Open-Source Warfare

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


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.