This Week at War, No. 19

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

June 5, 2009

June 5, 2009

When organized crime meets terrorism

On June 3, the Washington Times took note of an al Qaeda recruiting video. The video, which first aired in February on Al Jazeera, boasted that an al Qaeda foot soldier could infiltrate the United States through a tunnel from Mexico and deliver anthrax spores among the population.

There is no evidence that any al Qaeda affiliate has made any progress with this scheme or any other plan involving infiltration from Mexico into the United States. One wonders whether al Qaeda signed up any recruits with this infomercial or whether it just made itself look foolish.

But the scenario itself may not be that far-fetched. For an al Qaeda group to succeed with such a plot it would very likely require the assistance of some Mexican criminal cartel or gang. After all, what organizations know more about clandestine entry into the United States? The al Qaeda video also suggested that Islamic terrorists might hook up with white supremecist groups within the United States.

What these plans illustrate – even if they have not yet come to fruition — is the potential for alliances between political insurgencies and criminal commercial organizations. When a political insurgency lacks certain skills, it may turn to a non-political criminal enterprise for that expertise. And as I discussed in an earlier edition, criminal commercial organizations sometimes need to become overtly political in order to maintain the support they need to survive.

In an essay for Small Wars Journal, John P. Sullivan, a lieutenant in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and a senior research fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism, provides a taxonomy of what he terms criminal insurgencies.

According to Sullivan, criminal cartels are evolving through three distinct generations. The first generation, exemplified by Pablo Escobar and his Medellin-based cocaine smuggling business, is entrepreneurial and achieves economies of scale through ruthless violence against competitors. As Escobar demonstrated, first-generation cartels can become a threat to the state through unrestrained use of violence. However, a centralized hierarchy makes first-generation cartels vulnerable to decapitation, as Escobar found out too late.

Second-generation cartesl, developed in Cali after Escobar’s demise, build security through dispersion: a network structure, a lower profile, more bribery, and less violence.

Should legitimate legal authorities manage to infiltrate a second-generation cartel network, Sullivan foresees a third-generation cartel, which has yet to appear. This generation would threaten the nation-state by gaining de facto control over a neighboring territory.. Sullivan points to the porous Paraguay/Argentina/Brazil border region as an emerging hub for many global criminal operations. He also points to the current struggle for authority inside Mexico which may end with warlords presiding over cartel enclaves.

It does not automatically follow that third-generation cartel enclaves will result in increased transnational terrorism. But the risks from the breakdown of legitimate central authority are very real, and coping with the consequences of criminal insurgencies may be even more frustrating and costly than dealing with the political kind.

Does it take a network to beat a network?

On June 5 United States Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM) wraps up a week-long war game designed to test the Pentagon’s vision of warfare in the future. The war game looks ahead to the year 2020 and examines how U.S. and allied military forces — along with civilian government, non-government, and international institutions — cope with a failing state, a globally networked terrorist organization, and a peer competitor. The results of the war game are supposed to influence the conclusions of this year’s Quadrennial Defense Review, an in-depth review of the Pentagon’s strategies.

Officials at USJFCOM won’t discuss the results of the war game until at least July; many of the most interesting conclusions may remain classified. But the commander of USJFCOM, General James Mattis of the Marine Corps, described his vision of the future while delivering a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mattis discussed how today’s adversaries have adapted to U.S. conventional military superiority by forming disaggregated networks of small irregular teams that hide among indigenous populations. United States military forces, by contrast, have only come under greater central control. According to Mattis, this shift is due to evolutions in intelligence-gathering and communications technologies. Call it the new iron law of military bureaucracies: when commanders gain the technical ability to micromanage, they will micromanage.

Mattis, a four-star general at the top of command pyramid, sdeplores the trend. First, he asserts that the U.S. military command and control system is the most vulnerable such system in the world. Second, Mattis observes that throughout history and regardless of the type of conflict, military forces that centralized control and suppressed initiative at lower echelons have invariably been defeated.

Mattis believes that in order to defeat modern decentralized networks, U.S. forces will have to become decentralized themselves. This will entail giving autonomy to and requiring initiative from the youngest junior leaders in the Army and Marine Corps. High-performance small infantry units, a national imperative according to Mattis, will need to operate independent from higher control, finding their own solutions to local problems as they implement broader policy guidance.

For this approach to succeed, the recruiting, selection, and training of soldiers will have to fundamentally change. Mattis has created a small unit center of excellence at USJFCOM to improve the performance of lower-echelon combat units and their leaders. The focus of the center is on the human factors of success since U.S. infantrymen should not expect to enjoy any technological advantages over future enemy infantrymen.

Perhaps the most interesting question raised by Mattis’s speeech is not whether the youngest soldiers can rise to the new demands that would be placed on them, but whether the colonels and generals — and their civilian masters above — will be able to relinquish the tight control technology has given them and to which they have become so accustomed. Will they ever acquire the courage necessary to trust a decentralized and distributed force of independent small units to find its own way of achieving the goals of a campaign? Mattis believes that this is the only path to success against tomorrow’s enemies. What general or politician will have the nerve to take it?

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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