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World: Terrorist Network Must Be Beaten At Its Own Game

  • Don Hill

Two years ago, the U.S. RAND Corporation published a book that has proved startlingly prescient in light of the recent terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Its theme: How the information revolution has enabled small, previously isolated groups to communicate and form organized networks for terrorist operations. One of the authors tells RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill about the potential successes and failures of the developing U.S. response to this month's terrorist attacks.

Prague, 24 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. nonprofit public policy organization and defense contractor reported more than two years ago that the information revolution had given birth to a new and dangerous kind of terrorist organization based on networking.

Now one of the report's authors says that just such a network could well have conducted the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States.

He is Michele Zanini, a researcher for the RAND Corporation for the last five years. He and two RAND colleagues contributed in 1999 to a U.S. government-commissioned study called "Networks, Netwar and Information-Age Terrorism."

In it, they said that network-style organizations are turning the nature of international terrorism away from occasional efforts at coercion and toward a form of protracted warfare. They said the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa were the opening shots of a war of terror against the United States.

The book identified three principal reasons that terrorism appeals to its perpetrators. One is because it provides a way of asserting identity and attracting attention to a cause. Another is that it represents a kind of nihilism -- an attempt to create a new world order by destroying the present one.

A third reason, the authors said, is that terrorism can be used as a weapon in what they called a "netwar," or a war of the weak. The authors said they coined the word "netwar" to put the United States on notice that network-based conflict would soon become a major phenomenon -- a prediction that appears, with the U.S. attacks, to have come true.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Zanini says this "netwar" factor appears to have motivated the 11 September attackers:

"I think that of these three paradigms, the war paradigm is the one that is most applicable. That is, this is a weapon of the weak against the strong. It is what the technical people like to call asymmetric strategy. That is, these groups know they do not have a good chance to win a conventional war against the United States."

He says that like any wartime enemy, those behind the 11 September attacks appear to have a strategic goal:

"Their larger agenda is to drive the West, particularly the Americans, out of the greater Middle East, and the Persian Gulf in particular. I think a lot of them, including [Osama] bin Laden, are particularly offended that the United States has troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait, in Bahrain and in other [Arab] countries."

Zanini says he understands the rhetoric employed by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush from the day of the attacks, saying that the United States has declared war on terrorists:

"I mean, it is a war. It's a long-term campaign that bin Laden has articulated very well in a document that he issued in 1996, which is essentially a declaration of war."

Bin Laden's 1996 declaration of a jihad, or holy struggle, was directed against Americans occupying his native Saudi Arabia, where U.S. troops have been stationed since the Gulf War. In 1998, bin Laden issued a second declaration, broadening his target to all Americans and their allies, in any country possible.

Zanini says information technology -- from wireless communication to the Internet -- has provided terrorists with a new and insidiously effective form of organization. He says that unlike older terrorist groups such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the new terrorist networks operate beyond the control of any one leader or group. Even if bin Laden or even his entire Al-Qaeda terrorist group were to be eliminated tomorrow, Zanini says, the network terrorist organizations would continue as before.

The RAND study said of bin Laden that he appears not to command operations directly: "Rather, [bin Laden] is a key figure in the coordination and support of several dispersed activities."

The United States has concentrated on bin Laden as its primary suspect in the latest terrorist assaults. But Zanini says one should think of bin Laden as an important node, but as only one of many nodes in the network:

"You know, all these groups are basically non-national entities that are enabled and created by recent advances in information technology -- basically, you know, e-mail, chat rooms, cell phones -- all of which make dispersed operations much more feasible."

In their 1999 report, the RAND authors said: "Terrorism seems to be evolving in the direction of violent 'netwar.' Islamic fundamentalist organizations like Hamas and the bin Laden network consist of groups organized in loosely interconnected, semi-independent cells that have no single commanding hierarchy."

The RAND study warned that hierarchies such as national governments are handicapped by their comparative inflexibility when they seek to combat networks. As the study put it, "Whoever masters the network form first and best will gain major advantages."

Zanini recounts his own experience departing for the U.S. west coast from Boston's Logan Airport just a week after two airliners from Logan were hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York. He says passengers were outnumbered by security officials from what he called "an alphabet soup" of agencies, each accustomed to guarding jealously its own turf. Zanini says he reflected then on the difficulty of forging this officialdom into a flexible, cooperative, effective network.

"We're still suffering from the legacy of the Cold War, when we had a neat division of labor between the various agencies, and we knew who was our enemy and how to fight that enemy. And now everything has changed, and the world is nowhere near as certain as it used to be."

Zanini says President Bush's decision to appoint Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge to direct a new Office of Homeland Security appears to be an appropriate step toward weaving U.S. agencies into their own network in defense against 'netwar.' All will depend, he says, on how much power and influence the office actually can wield.

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