for decentralized organizations, their main criticism of the U.S. military in Iraq is that our own networks are not yet complete or flawless.  There are several problems with this line of thinking.  First, are the insurgent networks that they see as more effective any more complete or perfect than our own?  Certainly not.  By definition they are ad hoc and imperfect.  Yet, guerrilla networks are typically seen as being more robust and resilient than our own for no other reason than that they are guerrilla networks.  Of course, this is a tautological argument–like saying the Bible is true because of it’s the Bible.  Guerrilla networks are assumed to be, by definition, more robust and resilient, and ours are assumed, again by definition, to be less so.  Hence, Schachtman and Axe are able to conclude, without evidence, that NCW has been of little benefit to the U.S. during the insurgency phase of operations.

There is another problem with their thinking, and it relates to the expectations that many critics of military technologies place on those systems.  They argue that NCW and the technologies which enable it have not worked during the insurgency phase, as if to say “Look! Car bombs! Well, guess NCW and IT doesn’t work! Back to the drawing board!” As with many critics of new military technology, there is an expectation that anything less than immediate perfection is akin to failure. But that’s not how technological change/development occurs. It is an evolutionary process. There are errors and mutations, but ultimately adaptations and successes as well, along the way.  Often, it is the errors and mutations which allow for and lead to the successes.  Errors and mutations hold within them both the peril of failure as well as the promise of successful adaptation.  This is a characteristic of technologies of which critics and proponents alike should be more mindful.

As for the completeness of the network and transformation, they will never be complete.  This is not because of incompetence, or “Rummy”, or a “neocon” conspiracy, but because incompletemess is in the nature of networks and transformations. They are always already in a state of flux, always already in the process of becoming what they will be next before they ever completely stabilize at what they are now. A little philosophical, sure, but better than the analysis we get from Schachtman and Axe.

But in addition to the specifics of their argument being dubious, there is evidence to suggest that the new conventional wisdom that networked IT favors guerrillas is also problematic, that the situation is not nearly so easy or clear cut.  A recent report from Kashmir illustrates the point:

Minutes after a bomb exploded recently in Kashmir and wounded Indian soldiers, a senior member of an Islamist rebel group called local newspaper offices to claim responsibility for the blast.

A few hours later, troops smashed the door of his hideout and arrested the militant “commander” after a brief gun battle.

Indian intelligence officers credited the bust in south Kashmir to the tracking of his mobile phone.

Until a few years ago, intelligence officials resisted attempts by the federal government to lift a ban on cell phone services in the region, fearing mobile phones would aid militants in planning attacks.

Now they know better and security officials say troops have eliminated many militants by tracking their mobile phones and tapping conservations, citing the example in south Kashmir.

Another recent report, this time from Iraq, indicates that networked IT may not be the boon for the insurgents that Shachtman and Axe (and others) have believed.

No mobile phones, no landlines, no Internet – that is the message anti-U.S. rebels have recently received from their commanders.

The message is believed to have even spread in neighboring states as part of the package of instructions foreign fighters receive before heading to Iraq.

“You are not to use electronic communication or even land lines when communicating,” said a leaflet which the groups distributed recently.

The instructions are apparently a response to what are described as ‘moderate successes’ U.S. troops have achieved in the past few weeks in their fight to flush out rebel cells.

Internet material, mobile messages and phone calls which the rebels use are now the U.S. military’s major source of intelligence.

“The U.S. army has carried out successful raids in the light of the tips obtained from the Internet and m
obile phones,” said a source close to a major armed group involved in fighting the Americans.

“Therefore we have decided to rely on oral or written messages,” he said.

He said U.S. technicians and intelligence officers now have the ability to “intercept electronic messages and trace their source … They have also developed quick measures to respond.”

Just yesterday, however, it looks like that “moderate success” has turned into a major success that was partly the result of electronic and signals intelligence efforts.  CNN reports:

Planning for the operation was “a very long, painstaking, deliberate exploitation of intelligence, information- gathering, human sources, electronic, signal intelligence that was done over a period of time — many, many weeks,” Caldwell said.

But, in addition to technical means of collection, it looks like human intelligence was also important to the strike against al-Zarqawi, indicating that even the supposed shift to reliance on “oral or written messages” was not entirely effective for the insurgents.  Fox News reported:

A Jordanian official said that Jordan also provided the U.S. military with information that helped in tracking down al-Zarqawi. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was addressing intelligence issues, would not elaborate, but Jordan is known to have intelligence agents operating in Iraq to hunt down Islamic militants.

Some of the information came from Jordan’s sources inside Iraq and led the U.S. military to the area of Baqouba, the official said.

Gen.Caldwell said U.S. and Iraqi intelligence found Zarqawi by following his spiritual adviser Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi who was identified weeks ago with the help of “somebody inside the al-Zarqawi network.”

So, are networked forms of information technology a boon or bane for guerrillas, insurgents, and terrorists?  The answer is yes!  It’s both, all at once.  Just as these technologies hold both promise and peril for the U.S., so they hold both for guerrilla-type organizations as well.  The final story on what these new technologies means for warfare has not yet been written and will probably not be written for some time, if it is ever written.  If anything, we know that these technologies seem to have a higher degree of inherent flexibility than most other technologies with which we have previously interacted.  They have a tendency to exceed our expectations of them, to resist our efforts to stabilize and control them, to put our credibility at risk whenever we attempt to pass final judgement upon their meaning.

What is to be done?  Is the assumption that these new technologies favor decentralized organizations completely false?  What about the notion that they require flexible, adaptive organizations?  They’re not entirely true; nor are they entirely false.  Again, it is not a case of black or white, yes or no, one or the other.  There are aspects of the new technology which favor these kinds of organizations in certain times and places.  Therefore, if these technologies seem to demand flexibility and adaptability in our organizations, they should also indicate to us the necessity for those same qualities in our thinking about these technologies.  The best that we can hope to do is to remain open to the shifting demands and possibilities that these technologies seem to generate.  If we accept that war in general requires flexibility and adaptability–OODA loops that are outwardly focused and in touch with reality rather than inwardly focused and out of touch, as John Boyd would say–then we should take the same approach in our thinking about the impacts of new technologies on militaries and warfare.


“Armed groups shun electronic media to counter U.S. high-tech surveillance”, Azzaman, 24 May 2006

David Axe, “Winning (and Losing) the First Wired War”, Defense Tech, 19 May 2006

Sheikh Mustaq, “Troops in Kashmir master new weapon: cell phones”, Reuters, 21 May 2006

Noah Shachtman and David Axe, “Winning—and Losing—the First Wired War”, Popular Science, 21 May 2006