Swarming, terrorism, and small cells vs big data

Available free at The Rand Corporation
Available free at The Rand Corporation

David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla of the Rand Corporation literally wrote the books on swarming as military, activist, and protest tactics. Ronfeldt just posted a comprehensive round-up of links on swarming as well as his thoughts. This is fascinating stuff with direct relevance to the Boston Bombing, terrorism, social protest, and our new ways of organizing.

“Swarming is a seemingly amorphous, but deliberately structured, co-ordinated, strategic way to strike from all directions at a particular point or points, by means of a sustainable pulsing of force and/or fire, close-in as well as from stand-off positions. This notion of “force and/or fire” may be literal in the case of military or police operations, but metaphorical in the case of NGO activists, who may, for example, be blocking city intersections or emitting volleys of emails and faxes. Swarming will work best — perhaps it will only work — if it is designed mainly around the deployment of myriad, small, dispersed, networked maneuver units. Swarming occurs when the dispersed units of a network of small (and perhaps some large) forces converge on a target from multiple directions. The overall aim is sustainable pulsing — swarm networks must be able to coalesce rapidly and stealthily on a target, then dissever and redisperse, immediately ready to re-combine for a new pulse.”

His thoughts on the Boston bombing, with a cautionary note. Emphasis added.

The two-man bombing attack in Boston, by itself, was not a case of swarming. It might be considered such only if it can be viewed as a step in a vast slow-motion global strategy by militant jihadists.

However, the quick response to the bombing embodied two kinds of swarming: One was the multi-agency police response — indeed, swarming has long been a standard response mode for police, particularly in their deployment patterns. The other is a new kind of cyber-swarming (others would call it smart-mobbing or crowd-sourcing, using “big data”) whereby photographic data was collected from myriad sources and then processed and distributed in ways the led to the identification of the perpetrators. All quite impressive and yet to be fully reported and assessed. I just hope that aspects of such a response do not end up meaning America is headed for a kind of future cyberocracy that will be far less democratic than I’d like to see.

John Arquilla writes about “Small Cells vs. Big Data. Can information dominance crush terrorism?”

The Tsarnaev brothers were very likely influenced by jihadist notions picked up either online, during Tamerlan’s trip to the North Caucasus, or both. In the coming weeks, no doubt more will be learned about specific motivations and catalysts. What can be said right now is that Chechens have shown themselves particularly adept at forming fighting networks.

Yet it seems that al-Suri may not have reckoned sufficiently with the power of big-data networking. Yes, a small cell — perhaps one motivated by his concept — did pull off an attack in Boston last week. But massive flows of shared information swiftly identified the malefactors and brought them down. This is clearly not the dynamic al-Suri wants to see unfold — one and done. If this is how matters will play out, his program will be in big trouble because of the power of big data. And when one adds in the losses to the small-cell network due to preemptions before some of these cells can mount a single attack, terrorist prospects look even worse.