Technology moves modern battlespace into cyberspace

History notes that societies occasionally release profound interconnected economic, social and technical developments with a suddenness and scale that is revolutionary rather than evolutionary. We now seem to find ourselves in the middle of just such an epoch.

Changes in technology, social patterns and military processes that were enacted during the First World War, referred to as the 'Industrialisation of Warfare', have been taking place since 1870.

During a revolution, however, it is impossible to judge which facts are important and what the final consequences will be. A similar situation has arisen today and great efforts have to be made to re-think how the West views its place in the world and how it relates to Muslim nations.


Current post-industrial advances centre on transport and communications. Television, air travel and information technology (IT) all increase the speed, availability and quantity of knowledge. They also place a greater urgency on decision making, while exposing decision makers to increased scrutiny and criticism. Low-cost air travel and transcontinental transportation, extended through open borders, have resulted in routine worldwide travel, increased migration and the global urban mix.

This enables some people to live in countries almost without interacting with the local culture and to establish and maintain closer connections with other outside groups and societies.


Since the Second World War, trends have emerged in Western societies that are incompatible with Arab and Muslim cultures. These trends have also undermined resilience to terrorism. Certainly the disintegration of the traditional family unit and roles, the increase in divorce, abortion rates, the number of single parents and the dilution of religious belief are anathema to the majority of cultures and creeds, not simply to Muslims. The result is that Western and Muslim societies, where they do meet, will remain largely incompatible for the foreseeable future.

Other developments have created vulnerabilities to terrorist activities and objectives. They include passive facilitation through the anonymity of societies and the application of desirable ideals of tolerance, diversity and being non-judgemental.

Obstacles and taboos have been created, particularly for those in government service, through the prescriptive nature and dogma of 'political correctness', which inhibit open and unambiguous examination of critical issues that need to be addressed.

Strengthened by images of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, there is the widely held perception that any additional security measures are an intrusive threat to human rights and privacy. At the same time, crimes such as trafficking illicit and pirated goods and labour - which fund international terrorism and organised crime gangs - are regarded as victimless and mutually beneficial, regardless of the damage they create in originating, transit and Western destination countries.

In contrast, Muslim and Arab societies are little changed. Family structures, male dominance, the preponderance of religious belief and strong national-ethnic identities are as they have been for centuries.

However, at the same time there are also new disjoints between rulers and populations and a dependence on artificial oil-based economies.

As a group with which the West has no other particular grievance, the Arab and Muslim world has experienced, since the development of Western oil interests, an endless catalogue of friction and animosity that can only sow ingrained discontent, radicalisation and nationalism.

As well as moral considerations, the ever-increasing gap between the world's richest and poorest people, which include those in many Muslim countries, has serious implications for stability and security.

Burgeoning populations of young people with little or inappropriate education and few opportunities provide fertile ground for those recruiting would-be criminals and extremists. The situation is aggravated by images of Western lifestyles conveyed by the media, which can breed resentment and envy of Western prosperity and values.

In the post-Cold War era some 'failed' states suffer a lack of stable government, which has resulted in national disintegration, population displacement, lawlessness, corruption and porous borders. Some people in these regions can be faced with stark choices to simply survive and may choose the life-changing 'betterment' offered through involvement with fundamentalist groups, the informal economy, illegal migration or organised crime.


Mature, communally based, resilient support networks are the key factor in determining whether groups such as ETA, the Provisional IRA, and Chechen fighters prevail, or fail like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Red Brigades and Red Army Faction. However, their successors, through their use of mass travel, IT and the new media, have emerged as militant 'virtual global constituencies'.

'Virtual global constituencies' are random and informal; have a broad, self-selective, ethnic and religious base; are not limited by a single language, nationality or cultural home; and have common adaptable agendas and terms of reference, whether in Peshawar, Brooklyn or Marseilles. Up to 5,000 Islamist and similar militant websites support them at any one time. The greater part of their content is not only propaganda, but information to target specific operations, labelled aerial photos, bomb-making instructions, ambush procedures and infiltration routes. Their material is highly refined and is aimed at specific audience groups, such as the poor, the middle class and international groups.

Leaders and front organisations groom potential recruits through websites, chat rooms and forums, before moving them to increasingly radical websites and levels of complicity.

Of equal concern, websites have shown that Islamist militants have begun to meet with and join forces with militant groups such as those supporting anti-globalisation, anarchist and far-left movements.

The process of disseminating messages advocating extremism and the support of violence runs in a continuous 'terrorist information cycle' (figure 1, above) from recruitment, through facilitation, funding, planning, operations, publicity, media, public diplomacy and back to recruitment.

Through 'failed' states, underlying historical antagonism, IT, the urban mix and 'virtual global constituencies' we now face the somewhat clich├ęd global 'clash of civilisations' between a dysfunctional West and a static Middle East.

The characteristics of this 'new conflict' are a compression of time and distance; an overload of time-critical information requiring analysis; and the pressure to achieve near-instantaneous global dissemination.

Added to this is the application of critical information by extremists; merging and blurring of tactical and strategic, domestic and international factors; and an increasing risk of pre-emption by tactical events with near-strategic consequences.

Obstacles and solutions

Above all, not enough is generally appreciated about the characteristics of these new and emerging challenges. Few can readily come to terms with the all-embracing nature of the 'new conflict' and consequently we have difficulty in being able to fully frame or define effective solutions.

Rather than combined or joint service approaches, the new demand is for collective political, diplomatic, commercial, military, law-enforcement, intelligence, technical, media and cultural interventions and responses.

To face this 'new conflict' effectively, the West must have an integrated, multidisciplinary, civil-military approach. However, how this can be achieved amid legacy organisational cultures, inter-service rivalries and compartmentalisation is another question.

Despite obstacles, which measures can be enacted operationally and organisationally both nationally and internationally to regain the initiative?

Drastic diplomatic initiatives to defuse matters such as resolution of conflicts through bargaining, withdrawal or accommodation on Iraq, Afghanistan or the West Bank, or revisiting Western military-strategic posture, are out of the question. However, failing states - and in particular non-state entities - can be engaged and incentivised to attain good governance and rehabilitation.

The Islamic world, furthermore, consists of many separate groups and shades of interpretation and applications of faith, to which both the West and Muslim society itself need to extend differentiated rather than uniform approaches. Through these measures one can begin to shape terms of reference and agendas of 'virtual global constituencies'.

Domestically, potential ethno-religious discontent has been more generally addressed through language recognition in official paperwork, broadcasting and public messages, some visible public projects, and encouragement of multiculturalism and diversity. Further multilevel engagement may require something as drastic as social engineering.

The issues fuelling bitter discontent among minorities, however, centre not on nationalist or linguistic goals regarding a single region but on international multi-issue political and religious aims, which are beyond the realistic abilities of any individual nation to address.

In the shorter-term, offensive operations through new virtual propaganda, psyops (psychological operations) and other technical means can disrupt, delay and confuse militants, supporters and potential recruits, at their interface point, on the Internet, though these are limited by scale.

In times to come, to counter the 'terrorist information cycle', we have to plan now to mould and take ownership of future cyberspace in terms of increasing transparency, 'watermarking' and labelling information and messages, and framing its architectures. Psychologically and culturally, the physical mechanisms through which individuals approach and join radical organisations to become terrorists or suicide-bombers are relatively well understood. The individual 'tipping points' in family, career and personal life are less clearly charted, however.

Nor has much been done in correlating Western experiences of militant religious groups, conditioning and recruitment with their current Islamist counterparts and how individuals are often enlisted at their lowest points - while in prison, facing bereavement or experiencing new cultures away from home.

The investigation and exploitation of synergies with other transnational, criminal and legitimate internet use, including soccer gangs, paedophiles and fan culture may also be of benefit.

Whichever courses of action are chosen, we have to act rapidly, as at present the opposition is able to innovate far more quickly than we can implement. We have to deprive our foes of time and buy some ourselves.

Bruce Jones is a Security Policy Advisor working in the EU, North America and South Eastern Europe. He has recently concluded successful chairmanship of the NATO Exploratory Team on Psychosocial, Organisational and Cultural Aspects of Terrorism and chairs other policy fora, which include the representation of Afghanistan, Israel, Jordan, Europol, the FBI, New Scotland Yard and NYPD

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