NETWORKS, NODES, HUBS, COMPUTER VIRUSES AND AL QAIDA
Dr. Von has an excellent summative essay up today on how network theory applies in different scenarios:
“One can understand from this model how computer viruses are so effective and can spread so quickly around the world. If a single, typical node (perhaps my computer) is ‘infected’ by a virus sent out (normally via email) to the Internet, and if that node were to somehow contain it and not send an email out to anyone else, nothing would happen to the rest of the network. But if I were to send emails to a number of friends and acquaintances, or if the virus were sent to numerous nodes in the network, as each node sent out emails the virus spreads to each of those nodes, and before long it is possible to have a cascading effect. Now, if a hub is infected, and it is linked to many, many other nodes of the Internet network, large numbers of nodes of the Internet may be infected almost simultaneously, perhaps before an ‘antidote’ piece of software can be made available. On the other hand, let’s suppose hubs are ‘cured’ of a virus relatively quickly, but some of the small, peripheral nodes are infected. The virus is not extinguished just because hubs are cured. In fact, computer viruses can persist for long periods of time (6 months to as long as 14 months after antidote software is available) even without infected hubs because they can still move around, albeit slowly, between the poorly connected nodes of the network.
One interesting aspect of this is to think of a social network such as Al Qaeda. This organization follows scale-free network structures, rather than some other types of social network structures. Other types may be a hub-and-spoke structure like a dictatorship, where a central hub runs the entire network. A tree structure is also possible, with a set chain of command (much like a typical military organization, where more minor decisions can be made locally in parts of the network, and major, global decisions made by someone like the President or a top general, and this decision cascades down to lower parts of the network simultaneously. Al Qaeda is neither of these, but rather a ‘web without a spider.’ An analysis was done after the 9/11 attacks to determine the structure of the cell responsible for the attacks (this is outlined in Barabasi’s book). Mohamed Atta was indeed a hub of the suspected 34-person cell. But, he only had links with 16 other nodes. Marwan Al-Shehhi was linked with only 14 other members of the cell. Most of the other members only may have had one or two known links to other nodes, which is a signature structure for a scale-free network. If we assume the entire Al Qaeda organization is similarly structured, what we are fighting is indeed a network that is very flexible and can tolerate some number of internal failures. If Atta was captured prior to 9/11, that event would not have necessarily crippled the cell, and the attacks may have very well gone as planned. The reason is that the other nodes still had the links to hold together the cell, so even taking out the leader of the cell does not disconnect all the other links. Killing Bin Laden will not in itself cripple Al Qaeda for the same reason. In fact we have seen this because a number of Bin Laden’s very well-connected lieutenants (i.e. other hubs) have been killed or captured, and yet the attacks and killing by the periphery of Al Qaeda continue unabated. This is completely analogous to viruses in the Internet, where if a hub is ‘cured’ (i.e. Bin Laden removed) the virus may still be able to do damage through poorly connected nodes (small cells on the periphery of Al Qaeda’s network, acting almost independently). This is part of the power of a scale-free network structure.”
Jessica Stern, author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill and Superterrorism Fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations, also draws on network theory, considering al Qaida to be ” a hybrid organization” that now consists of a ” network of networks” that contains ” leaderless resisters, lone-wolf avengers, commanders and cadres, free-lancers and franchises. A flexible organizational-operational pattern that would be quite close to what John Robb calls the ” Open-Source ” warfare model of terrorism.
” State-sponsored Terrorism” is of course, network warfare. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union sponsored state actor and subnational proxies in order to wage geopolitical competition with a circuit-breaker of plausible deniability that prevented direct superpower confrontation and escalation to nuclear war. Proxies were kept on relatively short leashes, whenever possible. The Reagan administration, hardly a group that was soft on Communism, agonized and delayed providing the Afghan Mujahedin stinger missiles precisely because those proxies were seen ( correctly ) even within sections of the CIA as unreliable and uncontrollable, compared to, say, the Contras.
The Soviets were less discriminating with their aid but when a proxy wandered away from Moscow’s playbook, as with Gaddafi’s bombing in West Germany that provoked the Reagan administration to attempt to kill the Libyan strongman in a military attack, the Soviets cooly let their proxy take their lumps. This contrasts with their attitude toward more loyal proxies like Hafez Assad, whom the Soviets backed to the extent of replacing much of the Syrian air force shot down over Lebanon by the Israelis.
Networks have the capacity to become self-sustaining enterprises. When Superpower aid dried up across the board in the early 1990’s – terrorists, guerillas and rogue state actors turned to various black market enterprises and Transnational Organized Crime networks to move drugs, diamonds, arms, WMD technology, slave labor and other forms of contraband to create revenue streams. Taking a page from the old 1930’s Comintern, these networks formed legal front organizations, charitiable foundations and even business enterprises in the Core and Seam states to raise additional revenue streams and launder illicit income. By the mid 1990’s, Cold War proxies were morphing into “ Non-state Actors” that were independent players on national, regional or global scales.
This is the strategic environment of the GWOT. Not a world of nation-states but a network of networks in which nation-states are merely one of the major hubs.