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Friday, July 27th, 2007


“…eventually, the application of our military power will mirror the dominant threat to a significant degree. In other words, we morph into a military of superempowered individuals fighting wars against superempowred individuals”

– Vice-Admiral Arthur K. Cebrowski and Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett (1)

“First, very few people would be needed to carry out the attack. A single individual could spread a nationwide pandemic using a highly contagious virus. A two person team would be sufficient to deploy and detonate a couple of nuclear weapons”

– Dr. Fred C. Ikle, Annihilation From Within

“In fact, we may have seen the the first of 5GW in the anthrax and ricin attacks on Capitol Hill. To date, neither has been solved. Apparently a small group, perhaps an individual, decided to take on the power of the United States.”

– Colonel T.X. Hammes, The Sling and the Stone

“Over time, perhaps as little as in twenty years, and as the leverage provided by technology increases, this threshold will finally reach its culmination – with the ability of one man to declare war on the world and win.”

– John Robb, Brave New War

To a paraphrase Karl Marx, a specter is haunting general staffs, intelligence agencies and statesmen the world over, the coming of the superempowered individual. No one quite knows what form the superempowered individual will take, but the devolution of increasingly powerful and versatile technologies at continually descending costs into the hands of individuals, coupled with the increasing interdependency of complex systems due to globalization, make their arrival all but inevitable.

As it stands now, the world is but one self-sacrificing genetic microbiologist away from a superempowered suicide bomber riding international air routes to a new black plague. However, the advancing edge of technology is the province of scientists and imaginative futurists, and even they are unable to predict how emerging technology will be employed for novel uses the inventors never intended. Therefore, I will leave speculating on the means of plausible superempowered warfare to others who are better qualified but human nature, being a more reliable variable, may be within our grasp to comprehend.

Defining Superempowerment:

Superempowered individuals are not mere terrorists with bigger, badder, car bombs. Imad Fayez Mugniyah and even Timothy McVeigh, who carried out thev Oklahoma City bombing in what must have been a very small and insular cell of extremists, are not the models despite their impressive accomplishments at mass murder. Nor are the great monster-rulers of the past like Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin who were State-empowered leaders acting through the vast governmental apparatus of the nation-state. To qualify as a superempowered individual, the actor must be able to initiate a destructive event, fundamentally with their own resources, that cascades systemically on a national, regional or global scale. They must be able to credibly, “declare war on the world”. Who could or would desire to do such a thing?

The Psychology of the Superempowered Individual:

A useful prototype for the coming superempowered individual, though he never achieved or intended a systemic level of mass carnage, would be the Unabomber, Dr. Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski, a brilliant but mentally disturbed mathematician turned radical environmentalist and terrorist. Kaczynski, who spent years in relative penury in a wooden shack, possessing minimal financial resources, nevertheless managed to elude the FBI for seventeen years while carrying out an intermittant bombing campaign. Ultimately, Kaczynski’s terrorism resulted in the showcasing of his weird,anti-technology, ideology ( the “Unabomber Manifesto“) in the two premier media outlets of the American Establishment, The New York Times and The Washington Post, and subsequently his message went on to permeate much of the global media. While Kaczyinski’s body count and record of mayhem were relatively modest, considered in terms of a cost-to-benefit ratio and information operations, he might be the most successful terrorist of modern times.

Kaczynski demonstrated four characteristics that are likely to be shared with superempowered individuals:

a) “Lone Wolf” actor
b) Superior Intelligence
c) Opportunity for leveraging Complex Systems
d) Profound alienation, isolation or societal disconnection

Kaczinski’s work as a student and professional academic in higher mathematics were regarded as highly impressive by his mentor and colleagues and reputedly his IQ was rated between 160 and 170 ( 2). While there is considerable debate among psychometricians about quantifying the upper limits of human intelligence, whatever the scale used, Kaczynski’s mental capacity would safely fall within the upper 0.5 % of the population and represents an outlier of ability. Most likely, the Unabomber’s level of IQ substantially exceeds what would be required to operate as a superempowered individual and the population base for such actors would be the upper 5 %; those people capable of understanding, calculating or estimating the probable outcome of multiple interacting variables.

According to testimony from family members and associates, Kaczynski suffered from emotional and social deficits relative to his unusual intellectual gifts and has been described variously as clinically paranoiac or schizophrenic by psychiatrists and psychologists. Kaczynski’s psychological profile reports his social alienation from his peers starting even before the onset of adolescence (3). By the time of his terrorist career, Kaczynski was writing vitriolic letters to family members, accusing them of abuse and harrassment and his immediate social network was virtually non-existent. Mental or emotional disturbance, especially forms of clinical depression, coincides with unusually high levels of productive creativity, while the unusual sensitivity of profoundly gifted individuals can make them ripe for disappointment(4).

Complex systems provide the opportunity or environment for superempowered individuals to initiate system perturbations or cascading effects that ripple across multiple systems, including the political, economic and physical. Kaczynski’s manifesto (as well as his targeting of airlines and technologists) clearly indicated that he grasped, however warped his agenda, the concept of interacting systems and downstream effects. Intelligence and will are not enough; the actor must have or conspire to gain access to a “choke point” from which he can, in jujitsu fashion, leverage the connectivity of a complex system against itself.

Alienation is a useful psychological precursor to cultivating a lack of empathy and devaluation, dehumanization and demonization of intended categories of victims. Adolf Hitler’s earliest recorded anti-semitic diatribe comes in a letter written in 1919, giving the future Fuhrer two decades to steel himself before taking concrete steps to enact ” the Final Solution”. The doctoral dissertations of Pol Pot’s collaborators, Hou Yuon and Khieu Samphan, laid out the basis of Khmer Rouge policy way back in 1955. It may be that such long term “mental rehearsals” are required to desensitize or justify the execution of systemic violence and that we would see such a pattern in the lives of superempowered individuals.

What Can Be Done?:

In terms of defense against superempowered individuals, the best option is engineering resilience and redundancy into all our critical systems and platforms, physical as well as social and political. We must with determination, lower our societal vulnerability to catastrophic attack so that back-up systems and third order contingencies ” short-circuit” the attack of a superempowered individual on our power, economic, communication and governmental networks. Tom Barnett, John Robb and most of all Steve DeAngelis , have all been preaching the gospel of resilience but the Federal government has yet to make this a priority .

Secondly, (and frankly, I’m not certain how this should be best implemented) we need to address reconnecting mildly disturbed but very talented ( and thus, potentially, exceptionally dangerous) people to wider social support and mental health networks before they wander irrevocably into the isolated realm of delusional violence. Rarely, if ever, do people just “snap” and commit heinous atrocities out of the blue. Instead, there is a prior pattern of drifting away, of eccentric and increasingly belligerent behavior over time until the individual, in isolated rage, mounts toward a crisis and lashes out at the world.

Unfortunately, a superempowered individual will do more than simply barricade himself in his house or shoot up a work place. Instead, he will try to take a good chunk of society with him and will have the capability to do so. We have a window of opportunity now to create strategies to deal with these eventualities and it should not be wasted.


1. Barnett, Thomas P.M. and Cebrowski, Arthur K. ” The American Way of War“, Transformation Trends, January 2003.
2. Time.com Community Transcript “ The Unabomber Trial” November 12 1997
3. Johnson, Sally C. “Psychological Evaluation of Theodore Kaczynski
4. Simonton, Dean Keith “Are Genius and Madness Related? Contemporary Answers to an Ancient Question“, Psychiatric Times. June 2005 Vol. XXII Issue 7


Tom Barnett:
My own personal 5GW dream

John Robb:
Lots of discussion of what 5GW is

Shlok Vaidya:
What Should Superempowered Individuals Do?”
5GW And Beyond

Dreaming 5th Generation War


Glittering Eye:
Zenpundit on the Super-Empowered Individual

Dreaming 5GW :
Rule-sets, System Perturbations and 5GW
Barnettian 5GW

Wolf Pangloss:
Fifth Generation Warfare: Conspiracy and Shadow Government

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