> Vol. 5, No 1. 2014 > To Build a Network

John Arquilla
To Build a Network

10 2014

The fundamental dynamic of the Cold War era was an arms race to build nuclear weapons. But in the long, often covert, “cool war” against al-Qaeda and its affiliates that began in earnest after September 11, 2001, the driving force has been – and continues to be – an “organizational race” to build networks. It has grown increasingly apparent that the latest advances in information technology have greatly empowered flat, essentially leaderless groups unified more by pursuit of a common goal than any kind of central control. In the elegant phrasing of David Weinberger, co-author of a key contribution to the emerging information-age canon, The Cluetrain Manifesto, networks, particularly web-enabled ones, are comprised of “small pieces loosely joined.” Weinberger’s language offers a particularly apt description of al-Qaeda today, as the group’s original concentrated core, formed around Osama bin Laden and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, has long since given way to a far flatter, much more widely dispersed set of relatively independent cells and nodes. Thus has the world’s premier terrorist network survived over a dozen years of major efforts aimed at its eradication. Indeed, far from being on “the verge of strategic defeat,” as former defense secretary Leon Panetta was wont to say, al-Qaeda has thrived by redesigning itself away from any serious reliance on central leadership. In this way, the targeted killings of any number of “high-value targets,” including of course bin Laden himself, have had little effect on the organization’s viability and vitality. So today a handful of American forces are back in Iraq fighting the al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS – and the country is burning. In Syria, al-Qaeda, ISIS and others are leading the fight against the Assad regime, much as terrorist networks played a similar role in the overthrow of Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi – and may have been involved, at least tangentially, in the humiliation inflicted upon the United States by the attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi. The al-Qaeda network is operating in many other places, too: Algeria, Mali, Mauretania, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen – to name just a few locales.