Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

How to Lose a Cyberwar

Why is America still letting online jihadists run amok?

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

The five young men detained in Pakistan this week -- like a whole new generation of jihadis -- appear to have made considerable use of the Internet in their alleged approach to al Qaeda. Their story points out that, more than eight years after 9/11, terrorist networks are still not only able to stay in touch via cyberspace, but that they are even extending their reach thanks to our giving them a free ride in the virtual domain.

U.S. President Barack Obama often speaks about his central strategic objective of denying al Qaeda its haven in Waziristan, but he says nary a word about taking away its "virtual haven" in cyberspace. This omission is more than his alone, as none of the key military, intelligence, and law-enforcement arms of the U.S. government have done much to curtail terrorist use of the Net.

Those who do try to keep an eye on terrorism in cyberspace often argue that they learn a lot about enemy networks by monitoring their narratives on jihadi websites. But if this made a real difference, we would have already won the war on terror.

The five young men detained in Pakistan this week — like a whole new generation of jihadis — appear to have made considerable use of the Internet in their alleged approach to al Qaeda. Their story points out that, more than eight years after 9/11, terrorist networks are still not only able to stay in touch via cyberspace, but that they are even extending their reach thanks to our giving them a free ride in the virtual domain.

U.S. President Barack Obama often speaks about his central strategic objective of denying al Qaeda its haven in Waziristan, but he says nary a word about taking away its "virtual haven" in cyberspace. This omission is more than his alone, as none of the key military, intelligence, and law-enforcement arms of the U.S. government have done much to curtail terrorist use of the Net.

Those who do try to keep an eye on terrorism in cyberspace often argue that they learn a lot about enemy networks by monitoring their narratives on jihadi websites. But if this made a real difference, we would have already won the war on terror.

Instead of thinking of cyberspace principally as a place to gather intelligence, we need to elevate it to the status of "battlespace." This means that we either want to exploit terrorists’ use of the Web and Net unbeknownst to them, or we want to drive them from it.

We need to think of gaining an information edge, like the one enjoyed by the Allies in World War II. In that conflict, the first high-performance computing capability was created, and broke German and Japanese codes, enabling a series of victories to be won — from the Mediterranean to Midway — long before Allied material advantages could be brought to bear.

A similar capability fielded today against al Qaeda would do much more than just catch confused young men on their journey to the jihad. It would also intercept the messages that guide the movement of terrorist money, identify existing cells and nodes and enable us to go after them in the physical world, and allow us to preempt new attacks.

The officials I try to lobby in favor of creating this new "Magic" (the American name for the World War II code-breaking capability) always argue that, once the enemy realizes we have this capability, they will go to ground and we will know even less about where they are and what they intend to do next.

I make two replies to this objection. The first is that neither the Germans nor the Japanese ever figured out that the Allies could break their codes. Indeed, they were convinced that they had high-level traitors within their own regimes.

My second reply is that, even if the enemy finds out that we’re on to them in cyberspace, all they can do is leave the virtual world. This would absolutely cripple a network spread out across more than 60 countries. And it would have a very chilling effect on potential recruits if they thought they might be under surveillance as soon as they started clicking.  No more Sargodha Fives.

But, for all the benefits of striving for this information edge, there is one big difference from the situation during World War II:  We need to develop more than just code-breaking capabilities. We must also focus on detection and tracking tools, and craft international agreements that allow us to move swiftly in hot pursuit among servers located across many different sovereignties.

The alternative to getting more aggressive about exploiting the terrorists in cyberspace, or driving them from it, is that the networks will continue to metastasize. The young men in Sargodha are not even the tip of the iceberg. If the al Qaeda narrative appeals to only 5 percent of the Muslim world — as many experts suggest — we’re still talking about a core constituency of some 70 million people.

But if wannabe jihadis are attracted to the 12th-century logic of al Qaeda, they still need 21st-century information technology to link up. The events in Sargodha, the other current case of David Headley in Chicago, and the earlier instance of Najibullah Zazi the Denver airport shuttle driver, all point to an emergent subculture — one that is increasingly enabled by and dependent upon cyberspace.

So let’s take advantage of this dependence. Now.


John Arquilla earned his degrees in international relations from Rosary College (BA 1975) and Stanford University (MA 1989, PhD 1991). He has been teaching in the special operations program at the United States Naval Postgraduate School since 1993. He also serves as chairman of the Defense Analysis department.

Dr. Arquilla’s teaching interests revolve around the history of irregular warfare, terrorism, and the implications of the information age for society and security.

His books include: Dubious Battles: Aggression, Defeat and the International System (1992); From Troy to Entebbe: Special Operations in Ancient & Modern Times (1996), which was a featured alternate of the Military Book Club; In Athena’s Camp (1997); Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy (2001), named a notable book of the year by the American Library Association; The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror (2006); Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (2008), which is about defense reform; Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (2011); and Afghan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War (2012).

Dr. Arquilla is also the author of more than one hundred articles dealing with a wide range of topics in military and security affairs. His work has appeared in the leading academic journals and in general publications like The New York Times, Forbes, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired and The New Republic. He is best known for his concept of “netwar” (i.e., the distinct manner in which those organized into networks fight). His vision of “swarm tactics” was selected by The New York Times as one of the “big ideas” of 2001; and in recent years Foreign Policy Magazine has listed him among the world’s “top 100 thinkers.”

In terms of policy experience, Dr. Arquilla worked as a consultant to General Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert Storm, as part of a group of RAND analysts assigned to him. During the Kosovo War, he assisted deputy secretary of defense John Hamre on a range of issues in international information strategy. Since the onset of the war on terror, Dr. Arquilla has focused on assisting special operations forces and other units on practical “field problems.” Most recently, he worked for the White House as a member of a small, nonpartisan team of outsiders asked to articulate new directions for American defense policy.

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