Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization

Brave New War, John Robb

What if warfare was reinvented and nobody bothered to tell the Pentagon?

That is the thesis to John Robb’s Brave New War. Globalization, the Internet, cellphones, etc. have created a world in which information spreads very fast, can not be contained, and is available to all. This allows small, highly mobile groups working in loose networks with others to not only create open source software that benefits everyone, but also to create open source warfare whereby just a few can effectively block and cripple nation-states they oppose.

Most of the web servers on the planet run on the open source Apache software. Open source is developed for free by teams of those interested. Anyone can change the code and use it. Changes to the code are voted on by the group, then put into the next release where they benefit all. The profit motive is absent, and the software teams group, dissolve, and re-form at will, bringing their knowledge with them.

Open source warfare follows the same pattern. Using Iraq as an example, there is not one monolithic insurgency but dozens of groups with widely differing beliefs who team up, share ideas, attack a specific target, then disband and plan something else. The organizational structure here is a bazaar, not a cathedral, with lots of “trading, haggling, copying, and sharing”, something which may look chaotic to an outsider, but isn’t really at all. But the dynamics of the bazaar are probably impenetrable to rigid hierarchies like the Pentagon.

OSW also swarms when it attacks. The swarms can be massed but in Iraq are usually dispersed. That’s the key to their power. The attacks are often on the electrical grids and pipelines, where just a few people acting quickly can cause substantial damage. Repeat this often enough, and the government and the US soon appear to be completely inept (not to mention it costing them millions and maybe billions in lost revenue and repairs.) This hollowing out of the state by slow bankruptcy and loss of legitimacy is a precise goal of OSW. Insurgent attacks in Iraq may appear random, but it’s almost a certainty that most of them are deliberately planned to create maximum disruption.

Robb documents something I’ve not seen elsewhere: that Saddam, after the Gulf War, made contingency plans for another US invasion. The plans included stashing huge arms supplies in the countryside, embedding small teams of guerrillas in the cities to destabilize the government and attack US troops, and engaging in systems disruption by assaults on the infrastructure. When the invasion happened, these teams activated and were the leading edge of the insurgency. Robb’s crucial point: given the nature of OSW, what those guerrillas knew quickly and freely spread to anyone interested, who then added their own improvisations and spread it further.

Such systems disruptions can be used to bankrupt an opponent, as well as to discredit them on the world stage. It’s not just Iraq where this is happening. Robb also discusses the rise of transnational gangs, organized crime cartels, homegrown militias, and others who use similar tactics.

That the Pentagon and US government doesn’t understand OSW can be shown by reading the headlines. You’ll often see news stories about how the US has “to cut off the head of Al Qaida” and that’ll end the insurgency. No it won’t. Nor will an Orwellian security apparatus like HSA, which “will prove unable to isolate and defuse threats against us.”

Robb sees the US electrical grid as especially at risk. It’s mostly unprotected. Destroying a few key switching points could cascade much of the grid into collapse. He uses this as a metaphor for what could be done to protect as well as enhance our lives in general. Decentralization. Let every home have the capacity to create its own energy, with the excess going back into the grid. Also, open up the entire electrical system, let it become a true open source platform for all to use. Changes like these would make the entire system more robust and better able to absorb the attacks he assumes are coming.

Robb sees a open source model to be used by all as the best possible way to avoid the alternative: “knee-jerk police states” and “preemptive war,” all of which will be failed strategies anyway.

The resulting highly decentralized world, I think, will be much less a place of predatory capitalism because the interconnectedness of the networks we will live in will preclude that from being so. Also, for those of us on the Left who think socialism has much to offer, a decentralized world where nation-states have lost their power means there will be no state that can control an economy. I suggest this is something Lefties need to start thinking about now, as that decentralized world is coming.

[tags]John Robb[/tags]


  1. Excellent review and very interesting stuff. Thanks, Bob.

    What is not widely known about the Sri Lankan conflict is that it began as an early OSW: multiple Tamil militant groups working for more or less the same goal by more or less the same tactics, with no coordination or central leadership. There were at least six major militant groups at the time of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), together effective enough to cause the Sri Lankan government to invite 200,000 foreign soldiers onto its soil. (BTW, that was a disaster for everyone but the LTTE.)

    I bring this up because what happened next doesn’t conform to Robb’s model, and may suggest one possible permutation for an ongoing OSW movement: The LTTE co-opted all the other militant groups, either absorbing or destroying them. There was a bloody period of Tamil-on-Tamil violence that I suspect had the Government hoping they’d all wipe each other out. But what emerged was a single organization that had characteristics of both the OSW model AND an authoritarian regime.

    When you look at what the LTTE has accomplished with limited resources and a force a tiny fraction of the military it opposes, the results are downright frightening. A militant group with an intelligence wing that rivals some European powers, a navy, an air force, and has been caught trying to build submarines! My point (and I do have one) is that an OSW situation tranformed into a single, authoritarian, multi-faceted, complex, flexible, and very effective organization nearly impossible to defeat by military means.

    That means an end to the war must be found by looking at two questions: what does the LTTE really want (as opposed to what it says it wants), and what is the underlying cause that encouraged the LTTE (and its former rivals) to rise in the first place. Only in that direction can peace possibly lie.

    I might add that there is much information in the OSW analysis with which to rethink the approach to peace– which will by nature mirror somewhat the war it seeks to end. Peaceworkers (and peaceseekers) take note– and start thinking about how to innovate. Because your government can’t do this for you. It’s mired in the same outdated thinking with respect to peace as it is with respect to war– and perhaps more so, since it thinks about peace less.

  2. To add to DJ’s comments, the limits on Robb’s model is that it’s a static one, much like classical microeconomics. Put time and change into the equation, and it tends to collapse as a predictive tool. There’s also the when-all-you-have-is-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail syndrome which is endemic to any simple theory that tries to model reality, which is astonishingly resistent to being modelled. Take Saddam, for example. It’s hard to think of a recent government that was more centralized and hierarchical than Saddam’s. By comparison, the Pentagon looks like a New England town meeting.) Why did a centralized, hierarchical government adopts OSW? Because OSW is the weapon of the week. The Iraqis were probably not going to defeat the American military in a open confrontation (although the results of the 2002 war games suggest that it could be done under the right circumstances), so another method is appropriate. That method preserves your forces and concentrates on your enemies weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Jujitsu would be a closer comparison, it seems to me.

    Note that the US has an OSW program: the Green Berets. As the ancient “Small Wars” document from the Marine Corps (circa 1940) and Petraes’s new document on guerrilla warfare indicates, there’s plenty of embedded expertise within the American military to respond to an OSW threat. The problems the US military has in adopting them appears more cultural and political than due to any reasons caused by being a hierarcical structure. An interesting example of this would be the Israeli military, which as far as I can see has changed not a whit in terms of hierarchy in 60 years. However, in the first thirty years, it was creative a suplle and imaginative in how it used its forces. As it became stronger and more successful, it also became more slothful, resulting in the disasters of the Lebanese invasion of 1982 and the fiasco last summer where, desipte overwhelming force, the best the IDF could do was level neighborhoods and carpet factories.

    Sooner or later reality brings everybody around. But there is a lag time, and within any organization there are vested interests fighting for their theories. The major problem we have about getting out of Iraq is that the American people are fairly pragmatic and see what a disaster it’s been for everyone involved, but the Administration is convinced that it’s refighting Vietnam to show how things could have been different back when and which, they think, will give them a permanent electoral lock when proven correct. Denial is not, alas, merely the name of a river in Egypt.

    I’m wary of people who advance entirely new theories to explain old problems. It reminds me of the books that were published in the late 1990’s about how the market was going to go on rising forever and we were in new times and the old laws and ways of doing things no longer applied. Yeah, sure. While Robb’s observations are interesting, I’m not sure I buy the theory. Colombia certainly shows us that the hierarchical establishment is perfectly capable of organizing and funding right-wing OSW groups to go against leftwing FARC OSW guerrillas.

    Following up on what DJ says, a more interesting question to me is where the balancing point is in a struggle that keeps it going until both sides are exhausted and one of the prevails, or seems to. Both the American Civil War and the First World War are examples of wars that should have been settled toward the middle before the really catastrophic losses occurred. Hew Stratten, I think, wrote a book about WWI and paid close attnetion to that question 3 or 4 years ago. If anybody remembers its name, I’d appreciate hearing it.

  3. The administration and both parties in Congress don’t want to leave Iraq because a) they want hegemony and control of the oil in the Middle East, b) a defeat will mean the end of American global dominance. In this, both parties are equally complicit.

    That only small parts of the US military are OSW while the bulk isn’t, reinforces Robb’s points, I think. To become truly nimble, agile, able to move fast, they have to become networked rather than hierarchical. And that would require a sea change in attitude.

    If Columbia backs a right wing OSW against the FARC OSW, then the state is still being hollowed out, still being bankrupted, still losing power.

    The Civil War and WWI were against defined foes with the battles on battlefields. These wars are very different from those.

  4. While Bob correctly ppints out that only small parts of the U.S. military are OSW, that strategy wouldn’t help us in Iraq because the goal of OSW is to create chaos. So foighting OSW with OSW wouldn;t accomplish the goal. I have a friend who regales me with tales of his time with the Montrngards in the Vietnam highlands. They weren’t winning hearts and minds– they were wreaking havoc on the enemy, and very effectively. But for actually conquering and ruling a country (or region) those tactics appear to be useless.

  5. I disagree with Bob about the alleged hollowing-out of the state. We have plenty of examples in Latin America of the military–which admittedly is better trained at suppression of unarmed civilians than in actually fighting a war against trained adversaries, as the 1982 Fauklands War demonstrated–of using asymmetrical groups when it fit their purpose without losing control. God knows the Russians were (and probably still are) masters at running it. So I don’t see the use of OSW as anything that necessarily leads to a weakening of authority. DJ’s examples in Sri Lanka are another compelling instance.

    As for the Civil War and WWI, the question of when people stop fighting is always of concern, at least if you want to end conflict. If the mass of the Iraqi people were tired of war, they could stop the violence pretty fast by turning on the groups causing the violence. It’s hard to operate if you don’t have either a compliant or a passive population, as Che Guervara found out in 1967.

  6. But if it’s not your own OSW doing the counter-insurgency, and it probably isn’t, then the state gets hollowed out anyway, because those OSW may not be all that controllable by you.

  7. The idea that better communications through the web, cellphones, etc. changes everything is at best unproven. One could argue equally well, and with more plausibility, that the new technologies make it far easier for a hierarchical government to track subversives. If you take cash away from the OSW’s and make them do electronic transactions, you have 1984 in all its glory, with it becoming simplistic to track those you wish to find.

  8. With respect to hollowing out the state, I think the issue is too complex to simplify. In Sri Lanka, the state on the one hand has been nearly bankrupted by the cost of the war. But on the other, it has become stronger and more authoritarian internally. (By this I mean that it fights the LTTE no better than before, but it also has become more effective at controlling its own people– the democratic structures are being dismantled.)

    Also I agree that communications technology tends to favor the subversive, just because there is such a huge volume of electronic data it would be nearly impossible for anyone to sift through it all. (Unless you’re in Iran, where last I heard there was only one internet access point to the outside world– very limited traffic to police.) When overseas, I presume that the NSA and the LTTE monitor my electronic communications because they are among the top intelligence services in the world– but probably not GoSL because they just don’t have the resources. Of course, I may be wrong. No one knows who’s listening until it’s too late…

  9. The net spreads information fast and quickly without respect to borders. Governments can’t really shut it down, it’s too essential for what they (and business) does.

    Nor do I see how they can monitor everything real time with any expectation of reliability, timeliness, or accuracy.

    If the GoSL is going bankrupt and getting more authoritarian fighting the LTTE, then that would seem to validate, not disprove what Robb says. This could be deliberate goals of the LTTE too.

  10. The authoritarianism of GoSL is the goal of one group of Sinhala extremists– perhaps more, but there’s one in power now. They have used the “threat” of Tamil separatism to increase their own power. (I put “threat” in quotes because the sentiment precedes the actual threat and often exaggerates it.) As such, there is a stronger state but a weaker democracy.

    That’s one of the interesting things about times of extreme chaos throughout history: strong leaders rise, democracies rarely do.

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