Wednesday, December 27, 2006

War, Web 2.0, Business and Terrorism

Some partially disjointed thoughts emanating from the fascinating NY Times magazine article called “Open Source Spying”:

The article explores efforts by some people in the US Defense Intelligence to use more ‘web 2.0’ concepts to try and better address the 21st century terrorist threats. (The phrase ‘open source’ in the title is a bit of a misnomer, as the article mainly deals with blogs and wikis and other web 2.0 phenomena.) In essence, the article highlights the challenges of a centralized command and control organization (i.e. government agencies, army etc) competing against a decentralized force with thousands of motivated and newly empowered individuals (i.e. terrorist networks). The issues are all too familiar to those paying attention to the large technology business battles over the past few years – Microsoft vs. Linux and web-based applications come to mind.

Here is a characteristic paragraph from the article:
On Sept. 12, 2001, analysts showed up at their desks and faced a radically altered job. Islamist terrorists, as 9/11 proved, behaved utterly unlike the Soviet Union. They were rapid-moving, transnational and cellular. A corner-store burglar in L.A. might turn out to be a Qaeda sympathizer raising money for a plot being organized overseas. An imam in suburban Detroit could be recruiting local youths to send to the Sudan for paramilitary training. Al Qaeda operatives organized their plots in a hivelike fashion, with collaborators from Afghanistan to London using e-mail, instant messaging and Yahoo groups; rarely did a single mastermind run the show. To disrupt these new plots, some intelligence officials concluded, American agents and analysts would need to cooperate just as fluidly — trading tips quickly among agents and agencies. Following the usual chain of command could be fatal. “To fight a network like Al Qaeda, you need to behave like a network,” John Arquilla, the influential professor of defense at the Naval Postgraduate School, told me.
The article ends as follows:
Today’s spies exist in an age of constant information exchange, in which everyday citizens swap news, dial up satellite pictures of their houses and collaborate on distant Web sites with strangers. As John Arquilla told me, if the spies do not join the rest of the world, they risk growing to resemble the rigid, unchanging bureaucracy that they once confronted during the cold war. “Fifteen years ago we were fighting the Soviet Union,” he said. “Who knew it would be replicated today in the intelligence community?”
This reminded me of another NY Times piece, a 2005 editorial called “The Open Source War”, which used the same metaphor to describe the Iraqi insurgency. (Note that in this case, the Open Source metaphor makes perfect sense, though I do not think the conclusions proposed in the article do.) To quote:
The other likely explanation [for the insurgency's ability to withstand high losses while increasing its ‘market share of violence’] is one the military itself makes: that the insurgency isn't a fragile hierarchical organization but rather a resilient network made up of small, autonomous groups. This means that the insurgency is virtually immune to attrition and decapitation. It will combine and recombine to form a viable network despite high rates of attrition. Body counts - and the military should already know this - aren't a good predictor of success… The insurgency uses an open-source community approach (similar to the decentralized development process now prevalent in the software industry) to warfare that is extremely quick and innovative. New technologies and tactics move rapidly from one end of the insurgency to the other, aided by Iraq's relatively advanced communications and transportation grid - demonstrated by the rapid increases in the sophistication of the insurgents' homemade bombs. This implies that the insurgency's innovation cycles are faster than the American military's slower bureaucratic processes. [emphasis added]
It seems like terrorist-like organisms, and elements of the Iraqi insurgency are using informal communications networks and the internet, and they are competing against a bureaucracy which is designed to function within an old and arguably irrelevant paradigm. Incidentally, a failure to make the paradigm shift may be one reason the Iraq war could gain such support in the US early on. Following the shock of 9/11, Saddam the dictator was easier to understand as a threat, because he fit into an old (albeit irrelevant) paradigm that the country had faced, understood and defeated in the twentieth century (eg Hitler, Stalin etc). So Saddam’s centralized army became a proxy for Al Qaeda, even though Al Qaeda itself, much like the post-invasion Iraqi insurgency, was illusive and decentralized. Al Qaeda does not have a home base that a traditional army could attack.

As is often the case in business, when faced with a crisis, we tend to go after the problems we understand, rather than the ones we face!

As usual, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show gets the difference between the types of threats. In a recent show, Ed Helms did a piece on the US Army’s difficulties in fighting the Iraqi insurgency with their ineffective high tech weaponry. His proposed solution: “Right now we are training [the Iraqi] army to fight a conventional war, being that one day when they can stand up, we will be able to mow them down.” [emphasis added]

Obviously, in real life, you can’t easily change the problem to fit the solution you have.

More seriously, I am also reminded of a fascinating passage in “Fiasco” that describes the ad hoc (ie unofficial way) in which US troops leaving Iraq in the winter of 2003, took it upon themselves to communicate with their replacements.
As they prepared to leave Iraq and hand over the mission to other units… the seasoned soldiers who had served for a year sought to pass on their hard won knowledge to their successors, in emails, in essays, in PowerPoint presentations and in rambling memoirs posted on web sites…One essay rocketed around military circles [offering practical ‘how-to’ advice to units]… Other essays were posted on, which began as a web site by and for junior Army officers, but became sponsored by the Army and received an unusual kind of semi-official status… Officers in Iraq said the documents tended to be useful, especially because they were more attuned to current conditions there than official publications. [emphasis added]
So interestingly enough, the internet was used by individuals with in the US military in effective ways to better communicate outside of the official channels, but (obviously) social media is far from being integrated into the military as an ‘enterprise’ (!) solution. Clearly, there is an internal tension to try and use open wikis and blogs for military strategy discussions and intelligence gathering, making this a non trivial problem.

Nonetheless, going back to terrorism in general, almost every in-depth news report on AlQaeda also talks about their savvy use of the internet as a communication medium – to spread their ideas quicky, find like minded people through out the world, and to coordinate ‘intelligence’. Clearly, they are on the web, 2.0!

As such, Al Qaeda better resembles a technology enabled social network (i.e. a social networking website) than the mighty armies of Hitler and Brezhnev. But if government and military bureaucracies function within the old paradigms of power, they risk mis-characterizing or misunderstanding the nature of the new challenges they face, and ultimately, they will have a great many opportunities to make extremely costly mistakes in the future.

At the very least, it is a good thing that some people with in the US government are experimenting with social networks and trying to understand their characteristics – their fluidity, decentralization and non-uniformity, as well as their speed and power. But it might also make sense for those who understand these concepts best – the technology communities and social media commentators among others – to pay closer attention to the shifting paradigms of international affairs.

This post is dedicated to James Brown. :)