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<nettime> [NYT: lacking a center...]
nettime's_roving_reporter on Sat, 20 Oct 2001 22:09:14 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> [NYT: lacking a center...]

 via <rah {AT} shipwright.com> via <tbyfield {AT} panix.com>]

October 20, 2001

Lacking a Center, Terrorist Networks Are Hard to Find, Let Alone Fight

He sits motionless like a spider in the center of its web," is one
description of the villain, "but that web has a thousand radiations, and he
knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only
plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized," though it is
"impossible to get evidence which could convict in a court of law."

Such are the wiles of the evil Professor Moriarty, described by his
nemesis, Sherlock Holmes, shortly before they plunge into Reichenbach
Falls, apparently to their deaths.

This metaphor of a spider web with a masterly evil plotter at its center is
appealing as a description of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations,
but it may also be incorrect. A web, after all, has crucial
vulnerabilities. Eliminate its creator, and the threads weaken. Destroy a
few crucial links, and the strands collapse.

But terrorist organizations are generally referred to as networks, which
can be quite varied. Instead of being built around a controlling hub
surrounded by terrorist cells, a network can be a sprawling, decentralized
arrangement. In fact, the declarations that Americans are engaged in a
different sort of war than ever before may have to do with this structure
and not just with terrorism itself. Disabling a network often requires
different strategies from those used to attack a nation or a hierarchical
organization. The challenge may also be a distorted reflection of more
profound shifts in culture and politics. For better or worse, the world has
entered an era of networks.

In recent years, for example the idea of a network has received substantial
attention in mathematics, computer science and sociology. A network is, to
put it simply, a collection of connected points called nodes. A node can be
a telephone connected to switching stations and other telephones. It can be
a computer using the Internet. Or it can be an individual communicating
with other individuals for a common purpose. Networks are being studied for
their properties (in a mathematical field known as network theory), for
their applications (as in the Internet) and for an understanding of social
organizations (ranging from online newsgroups to terrorist groups).

The design of a network determines its resilience, its vulnerability and
its power to expand. Manuel Castells, a sociologist at the University of
California at Berkeley, argues in a dense analytic trilogy, "The
Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture" (1998, Blackwell), that the
development of computer networks, the Internet and banking networks has
begun to affect the world order.

As has been argued by other scholars, Mr. Castells says that these networks
are creating new social structures. Once commerce and communication take
place beyond national control, the status of the state changes. Notions of
sovereignty and self-sufficiency are weakened. These developments have been
welcomed by many for their promise of new forms of governance. But at the
same time, these wide-ranging networks inspire an opposing reaction. The
more the state withers, the more anxious and rootless its citizens become.
And so there is an increasing pursuit of identity and a stronger urge to
assert distinctions that have nothing to do with the state.

In extreme form these network effects are reflected in the current
situation. Technological networks helped terrorist networks flourish;
agents could ignore national boundaries, rely on remote financial dealings
and use the Internet to obtain news, send e-mail and book flights. (The
hijackers even walked out of one hotel because it did not offer high-speed
Internet access). Such international coordination and communication would
have been far more difficult a decade ago. But these technological networks
are also being used in fanatical pursuit of fundamentalist identity. The
supranational network serves a supranational identity, creating a double
threat to the state.

Purely apart from its fundamentalist fury, in fact, Al Qaeda's network is
trying to undermine at least some aspects of the modern nation- state. But
unlike those who welcome a world free of nationalism, Al Qaeda seeks an
almost premodern form of association. The modern state is partly founded on
rational principles and is given shape by bureaucratic hierarchies and
evolving canons of law. The terror networks are after something different:
the dissolution of such principles and hierarchies and the expansion of
religious connections across all national boundaries.

In this case the attack had an archetypal quality, mounted against the most
powerful nation-state on the globe. The vulnerability of the modern state
is partly its transparency; its organization is based on interlocking webs,
each dominated by a central authority. The sites targeted for the Sept. 11
attacks included crucial nodes of the state, the points required for
maintenance of civic order: military and financial centers and possibly
executive and legislative centers.

The difficulty is that now a state must fight a network, which is far from
easy since a network can be made unusually resilient and need not be
designed around dominant power centers. This was, for example, a
characteristic of a computer network designed for the Defense Department in
the 1960's. It was meant to be invulnerable to nuclear attack. There was no
hierarchical organization. No single computer or computer site was the
center for the transmission of communications. Every message was broken
into "packets" that could take completely different paths to their goals.
If one node - a computer system or communications center - was taken out,
messages could continue unimpeded. The Internet is the heir of that early
network and preserves the same resilient design, which is one reason it was
so much less affected than local telephone and television service on Sept.

It may be that Osama bin Laden's network and many others are built on
similar principles. What if the network is designed so that if Mr. bin
Laden were removed, the network would proceed unimpeded? What if the
network is less hierarchical than it seems, so there are few if any agents
with a complete overview of what is happening? Some people in intelligence
have theorized that this was the case with some of the hijackers. How is
this kind of network, a modified human version of the Internet, to be
undermined, particularly given its intermeshing links with other terror
networks with their own design?

The answers to these kinds of questions are undoubtedly being debated. But
if an Internet-like network is the model, warfare will have to change its
focus; the state will have to take on network capabilities that may include
espionage as well as intricate coalitions and collusions. As has been
emphasized, no single attack or approach will be sufficient.

In fact, one important strategy for bringing down a sophisticated network
may be (as has been seen with the Internet) a metaphorical virus that could
- confuse communications and connections with disinformation and covert and
subtle disruptions. Such viruses may be in the process of development. But
the outcome, as President Bush has already warned, is not likely to be a
wrestling match with a single villain crashing to his death at Reichenbach

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