Osama bin Laden and The Advent of Netwar
John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt are directors of the
"Networks and Netwars" project sponsored by the office of the
US assistant secretary of defense for command, control, communications
and intelligence. this article is an excerpt of their introduction to
that forthcoming report.
The "age of networks," now dawning with such promise, has just
yielded an astounding "attack on America," heralding the onset
of an archetypal netwar of the darkest kind. Transnational terrorists
organized in widely dispersed, networked nodes have shown how it is possible
to swarm together swiftly, on cue, then pulse to the attack simultaneously.
They relied on the Internet, communicating via encrypted messages-sometimes
even embedding them in photographic and other images on the world-wide
Web. But what really distinguishes them-particularly Osama bin Laden's
al-Qaeda ("the Base")-is the highly networked organizational
form that they have built, based on their unusual social, religious, and
kinship ties. US Secretary of State Colin Powell has put it aptly: To
win against terror, this network must be "ripped apart."
The league of hierarchical nation-states forming to fight this terrorism
will have to build its own set of nimble networks. In the military realm,
this means relying more on networks of agile special forces (e.g., the
US's Delta Force; Britain's Special Air Service; France's Commando Hubert;
and Germany's Grenzschutzgruppe-Neun) than on the missiles, tanks, bombers
and aircraft carriers that, until now, have been the sine qua non of national
power. Just as the terrorists' power derives more from their organizational
form than from technology, so too must the military power to defeat them
become more reliant upon organization and doctrine than upon advanced
The intelligence world faces an equally urgent need for institutional
redesign-away from notions of "central" intelligence, toward
the construction of transnational intelligence networks able to share
what they have on a real-time basis. Swift movement of important information
has played a major role in the success of networked businesses over the
past decade. Now it is time for networking to redefine the approach to
intelligence-the quality and timeliness of which will determine whether
bin Laden's or any other terror network can indeed be "ripped apart."
Improved international networking among military and intelligence organizations
can help win this war against terror. But this will not suffice in the
long run. A balanced strategy for countering networked terror should also
involve a much improved capacity to work with networks of civil-society
NGOs around the world, many of which are engaged in social netwars to
advance human rights, pressure authoritarian regimes, and foster ethical
norms of behavior. Nurturing this emergent global civil society offers
the best chance to create an "integral security system" that
could free all of us, ultimately, from terror. For in a truly networked
world, joined together by common values rather than just common "wires,"
there will simply be little space left for such a scourge.
Above all, US strategy should avoid getting mired in a "clash of
civilizations." The war against terror is not a war of Western values
against Islam. Rather, it is a "time war," in this case between
an emerging global civilization of the 21st century and a xenophobic religious
fanaticism of the 14th century (or earlier). Osama bin Laden and his cohorts
are tribal, medieval, absolutist and messianic. The more clearly terrorists
are revealed as such, the sooner they will be rejected by the vast majority
of the Muslim world for which they purport to be fighting.
Los Angeles-The information revolution is altering
the nature of conflict across the spectrum. We call attention to two developments
in particular. First, this revolution is favoring and strengthening network
forms of organization, often giving them an advantage over hierarchical
forms. The rise of networks means that power is migrating to nonstate
actors, because they are able to organize into sprawling multiorganizational
networks (especially "all-channel" networks, in which every
node is connected to every other node) more readily than can traditional,
hierarchical, state actors. This means that conflicts may increasingly
be waged by "networks," perhaps more than by "hierarchies."
It also means that whoever masters the network form stands to gain the
Second, as the information revolution deepens, the conduct and outcome
of conflicts increasingly depend on information and communications. More
than ever before, conflicts revolve around "knowledge" and the
use of "soft power." Adversaries are learning to emphasize "information
operations" and "perception management"-that is, media-oriented
measures that aim to attract or disorient rather than coerce, and that
affect how secure a society, a military or other actor feels about its
knowledge of itself and of its adversaries. Psychological disruption may
become as important a goal as physical destruction.
These propositions cut across the entire conflict spectrum. Major transformations
are thus coming in the nature of adversaries, in the type of threats they
may pose, and in how conflicts can be waged. Information-age threats are
likely to be more diffuse, dispersed, multidimensional, nonlinear and
ambiguous than industrial-age threats. Metaphorically, then, future conflicts
may resemble the Oriental game of Go more than the Western game of chess.
The conflict spectrum will be remolded from end to end by these dynamics.
An illustrative case of netwar was the effort by Serbia's reformist Radio
b-92, along with a supportive network of United States and European government
agencies and NGOs, to broadcast its reportage back into Serbia over the
Internet, after b-92's transmitters were shut down by the Milosevic regime
in 1998 and again in 1999. For a seminal case of a worldwide netwar, one
need look no further than the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
This unusually successful movement consists of a loosely internetted array
of NGOs and governments, which rely heavily on the Internet for communications.
Through the personage of one of its many leaders, Jody Williams, this
netwar won a well-deserved Nobel peace prize.
DEFINING NETWAR | To be precise, the term netwar refers to an emerging
mode of conflict (and crime) at societal levels, short of traditional
military warfare, in which the protagonists use network forms of organization
and related doctrines, strategies and technologies attuned to the information
age. These protagonists are likely to consist of dispersed organizations,
small groups and individuals who communicate, coordinate and conduct their
campaigns in an internetted manner, often without a precise central command.
Thus, netwar differs from modes of conflict and crime in which the protagonists
prefer to develop formal, stand-alone, hierarchical organizations, doctrines
and strategies as in past efforts, for example, to build centralized movements
along Leninist lines. Thus, for example, netwar is about the Zapatistas
more than the Fidelistas, Hamas more than the Palestine Liberation Organization
(PLO), the American Christian Patriot movement more than the Ku Klux Klan,
and the Asian Triads more than the Cosa Nostra.
The term netwar is meant to call attention to the prospect that network-based
conflict and crime will become major phenomena in the decades ahead. Various
actors across the spectrum of conflict and crime are already evolving
in this direction. This includes familiar adversaries who are modifying
their structures and strategies to take advantage of networked designs-e.g.,
transnational terrorist groups, black-market proliferators of weapons
of mass destruction (WMD), drug and other crime syndicates, fundamentalist
and ethnonationalist movements, intellectual-property pirates, and immigration
and refugee smugglers. Some urban gangs, back-country militias and militant
single-issue groups in the US have also been developing netwar-like attributes.
The netwar spectrum also includes a new generation of revolutionaries,
radicals and activists who are beginning to create information-age ideologies,
in which identities and loyalties may shift from the nation state to the
transnational level of "global civil society." New kinds of
actors, such as anarchistic and nihilistic leagues of computer-hacking
"cyboteurs," may also engage in netwar.
Many-if not most-netwar actors will be nonstate, even stateless. Some
may be agents of a state, but others may try to turn states into their
agents. Also, a netwar actor may be both subnational and transnational
in scope. Odd hybrids and symbioses are likely.
Furthermore, some bad actors (terrorist and criminal groups) may threaten
US and other nations' interests, but other actors (NGO activists in Burma
or Mexico) may not-indeed, some actors who at times turn to netwar strategies
and tactics, such as the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists
(CPJ), may have salutary liberalizing effects. Some actors may aim at
destruction, but more may aim mainly at disruption and disorientation.
Again, many variations are possible.
The full spectrum of netwar proponents may thus seem broad and odd at
first glance. But there is an underlying pattern that cuts across all
variations: the use of network forms of organization, doctrine, strategy
and technology attuned to the information age.
MORE ABOUT ORGANIZATIONAL DESIGN | In an archetypal netwar, the
protagonists are likely to amount to a set of diverse, dispersed "nodes"
who share a set of ideas and interests and who are arrayed to act in a
fully internetted "all-channel" manner.
Networks come in basically three types or topologies:
--The chain or line network, as in a smuggling chain where people, goods
or information move along a line of separated contacts, and where end-to-end
communication must travel through the intermediate nodes.
-- The hub, star or wheel network, as in a franchise or a cartel where
a set of actors is tied to a central (but not hierarchical) node or actor
and must go through that node to communicate and coordinate with each
-- The all-channel or full-matrix network, as in a collaborative network
of militant peace groups where everybody is connected to everybody else.
Each node may be an individual, a group, an organization, part of a group
or organization, or even a state. The nodes may be large or small, tightly
or loosely coupled, and inclusive or exclusive in membership. They may
be segmentary or specialized-that is, they may look alike and engage in
similar activities, or they may undertake a division of labor based on
specialization. The boundaries of the network, or of any node included
in it, may be well-defined, or blurred and porous in relation to the outside
environment. Many variations are possible.
Each type may be suited to different conditions and purposes, and all
three may be found among netwar-related adversaries-e.g. the chain in
smuggling operations; the hub at the core of terrorist and criminal syndicates;
and the all-channel type among militant groups that are highly internetted
and decentralized. There may also be hybrids of the three types, with
different tasks being organized around different types of networks. For
example, a netwar actor may have an all-channel council or directorate
at its core but use hubs and chains for tactical operations. There may
also be hybrids of network and hierarchical forms of organization.
For example, traditional hierarchies may exist inside particular nodes
in a network. Some actors may have a hierarchical organization overall
but use network designs for tactical operations; other actors may have
an all-channel network design overall but use hierarchical teams for tactical
operations. Again, many configurations are possible, and it may be difficult
for an analyst to discern exactly what type characterizes a particular
Of the three network types, the all-channel has been the most difficult
to organize and sustain, partly because it may require dense communications.
But it is the type that gives the network form its new, high potential
for collaborative undertakings and that is gaining new strength from the
information revolution. Pictorially, an all-channel netwar actor resembles
a geodesic "Bucky ball" (named for Buckminster Fuller); it does
not look like a pyramid. The organizational design is flat. Ideally, there
is no single, central leadership, command or headquarters-no precise heart
or head that can be targeted. The network as a whole (but not necessarily
each node) has little to no hierarchy; there may be multiple leaders.
Decision making and operations are decentralized, allowing for local initiative
and autonomy. Thus the design may sometimes appear acephalous (headless)
and at other times polycephalous (Hydra-headed).
The capacity of this design for effective performance over time may depend
on the existence of shared principles, interests and goals-perhaps an
overarching doctrine or ideology-which spans all nodes and to which the
members subscribe in a deep way. Such a set of principles, shaped through
mutual consultation and consensus-building, can enable members to be "all
of one mind" even though they are dispersed and devoted to different
tasks. It can provide a central ideational and operational coherence that
allows for tactical decentralization. It can set boundaries and provide
guidelines for decisions and actions so that the members do not have to
resort to a hierarchy because "they know what they have to do."
The network design may depend on having an infrastructure for the dense
communication of functional information. This does not mean that all nodes
must be in constant communication; that may not make sense for a secretive,
conspiratorial actor. But when communication is needed, the network's
members must be able to disseminate information promptly and as broadly
as desired within the network and to outside audiences.
CAVEATS ABOUT THE ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY | Netwar is a result of the
rise of network forms of organization, which in turn is partly a result
of the computerized information revolution. To realize its potential,
a fully interconnected network requires a capacity for constant, dense
information and communications flows, more so than do other forms of organization
(e.g., hierarchies). This capacity is afforded by the latest information
and communication technologies-cellular telephones, fax machines, electronic
mail (e-mail), Web sites and computer conferencing. Such technologies
are highly advantageous for netwar actors whose constituents are geographically
But two caveats are in order. First, the new technologies, however enabling
for organizational networking, are not absolutely necessary for a netwar
actor. Older technologies, like human couriers, and mixes of old and new
systems may do the job in some situations. The late Somali warlord, Mohamed
Farah Aidid, for example, proved very adept at eluding those seeking to
capture him while at the same time retaining full command and control
over his forces by means of runners and drum codes. Similarly, the first
Chechen War (1994-1996), which the Islamic insurgents won, made wide use
of runners and old communications technologies like ham radios for battle
management and other command and control functions. So, netwar may be
waged in high-, low-, or no-tech fashion.
Second, netwar is not simply a function of "the Net"; it does
not take place only in "cyberspace" or the "infosphere."
Some battles may occur there, but a war's overall conduct and outcome
will normally depend mostly on what happens in the "real world"-it
will continue to be, even in information-age conflicts, generally more
important than what happens in cyberspace or the info-sphere.
Netwar is not solely about Internet war (just as cyberwar is not just
about "strategic information warfare"). Americans have a tendency
to view modern conflict as being more about technology than organization
and doctrine. In our view, this is a misleading tendency. For example,
social netwar is more about a doctrinal leader like Subcomandante Marcos
than about a lone, wild computer hacker like Kevin Mitnick.
SWARMING | This distinctive, often ad-hoc design has unusual strengths,
for both offense and defense. On the offense, networks tend to be adaptable,
flexible and versatile vis-à-vis opportunities and challenges.
This may be particularly the case where a set of actors can engage in
swarming. Little analytic attention has been given to swarming, which
is quite different from traditional mass- and maneuver-oriented approaches
to conflict. Yet swarming may become the key mode of conflict in the information
age, and the cutting edge for this possibility is found among netwar protagonists.
Swarming is a seemingly amorphous, but deliberately structured, coordinated,
strategic way to strike from all directions at a particular point or points,
by means of a sustainable pulsing of force and/or fire, close-in as well
as from stand-off positions. This notion of "force and/or fire"
may be literal in the case of military or police operations, but metaphorical
in the case of NGO activists, who may, for example, be blocking city intersections
or emitting volleys of e-mails and faxes. Swarming will work best-perhaps
it will only work-if it is designed mainly around the deployment of myriad,
small, dispersed, networked maneuver units. Swarming occurs when the dispersed
units of a network of small (and perhaps some large) forces converge on
a target from multiple directions. The overall aim is sustainable pulsing-swarm
networks must be able to coalesce rapidly and stealthily on a target,
then sever and redisperse, immediately ready to recombine for a new pulse.
The capacity for a "stealthy approach" suggests that, in netwar,
attacks are more likely to occur in "swarms" than in more traditional
"waves." The Chechen resistance to the Russian army and the
Direct Action Network's operations in the anti-World Trade Organization
"Battle of Seattle" both provide excellent examples of swarming
Swarming may be most effective, and difficult to defend against, where
a set of netwar actors do not "mass" their forces, but rather
engage in dispersion and "packetization" (for want of a better
term). This means, for example, that drug smugglers can break large loads
into many small packets for simultaneous surreptitious transport across
a border, or that NGO activists, as in the case of the Zapatista movement,
have enough diversity in their ranks to respond to any discrete issue
that arises-human rights, democracy, the environment, rural development,
In terms of their defensive potential, networks tend to be redundant and
diverse, making them robust and resilient in the face of attack. When
they have a capacity for interoperability and shun centralized command
and control, network designs can be difficult to crack and defeat as a
whole. In particular, they may defy counter leadership targeting-a favored
strategy in the drug war as well as in overall efforts to tamp organized
crime in the United States. Thus, whoever wants to attack a network is
limited-generally, only portions of a network can be found and confronted.
Moreover, the deniability built into a network affords the possibility
that it may simply absorb a number of attacks on distributed nodes, leading
an attacker to believe the network has been harmed and rendered inoperable
when, in fact, it remains viable and is seeking new opportunities for
The difficulty of dealing with netwar actors deepens when the lines between
offense and defense are blurred or blended. When blurring is the case,
it may be difficult to distinguish between attacking and defending actions,
particularly where an actor goes on the offense in the name of self-defense.
For example, the Zapatista struggle in Mexico demonstrates anew the blurring
of offense and defense. The blending of offense and defense will often
mix the strategic and tactical levels of operations. For example, guerrillas
on the defensive strategically may go on the offense tactically, as in
the war of the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the 1980s, and in both
recent Chechen wars with the Russians.
OPERATING IN THE SEAMS | The blurring of offense and defense reflects
another feature of netwar (albeit one that is exhibited in many other
policy and issue areas): It tends to defy and cut across standard boundaries,
jurisdictions and distinctions between state and society, public and private,
war and peace, war and crime, civilian and military, police and military,
and legal and illegal. This makes it difficult if not impossible for a
government to assign responsibility to any single agency-e.g. military,
police or intelligence-to be in charge of responding.
Thus, the spread of netwar adds to the challenges facing the nation state
in the information age. Its sovereignty and authority are usually exercised
through bureaucracies in which issues and problems can be sliced up and
specific offices can be charged with taking care of specific problems.
In netwar, things are rarely so clear. A protagonist is likely to operate
in the cracks and gray areas of a society, striking where lines of authority
crisscross and the operational paradigms of politicians, officials, soldiers,
police officers and related actors get fuzzy and clash. Moreover, where
transnational participation is strong, a netwar's protagonists may expose
a local government to challenges to its sovereignty and legitimacy by
arousing foreign governments and business corporations to put pressure
on the local government to alter its domestic policies and practices.
NETWORKS VERSUS HIERARCHIES: CHALLENGES FOR COUNTERNETWAR | Hierarchies
have a difficult time fighting networks. There are examples of this across
the conflict spectrum.
Some of the best are found in the failings of many governments to defeat
transnational criminal cartels engaged in drug smuggling, as in Colombia.
The persistence of religious revivalist movements, as in Algeria, in the
face of unremitting state opposition, shows both the defensive and offensive
robustness of the network form.
The Zapatista movement in Mexico, with its legions of supporters and sympathizers
among local and transnational NGOs, shows that social netwar can put a
democratizing autocracy on the defensive and pressure it to continue adopting
It takes networks to fight networks. Governments that want to defend against
netwar may have to adopt organizational designs and strategies like those
of their adversaries. This does not mean mirroring the adversary, but
rather learning to draw on the same design principles that he has already
learned about the rise of network forms in the information age. These
principles depend to some extent on technological innovation, but mainly
on a willingness to innovate organizationally and doctrinally, perhaps
especially by building new mechanisms for interagency and multijurisdictional
Whoever masters the network form first and best will gain major advantages.
In these early decades of the information age, adversaries who are advanced
at networking (be they criminals, terrorists or peaceful social activists,
including ones acting in concert with states) are enjoying an increase
in their power relative to state agencies. While networking once allowed
them simply to keep from being suppressed, it now allows them to compete
on more nearly equal terms with states and other hierarchically oriented
actors. The histories of Hamas and of the Cali cartel illustrate this;
so do the Zapatista movement in Mexico and the International Campaign
to Ban Landmines.
Counternetwar may thus require very effective interagency approaches,
which by their nature involve networked structures.
It is not necessary, desirable or even possible to replace all hierarchies
with networks in governments. Rather, the challenge will be to blend these
two forms skillfully, while retaining enough core authority to encourage
and enforce adherence to networked processes. By creating effective hybrids,
governments may become better prepared to confront the new threats and
challenges emerging in the information age, whether generated by ethnonationalists,
terrorists, militias, criminals or other actors.
Recent netwar conflicts feature an uneven split between those about globalist
issues-aimed at fostering the rise of a rights- and ethics-based civil
society-and the more frequent, somewhat darker "autonomist"
variety of netwar, featuring nonstate actors trying to get out from under
state controls. Most of the limited successes that have been achieved
thus far are globalist in orientation, while most of the substantial successes
(save for the Battle of Seattle and Serbia) have been autonomist. It will
be interesting, as the instances of netwar increase over time, to see
whether this pattern holds. The outcomes of the globalist cases suggest
the prevalence of negotiated solutions, while the autonomist conflicts
may, in general, have a much more inherently desperate character that
drives them to greater violence and less willingness to reach accommodation.
All this we will watch in the years to come. For now, these early cases
have helped us to develop this taxonomy of netwar, further refining the
Will netwar continue to empower nonstate actors, perhaps reducing the
relative power advantage enjoyed by nation states?
Civil society networks have already made much use of social netwar as
a tool for advancing a globalist, ethics-based agenda focused on broadening
and deepening human rights regimes-often in the context of an ongoing
effort to foster movement from authoritarian rule to democracy (e.g.,
Burma). But there is another side of nonstate-actor-oriented netwar, characterized
not by globalist impulses, but rather by the desire to avoid state control
of a network's criminal, terrorist or ethnic-separatist agenda (e.g.,
Hamas and Chechens). While the globalist netwars seem devoted to nonviolent
tools of struggle, the autonomists may employ both means of engagement-often
with a greater emphasis on violence.
VARIETIES OF NETWAR-DUAL PHENOMENA | Netwar can be waged by "good"
as well as "bad" actors and through peaceful as well as violent
measures. From its beginnings, netwar has appealed to a broad cross-section
of nonstate actors who are striving to confront or cope with their state
Ethnonationalists, criminals and terrorists-all have found new power in
networking. But so too have emerging global civil society actors who have
emphasized nonviolent efforts to win the "battle of the story"-a
more purely informational dimension of netwar-rather than the violent
swarming characteristic of its darker side.
The duality of netwar in the real world-dark-side criminals and terrorists
on the one hand, but enlightening civil society forces on the other, is
mirrored in the virtual world of cyberspace, which is increasingly utilized
for crime and terror, along with social activism.
At present, social activism is far more robust and established in the
cyber realm than is crime or terror. Will this continue to be the case?
We think so. Activists will become more adept at integrating the mobilizing
force of the Internet with the power and appeal of messages aimed at spreading
and protecting human rights. Even so, criminal and terrorist organizations
will learn how to manipulate the infosphere with increasing skill.
Thus, netwar has two faces, like the Roman god Janus. Janus was the god
of doors and gates, and thus of departures and returns, and new beginnings
and initiatives. This, in a sense, meant he was the god of communications,
too. His double face, one old and looking back, the other younger and
peering forward, conveyed that he was an inherently dual god. At the beginning
of creation, he partook in the separation of order from chaos. In Roman
times, he was identified with the distinction between war and peace, for
the gate to his temple at the Forum was kept ceremoniously closed in times
of peace and open in times of war-which meant the gates were rarely closed.
At the start of the 21st century, the world is again at a new beginning.
It is uncertain whether it will be an era of peace or conflict; but how
matters turn out will depend to some degree on which face of netwar predominates.
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