Networks vs. hierarchies

Networks vs. hierarchies

Jemaah Islamiyah, the organisation which may be responsible for bomb blasts in Bali that killed 183 people, was the al-Qaeda of South-East Asia

Hierarchical organizations like military or the White House assume other organizations must also be organized hierarchically. They assume terrorist organizations have one leader at the top giving orders and a clear chain of command.

Therefore they will believe Jemaah Islamiyah to be a subsidiary group operating under orders of bin Laden and consequently will spend much unproductive time ranting about how we must get bin Laden since he was responsible for the Bali bombing.

This almost unquestionably is not what happened. Terrorist groups are networks, not hierarchies. They don’t have a head that can be cut off.  Think multiple organizations with spheres of influence, with the spheres overlapping.  That is a network.

This isn’t just my idea, it’s also the subject of a fascinating book by Rand Corporation analysts.

Networks and Netwars:
The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy
John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt (editors) 
Available on the Rand website free in PDF format.

From the introduction:

The fight for the future is not between the armies of leading states, nor are its weapons those of traditional armed forces. Rather, the combatants come from bomb-making terrorist groups like Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, or drug smuggling cartels like those in Colombia and Mexico.

On the positive side are civil-society activists fighting for the environment, democracy and human rights.

What all have in common is that they operate in small, dispersed units that can deploy anywhere, anytime to penetrate and disrupt. They all feature network forms of organization, doctrine, strategy, and technology attuned to the information age. And, from the Intifadah to the drug war, they are proving very hard to beat.

From Chapter 9

Structure of social movements. We found that the most common type of organization was neither centralized and bureaucratic nor amorphous, but one that was a segmentary, polycentric, and integrated network

Segmentary: Composed of many diverse groups, which grow and die, divide and fuse, proliferate and contract.

Polycentric: Having multiple, often temporary, and sometimes competing leaders or centers of influence.

–  Networked: Forming a loose, reticulate, integrated network with multiple linkages through travelers, overlapping membership,

My belief is the traditional military mind has trouble understanding networks because the structure is so alien to them. You can’t just bomb bin Laden and that’s the end of the terrorist threat. Not when there’s dozens of such groups forming and splitting and regrouping at will.  Nor does bin Laden appear to have a permanent place of residence for us to bomb, which is another characteristic of a Net – diffuseness.

The Green Party and Leftie/Enviro organizations in general are also Networks. The current growing Peace movement is a perfect example of hundreds of networks organizing on their own towards a common goal. This movement has no head. No one person or group is in charge. Groups form as needed to do something. There are no leaders who can issue orders.

As a final point – networks understand hierarchies better than hierarchies understand networks.