June 14, 2006
The Jihadi Network's Fatal FlawBy J.R. Dunn
Almost overlooked in the celebrations surrounding the elimination of Zarqawi is a considerable body of evidence that the Lion of Anbar was seeking to dramatically extend the range of his operations.
The day before Zarqawi was at last struck down, the London Times carried a short piece reporting on an international intelligence operation that had uncovered a terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al—Zarqawi operating in at least eight countries. The following Sunday, the New York Times published a weakly—sourced article stating that Zarqawi had recruited and trained up to 300 foreign operatives who were sent back to their own countries, mostly in the Middle East and Europe, to await orders.
These reports are much more credible than many would be willing to grant. Zarqawi was simply following a strategy formulated by Islamism's leading theoretician, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, AKA Abu Mus'ab al—Suri. Born and raised in Syria, Nasar became involved with Islamism at an early age, joining al—Tali'a al—Muqatila ("The Fighting Vanguard"), a group closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, while still in college.
He underwent training in Cairo and Baghdad, specializing in explosives and urban guerilla warfare. He later fought the Russians in Afghanistan, where he became associated with Al—Queda. During the 90s, Nasar lived in various parts of Europe (his pale skin and red hair made it easy for him to pass as a European), including Spain, where he married an apostate Spanish woman, and the UK, where he cofounded the Algeria—based Armed Islamic Group (GIA), one of the most savage of all Islamist organizations.
Nasar's major importance is as a strategist. His many analyses of Jihadi strategy are widely read, quoted, and discussed on Islamist Internet sites, and have had a clear influence on recent terrorist efforts. His crowning contribution appeared in late 2004, a 1600—page treatise titled The Call of the International Islamic Resistance. This work is not easy to find in English, though it's said to be ubiquitous in Arabic.
Islamic Resistance is a critique of Jihadi failures answered with a detailed blueprint for future strategy.
Nasar outlined a long—term campaign of sabotage and urban guerilla operations utilizing every available weapon up to and including WMDs. The goal is the complete destruction of the West. He particularly emphasized the importance of organization, recommending a broad—based, leaderless network to carry out operations. The aim was to create a system that could not be rolled up the way Al—Queda was.
If recent reports are correct, Zarqawi was attempting to create exactly this kind of network. Such a system would consist of small, distinct cells, with no direct contact between them, and no overarching hierarchal structure that could be shut down through decapitation. Separate cells would recruit, plan, and operate on their own, receiving only instructions, guidance, and technical information from overseas.
This kind of structure is known as a 'distributed network' among fourth—generation warfare (4GW) enthusiasts. (4GW is a strategic school of thought holding that the type of warfare practiced by the Jihadis is a totally new form developed to combat the 3GW — fast air—armor maneuver warfare — perfected by the West. In truth, 4GW appears to be little more than terrorism and guerilla warfare fitted out with an elaborate new vocabulary.)
What's really new — and a minor justification for 4GW rhetoric — is the use of the Internet as a contact tool. The contact system is always an Achille's Heel of any underground organization. By identifying one member, following him until he meets up with another, then following the second member, you can soon break open an entire network. This is exactly how Zarqawi himself was at last tracked down, with his spiritual advisor Sheik Abdel Rahman unwittingly leading a Coalition drone straight to his door. Such things as dead drops and the cell system were introduced to overcome this weakness.
But suppose you had a method of contacting network members without exposing anyone at either end? Using the Net for communications raises a frightening vision of a virtual army of terrorists born and raised in the West and undetectable by conventional police techniques. Such an army could operate effectively free of surveillance, receiving instructions by e—mail or IM, getting together only to carry out operations, striking their targets and then fading back into the population while intelligence and law enforcement look on helplessly.
Something very much like this may well have happened in London and Madrid. (It's also worth pointing out that this might conceivably have something to do with the NSA's program of intercepting e—mail communications.)
How concerned should we be? 4GW enthusiasts, and some of the more excitable military commentators, behave as if the concept is a magic bullet, an unbeatable strategy leveraging asymmetric assets to even the odds against the Western giant. But we heard much the same about Al Queda itself five years ago, and we know how that turned out.
Under close inspection, the giant—killer concept has enough in the way of flaws, errors, and lacunae to make it barely practicable, much less a war—winning strategy. These shortcomings appear in three major categories —— experience, training, and discipline. Together they comprise a contemporary example of Clausewitzean 'friction' — the perversity of the universe at large that puts unforeseen obstacles in the path of even the most well—devised plan.
Many who work on the level of theory, without benefit of the winnowing effects of real—world practice, tend to give too much credit to pure information. From the point of view of the theorist (and this attitude colors the thinking of the entire IT field) information embodies all power. Whoever possesses superior information holds the upper hand.
Of course, it's not that straightforward. You can send anything you like in an e—mail — plans, intelligence, instructions, what have you. But you can't send experience. And that's a fatal shortcoming.
Consider a situation where you have perfect knowledge of a particular target — plans, defenses, weak points, personnel, everything you need to know to get inside and destroy the place. Now give that information to an eight—year—old. Or a dull—normal, or a junkie, or a schizophrenic. Or the average teenager, for that matter.
This problem is insurmountable. It can be taken as given that there will be something wrong with fifth—column Jihadi volunteers. They will be either fanatics or misfits, both legendarily incapable of independent accomplishment. It's true that these categories include both Zarqawi, very likely a clinical psychopath, and Nasar himself, who, with his 1600—page manuscripts and endless ranting about 'the degeneracy of the West' is a representative obsessive—compulsive.
But fortunately, competent flakes of this type are the exception — John Walker Lindh is a more typical figure, as is the Toronto group's oldest member Qayyum Abdul Jamal, who at 43 is said to have never held a regular job. This is the human material that the Jihadis have to mold and as a rule, they will exhibit certain characteristics.
They will not listen. They will ignore instructions. They will overlook details. They will be overemotional. They will sulk and feud. They will create a mental narrative, romantic and wild, a Bruce Willis feature with themselves in the starring role, and act on that rather than any stodgy plan. And when things go wrong, they will panic.
I'd hazard to guess (it's hard to judge, considering the fog of political correctness that has been raised around the investigation) that this is what happened in Canada. And it can be depended on that, in most cases, it will happen again.
This is why there are such things as 'noncoms' (sergeants in particular) phlegmatic, no—nonsense types who have been around and know that things ain't done the way they say in the book. Every organization has the equivalent of the sergeant rank, because every organization since the dawn of time has found them necessary to shepherd the less—than—capable. What Nasar's 'virtual networks' are attempting to do is operate without such a cadre of experienced low—level managers. And that's just not possible.
As far as training goes, reading is not doing. The clearest instructions in the world won't put across a thing to an individual who has never been involved in any comparable activity. We all recall the second London strike last summer, when the bombs failed to explode, resulting in badly—dressed mutts racing off in all directions. Zarqawi's trainees in Iraq are unlikely to appear in any North American networks. In Canada, the only 'training' the Toronto group got was running around in the woods in a kind of Jihadi paintball weekend.
A related issue is the difficulty of indoctrination. Such networks can only be recruited in already—prepared milieus, that is, Muslim communities. It's unlikely that renegade imams will be allowed to preach from storefront mosques with quite the same abandon as occurred in the past. (In North America, in any case. Europe, as always, is another story.) Indoctrination by Internet being a doubtful proposition, this in itself should serve to limit drastically the scope of Nasar's technique.
The problem of discipline is highlighted by Toronto as well. We have no idea how the group was organized, or whether they were part of Zarqawi's network. What is clear is that there was little or no adult supervision (Jamal, despite his age, really doesn't count). Those kids were chattering to people halfway across the North American continent. Word of their organization got at least as far as Georgia, prompting two would—be Jihadis to pay them a cross—border visit.
And when that pair was arrested, it did not occur to anyone to shut down operations, destroy all possible evidence, and scatter to the winds. No — they went on with their plans, utterly oblivious, until the Mounties kicked the door in.
Toronto is where Murphy caught up with Nasar. Everything that could go wrong — with experience, training, and discipline — went wrong with a vengeance. If the second wave of Jihadis were all of the caliber of the Toronto crew, we'd have nothing to worry about.
Unfortunately, that's not the case. London and Madrid show us that Nasar networks are far from being only a paper threat. As time goes by, the Jihadis will get better at it, particularly since they have the entire subcontinent of Europe to use as a laboratory. While it will never be a war—winning strategy, it can serve to arouse confusion and fear, which have their uses. (It's easy to picture an operation in which these networks soak up all security resources while a traditional Al—Queda team carries out an attack.)
So how do we handle it? The first point is that a distributed network doesn't resemble an army, a guerilla force, or even the customary terrorist organization. What it resembles, with its wide range, clandestine approach, and ability to appear seemingly at random, in obedience to factors invisible to an onlooker, is an epidemic disease.
Fortunately, we know a lot about tracking epidemic diseases. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have been in business for decades, and have refined their techniques to a high art. You do the epidemiology, learn everything there is to know about the microorganism, its life cycle, its habits, and in particular its vectors, and concentrate on those. The pool of potential Islamist infectees is relatively small, the behavior of the infecting agent (a 4GW fan would call it a 'meme') well understood, the methods of prophylaxis highly effective.
What is certain is that a top—heavy bureaucracy such as Homeland Defense can't meet the challenge. We need a small, self—contained unit, dedicated to handling this problem alone. A taskforce designed and staffed to deal with domestic distributed networks and nothing else.
It would need to be independent of any larger organization, though reporting to higher government echelons. It would require separate financing and its own resources, including investigative units ready to move out immediately when a possible target network is identified. Fortunately, we do have successful models for such a task force (even in going so far as to suggest a possible name — we could call it Baker Danger).
The Jihadis have not yet formulated a strategy, of whatever generation, capable of matching the West's overwhelming technological sophistication, organizational superiority, and preponderance of force. Nor, with Zarqawi dead and Nasar in custody (both, it must be added, in connection with extremely controversial efforts — the Iraq War and prisoner rendition), is there any sign that such a thing is forthcoming. Overestimating an enemy can, through paralysis and wasted effort, be as crippling as underestimating him. There is no purpose served in overestimating the Jihadis. The butcher and the strategist have been taken off the board. We will not see their like among the Islamists again soon.
J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor. Among many other things, he was editor of the International Military Encyclopedia for twelve years.