Iraq

Open-Source Warfare

How do you defend a country against small stateless bands of terrorists?

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Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization, by John Robb, Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 224 pages, $24.95

At the end of Alfred Bester's 1956 science fiction novel The Stars My Destination, protagonist and anti-hero Gully Foyle broadcasts the secret of PyrE to every man, woman, and child on the planet. PyrE, the ultimate "weapon of mass destruction," is compact and unimaginably powerful, and it can be detonated with but a thought. Foyle's government calls him "insane," but he says humanity will survive the knowledge of PyrE if it deserves to: "Let the world make its own choice between life and death. Why should we be saddled with the responsibility?"

In Brave New War, John Robb informs us that Foyle's future is fast approaching. "The threshold necessary for small groups to conduct warfare has finally been breached," Robb writes, "and we are only starting to feel its effects. Over time, perhaps in as little as 20 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" (emphasis in original).

A former Air Force officer and current corporate security consultant, Robb devotes little space to so-called weapons of mass destruction. Chemical and biological arms are just not massively destructive, he argues, and nuclear weapons are much harder for small groups to acquire and use than most terrorism assessments suggest. The weapon of choice that Robb identifies is systems disruption. What Robb calls "global guerrillas"—"super-empowered" bands "riding on the leverage provided by rapid technological improvement and global integration"—are increasingly able to identify the points of failure within vulnerable networks, from power grids to fuel pipelines to communities of trust within a nation-state, and strike them intelligently and inexpensively. The result: cascading failures and damage orders of magnitude greater than the cost of the attack.

Robb's key example: "In the summer of 2004, Iraq's global guerrillas attacked a southern section of the Iraqi oil pipeline infrastructure (Iraq has over 4,300 miles of pipelines). This attack cost the attackers an estimated $2,000 to produce. None of the attackers was caught. The effects of this attack were over $50 million in lost oil exports. The rate of return: 250,000 times the cost of the attack."

According to Robb, global guerrillas practice "open-source warfare" in a marketplace of exceptionally
violent ideas. Like Linux programmers or Wikipedia editors, they operate in a decentralized, voluntarist, plugged-in mode, drawing on enthusiasm, experiment, and the exchange of ideas.

From their cradle in post-Saddam Iraq, the methods of open-source warfare have spread to Pakistan, Russia, Nigeria, and beyond. Ever smaller groups can flout the nation-state's monopoly on legitimating force; ever smaller groups can prevent the nation-state from delivering even elementary security or minimal services. Robb argues, persuasively, that the nation-state's instinctive acts of self-preservation—centralizing security even further, launching preventive wars—will prove not just useless but counterproductive.

Robb is implicitly claiming open-source, systems-disrupting insurgency as the latest step in the military theorist William Lind's famous "generations" of warfare. According to Lind, we've moved from mass attrition war (the first generation, á la Napoleon) through industrial warfare (the second generation, á la the American Civil War and most of World War I) to maneuver/blitzkrieg warfare (the third generation, seen in late World War I and early World War II) to asymmetrical conflicts between states and nonstate forces (the fourth generation).

As Robb shows, the lesson Saddam drew from the success of coalition air power in the 1991 war was that you didn't need an air force to disrupt Iraqi infrastructure. He spent the next dozen years preparing irregular forces to do the same work more cheaply, as a defensive strategy. Unable to compete with America's conventional power, Saddam planned to frustrate any U.S. invasion after the fact, as the Iraq Survey Group determined in its postwar interviews with Ba'athist ex-officials. While the U.S. captured Saddam himself within a few months of the invasion, the guerrilla infrastructure and system-disrupting methods survived him.

Systems disruption as Saddam conceived it was an evolution of the standard military concept of "area denial." Ancient retreating armies burned crops to keep invaders from eating them. Scorched-earth tactics persisted into World War II, and partisans have been harassing supply lines at least since the original guerrilla war against Napoleon in Spain. Sabotage, too, has always been with us. And the ideal in weapons system development has long been to counter your rival's very expensive thing with your really cheap one—the $1,000 missile that can bring down a $1 million helicopter, for example.

What's new is the technological empowerment of sub-state actors and the systems interdependence we've come to call globalization. Together, Robb argues, these developments allow sub-national groups to wage war not just tactically but strategically and successfully. Old scorched-earth tactics were a useful adjunct to main-force warfare: They could keep an enemy discombobulated long enough for you to bring conventional forces to bear. Think of Soviet partisans buying time for the Red Army to reorganize, rearm, and drive the Wehrmacht back in the massive offenses of the later years of the Eastern Front. Old guerrilla operations created the conditions in which insurgents could raise up forces capable of taking on and defeating a state army, as when the People's Liberation Army eventually prevailed against the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War. But the new systems disruption strategy, Robb writes, is itself sufficient to win. It's not a precursor to conventional military triumph but an independent path to victory, as the "global guerrillas" define victory.

Robb's penultimate chapter, "Rethinking Security," discusses the smart way today's "market-states" can ensure resilience against global guerrillas and other network failures. A "market-state"—Robb takes the term from the legal scholar and historian of warfare Philip Bobbitt—is a putatively post-bureaucratic government that "secures political legitimacy through the active pursuit of opportunity for its citizens but declines to specify the goals for which that opportunity is used." Robb believes these marvelous institutions predominate in the developed world. He uses "market-state" as an umbrella term that covers systems as various as the U.S. (an "entrepreneurial market-state"), the European Union (a "managerial market-state"), and the "mercantile market-states" we used to call the Asian Tigers: Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. I have trouble seeing any of these countries as meaningfully post-bureaucratic, but Robb reports that Bobbitt believes they are "in various phases of the transition" to full market-statehood.

Robb rejects the Bush administration's favored counter-terror strategies of untrammeled surveillance at home and "pre-emptive" war to transform civilizations abroad. He instead favors decentralized, flexible infrastructure and security networks such as "plug-dumb," two-way electrical grids where end-users can store, produce, and sell back electricity, improving redundancy and diversity. The theory is that the more flexibility nations build into their infrastructure, the less likely it is that terror attacks (or other disasters) can cause cascading, catastrophic failure.

There is a lot to admire in Robb's analysis, but there's a substantial problem too. He detects common methods used by actors as various as Islamist terror groups and Latin American drug cartels, then attributes a common goal to them: to "hollow out the state." But the evidence that global guerrillas want to create failed states ranges from weak to contrary. By Robb's own admission, the Ba'athist insurgency prepared by Saddam Hussein hoped to return Iraq to Ba'athist rule. Al Qaeda in Iraq proclaimed an "Islamic State of Iraq" in October 2006, well within the tradition of guerrilla forces declaring provisional governments on the road to power. Chechen separatists have launched systems disruption attacks against Russia, and their goal is not to hollow out the Russian state but to create a Chechen one.

Robb himself reports that Nigeria's MEND (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) demands "$1.5 billion in restitution (for environmental damage and other problems) from Shell Oil to the local state government and the release of militia and local government leaders." Similarly, Pakistan's Balochs "are demanding the termination of the development going into a local port facility and a greater share of the wealth generated by local natural gas deposits." Robb summarizes the two situations this way: "In their minds, if the state fails, they win." That is a bizarre gloss. The demands indicate that MEND and the Balochs believe the state has already failed them; they're waging war to compel a better deal.

Such distinctions matter because Robb claims global guerrillas can successfully wage strategic war on nation-states. But a successful strategic war is one in which a guerrilla group attains its strategic goals. If global guerrillas really just want failed states, the world has no shortage, and Robb is correct. If they want the things guerrilla groups have always wanted—regional autonomy, a greater share of the economic pie, dominion over ethnic or sectarian rivals, an end to foreign occupation, social revolution, national control—it's much harder to say that any global guerrilla group has yet been "successful."

Take Iraq's Sunni insurgents. They have frustrated the consolidation of a post-Saddam government dominated by the country's Shiite majority. They have kept the United States from turning its presence in Iraq into a secure base for regional power projection. But as of the autumn of 2007, Shiite militias have successfully cleansed most of Baghdad of Sunnis. Sunnis are no closer to taking control of Iraq. And against the wishes of a majority of the American people, the leadership of both major U.S. political parties envisions an indefinite "residual" military presence there. That's some victory. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden's hemisphere-spanning Caliphate has yet to materialize, and MEND still doesn't have its reparations from Shell Oil.

What most of the global guerrilla groups have managed so far is to not lose. It's a truism of counterinsurgency that "guerrillas win by not losing," but successful guerrilla movements eventually win by winning. It's much harder for global guerrillas to "win" than Robb thinks, because most of these groups have larger goals than he acknowledges.

This oversimplification relates to another of the book's conceptual problems. Robb refers to the damage a global guerrilla attack causes as its "return on investment": Spend $2,000 to attack a pipeline, as MEND did in one of Robb's examples, and get a "return" of $50 million in lost revenue to Shell. But this isn't really a return on investment as the term is used in economics, because the attackers don't have $50 million when they're done. Shell has lost $50 million or so, and the insurgents clearly have increased their utility somewhat; they obviously wanted to destroy that pipeline more than they wanted the $2,000. But it seems implausible to value their increased utility at anything close to $50 million. It's a perfect illustration of the Australian economist John Quiggin's dictum that war is a negative-sum game. The combined MEND/Shell system is worth a lot less after the exercise than it was worth before.

This point matters because the relative unattractiveness of open-source insurgency may prove more limiting than anything senescent nation-states do to combat it. Global guerrillas have proven they can keep weak states from functioning but not that they can forge strong states of their own. Iraq's Sunni insurgents are depriving not just the country's Shiites of electricity and potable water but themselves too.

As of fall 2007, even many Sunni tribal leaders appear to have soured on "open-source warfare" as a strategy for dealing with American and Iraqi Shiite power. The meaning of the so-called "Anbar awakening" is open to interpretation, and disputed. A Brave New War devotee might argue that the Sunni sheikhs are enjoying —at least temporarily—the fruits of an open-source warfare victory. The U.S. government resisted making deals with the tribes for years. Now, after years of open-source insurgency made Iraq ungovernable, the Americans are showering the sheikhs with money and weapons and pressing the Shiite-controlled government to give the Sunnis a bigger piece of the pie.

But the Sunni demands—government jobs, a formal share of state power—seem to refute the idea that failed states are global guerrillas' goal. Given the Shiite-Kurdish government's resistance to resolving issues of distributing oil wealth and patronage, and its reluctance to integrate former Sunni guerrillas into the Iraqi Security Forces, it remains to be seen how long the relative quiet will last. (And Iraq remains one of the most violent places on Earth, with millions of internal and external exiles.)

The real lesson of the global guerrilla phenomenon is social, and the social angle is what Brave New War most scants. Global guerrillas have raised the stakes on consent. The experience of post-Saddam Iraq, for instance, suggests that no state or corporate entity can secure an oil distribution network that a sufficiently alienated out-group can't reach. Consider how heavily Saudi Arabia's eastern fields depend on Shiite workers, and figure the chances that the Saudi royal family or the American armed forces could guarantee production in the aftermath of a U.S. attack on Shiite Iran.

Resilience in critical systems is all well and good, but as Gully Foyle could tell us, the long-term hope of coping with the global guerrilla phenomenon lies in finding ways to stop pissing each other off so much.

Jim Henley runs the weblog Unqualified Offerings at highclearing.com.

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  1. open-souce warfare?

    I believe there’s a typo there.
    It should be open-sauce warfare.

  2. “open-sauce warfare”

    May You Be Touched by His Noodly Appendage.

    RAmen.

  3. the long-term hope of coping with the global guerrilla phenomenon lies in finding ways to stop pissing each other off so much.

    APPEASER!

    🙂

  4. I just stepped in a puddle of Dondero’s saliva.
    He’s drooling over the thought of declaring war on everybody.

  5. Letters of Marque and Reprisal!

  6. You buy yourself some second-ammendment-protected guns and blow the suckers away. If we all carried guns, everybody would be safe. No terrorist wants to fuck around with somebody who’s carrying a piece. You talkin?to me, buddy? Blam! Take that, you fucking rag head!

  7. Jamie: that’s not saliva!

  8. The answer is obviously open-source anti-terrorism efforts. Loosely organize all the Internet Tough Guys and get them to war-spam terrorist networks into oblivion.

  9. There’s really only one way to end the Islam problem…

  10. Hey editors, can you ditch the IMVU ads and bring back the Snorg girls?

  11. We should take off and nuke the place from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

  12. “cost the attackers an estimated $2,000 to produce. … The effects of this attack were over $50 million in lost oil exports. The rate of return: 250,000 times the cost of the attack.”

    Typo. It’s 25,000 times.

  13. O, T.! No Farbering now.

  14. cost the attackers an estimated $2,000 to produce. … The effects of this attack were over $50 million in lost oil exports. The rate of return: 250,000 times the cost of the attack.

    I could issue a bomb threat from a local telephone to an airport, have it shutdown for 30 min while they sort out the hoax and have spent $1.00 in change for >$250,000 in travel disruptions.

    Destruction is alot easier than creation.

  15. It’s worth noting that in the Table of Contents for the print edition, it reads like this:

    How do you defend a country against small stateless bands of terrorists? Jim Henley

    Chuck Norris fears Jim Henley!

  16. How about, small stateless bands of defenders?

  17. How about, small stateless bands of defenders?

    That’s certainly what the Internet Tuff Guys regard themselves as. Me, I’d rather not stake my safety on Little Green Fascists.

  18. cost the attackers an estimated $2,000 to produce. … The effects of this attack were over $50 million in lost oil exports. The rate of return: 250,000 times the cost of the attack.

    That’s not a rate of return; the attackers didn’t get $50 million deposited in their bank accounts. Bang for the buck, perhaps.

  19. Ah, but what if some evil genius was sponsoring the terrorists, and he had plans to short sell stock in that oil that was disrupted?

    Sounds like a 24 plot to me.

    1. Plot in Casino Royale, except the terrorist was attempting to destroy a plane prototype the company he shorted was developing.

  20. I can see it now. Al Qaeda stages a devastating open-source warfare attack on Washington, D.C., completely disrupts the city’s physical and social infrastructure, resulting in the destruction of the government of the U.S.

    They thereby earn the eternal gratitude of the American people.

  21. How about, small stateless bands of defenders?

    joe, you anarchist, you.

    Not volunteering, are you?

    Me, I’d rather not stake my safety on Little Green Fascists.

    Me neither. Although, to really carry out the analogy, we would have to provide our gang of “stateless” defenders with the kinds of haven and material support that the “stateless” attackers have. At that point, of course, we would be held responsible for everything they do, even though Syria, Iran, etc. are never held responsible for the actions of their pet “stateless” actors.

  22. Dr. T,

    It must be LeChiffre!!

  23. How about, small stateless bands of defenders?

    I think I have your guy:

    http://www.marvel.com/universe/Spider-Man_(Peter_Parker)

    Close, Mad Max. But joe called for a stateless bands of defenders?

  24. Isn’t Yassir Arafat a “success” story among militants and terrorists?

  25. The idea of “stateless” agents is a myth that arose during the Cold War as means of disguising from the general public the role the Soviet Union played in fostering and directing most of the terrorism of the day. In reality, all such groups are either rebels operating from a definitive ethnic region or covertly supported and directed by States. Such groups can be eliminated by attacking the patron State or by assisting they state they are rebelling against.

    I also don’t see any evidence that “open source” warfare really works in any systematic manner. No group has ever forced a major policy change in a major power without the backing of another equivalent power. (vietnam&afghanistan) neither have they had much success in winning against smaller states. About the only victory post-9/11 terrorism can point to is causing Spain to abandon the people of Iraq and that was a decidedly minor victory.

  26. this threshold will finally reach its culmination-with the ability of one man to declare war on the world and win

    (emphasis *mine*)

    Somebody has forgotten his Clauswitz and Sun Tzu.

  27. But remembers a certain king of Epirus

  28. From their cradle in post-Saddam Iraq, the methods of open-source warfare have spread to Pakistan, Russia, Nigeria, and beyond.

    Is Robb saying that this only started in 2003? Because the idea of open source (or 4th gen warfare) is certainly older as illustrated by William Lind and his peers themselves whom first started writing this in ’89 or so – decades after the phenomenon had been firmly established. Plus, most obviously, there was that unpleasantness in downtown Manhattan sometime around the beginning of the the decade.

    And FWIW, I think the characterizations of the first three generations of warfare are off.

  29. About the only victory post-9/11 terrorism can point to is causing Spain to abandon the people of Iraq and that was a decidedly minor victory.

    Well, leaving aside your disingenuous characterization of Iraq, there’s also the fact that the election outcome reflected the incompetence of the Spanish government as much as anything else. The gov’t tried to insist that it was the work of Basque separatists when all evidence pointed to other elements, and so the Spanish voters got rid of a government that was clearly stumbling in its response to the attack.

    And, as I understand it, the government was already pretty unpopular before the bombing, and the party that won had already pledged to withdraw from Iraq before the bombing, so they were simply following through on a popular agenda rather than responding to the bombing.

  30. “Close, Mad Max. But joe called for a stateless *bands* of defenders?” [link]

    The problem with those guys is that they violate the dress code. Of course, that might be an advantage. The enemy sees them and says, “look, Abdul, that guy is wearing nothing but a pair of green shorts, and the chick is half-naked!” They will be so busy focusing on that, their reaction time will be slowed, and they’ll be beaten.

  31. “And behold, Achmed, the infidel in the skimpy, tight shorts is clearly buff, but I can see no sign of a male organ. Perhaps he is a eunuch, or has been taking too many steroi – AAAAAAGH!” (as the superheroes beat the terrorists to a pulp)

  32. thoreau,

    The gov’t tried to insist that it was the work of Basque separatists when all evidence pointed to other elements…

    Actually, one government spokesman made an off the cuff assertion that it might be Basque separatist and the media reported that the government had officially. As soon as the government issued an official statement the opposition cried “they lied!” and the triumphed in the election a few days later. It’s was a neat trick which demonstrates the power of a dishonest and biased media.

    However, you are correct that those in Spain opposed to fighting for democracy their were already poised to win. The bombings only had any effect because they occurred so close to the election and could be used by the anti-Iraqi democracy opposition to quickly gain power. If the election had been a few weeks off, the government might have had time to correct the record and the attacks could have had no effect whatsoever.

  33. However, you are correct that those in Spain opposed to fighting for democracy their were already poised to win.

    Democracy: Good enough for Iraq, but lousy for Spain!

    Let me ask you this: Given that you’ve long called for media outlets to (voluntarily, not coercively) refrain from reporting details about terrorist attacks, what do you think the Spanish media should have said about the nature and affiliations of the attackers?

    Oh, and FWIW, I seem to recall that Spain successfully captured, tried, convicted, and punished the bombers. Bravo to Spanish law enforcement!

  34. There is an interesting presentation on terrorism and how to deal with it here:

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/Atran07/index.html

    It’s all about understanding the motivations of the attackers and not using conventional techniques to combat them. It’s well worth a read.

  35. Robb’s main skill seems to be an uncanny ability to look at a rather obvious, crude and banal phenomenon that (however much damage it causes) really pretty simple and not at all difficult to understand in the first place (terrorism) and needlessly dressing it up in fancy, opaque terminology that makes it seem infinitely more complex, advanced and coordinated than it actually is. Occam? Who’s that?

    He’s really quite good at it, I understand he has an actual career doing this; certain types of people must be impressed by it. I find it a somewhat irritating parlor trick myself, which too often veers close to adulation. Sure, the kid down the street may have tee-peed my house but does that really make him a self-actuated stateless systems-disruption node? (Or whatever.)

  36. I hope he doesn’t really expect us to develop multiple redundant systems. That would not be very cost effective. It is like the hospitals. If we ever get hit with a bioligical attack, the hospitals don’t have anyone extra they can call in, just their regular staff.

  37. I can take care of it for you . . .

    as long as you don’t ask too many questions

  38. From their cradle in post-Saddam Iraq, the methods of open-source warfare

    What utter tripe. What does he think the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah, and all their myriad kin and spawn have been doing for the past 40 years?

  39. We should take off and nuke the place from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

    How do you know they didn’t sneak someone onto your space ship?

  40. I forgot to address that last one to Mr. Drax.

  41. Over time, perhaps in as little as 20 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”

    ooooowwwww, it’s the myth of The Lone Wolf again, children. Aren’t you afraid?

    Except, if you wanted to disrupt “systems”, then the “leverage provided by technology” was arguably there with the development of gun powder. And yet I don’t recall reading about “Harry The Bad Ass vs. Belgium” wars, or any other Lone Wolves, in my history books.

    Oh, but just you wait boys and girls, it’s going to happy within 20 years!

    Robb rejects the Bush administration’s favored counter-terror strategies of untrammeled surveillance at home and “pre-emptive” war to transform civilizations abroad. He instead favors decentralized, flexible infrastructure and security networks such as “plug-dumb,” two-way electrical grids where end-users can store, produce, and sell back electricity, improving redundancy and diversity.

    Robb is also an freaking idiot.

    This “redundancy” he “advocates” is expensive when it’s possible. And in a number of practical ways it’s simply not possible.

    However, I suggest one of our current presidential candidates hire Robb asap, because he knows just how to “move the people”.

  42. Letters of marque and reprisal, let the LGFers and “Jesus-wants-us-to-have-the-Middle-East” Evangelicals ship themselves over there.

    I mean, we would have basically created an American version of Al-Qaeda, but at least it would be more cost effective and we could disavow any sort of formal relationship with them.

  43. Just another apocalyptic selling the sky falling. They are always wrong, but man, can they sell books to worry-warts, conspiracy buffs, and anyone with a pessimist’s knee-jerk negative world-view!

  44. Shannon Love = Pre-9/11 thinking

    Always fighting the last Cold War.

  45. Hmph, sounds like a perfect world for “open source defense”.

    Hey, I wonder if there’s anything in the Constitution which might provide for such a concept? Wondering…

    Hmm…

    Nothing springs to mind…

  46. You people will never understand, until someone does to you, what Israel did to us. Then I would like to see how many of you “civilized” westerners will NOT resort to terrorism.

    Japan bombs a navy shipyard and takes out 2000 military personel, and you see it fit to vapourize 200,000 of their civilians.

    Then all the sudden when we bomb Israelis because of what they have done to us, we are called terorists and fanatics.

    Well fuck all of you.

    If defending one-self, our country, religion, homeland and empire is fanaticism, then yes – we are all fanatics.

    NUKE ISRAEL.

    Long Live the Arab Empire
    Allahu Akbar

  47. Dear An_Arab,

    Allah is my bitch.

  48. ‘Me’, I know they both created you, but dont confuse the Almighty with your mother.

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