Rational Security

Small Cells vs. Big Data

Can information dominance crush terrorism?


The fundamental dynamic of the Cold War was an arms race to build nuclear weapons; conflict today is primarily driven by an "organizational race" to build networks. Terrorists, insurgents, and other militants focus on the creation of dispersed cells — most comprised of just handfuls of operatives — pursuing common goals, but without central controls. Intelligence, law enforcement, and military organizations strive to network their information flows, the aim being to mine "big data" to illuminate enemy cells, then to use this knowledge to eliminate them. In Boston last week, both aspects of this organizational race were evident — the small cell and big data — and both had their innings.

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. Their small-cell approach to engaging the Russian army in the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya was a signal victory for networks. And when the Russians came back smarter a few years later, the Chechens still gave them a tough time. Beyond their homelands, North Caucasian militants (not only Chechens, but Dagestanis and others) have been key cadres in the al Qaeda network, proving themselves, again and again, to be among the world’s best natural warriors. In his time, Tolstoy knew this too, as he had served in Chechnya as a cadet officer in the 1850s and had seen the swarm tactics of the legendary insurgent leader Shamil, the elusive subject of his short story, "The Raid."

Chechen strategic culture aside, there has also been a movement within al Qaeda to shift from centralized control of a modest number of highly skilled units, capable of mounting a few major operations, to a more decentralized approach based on nurturing handfuls of operatives all over the world. This is the self-styled "global Islamic resistance call" of al Qaeda strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, whose ideas Osama bin Laden found, for the most part, uncongenial. But the latter’s death in Abbottabad in 2011 appears to have given free rein to the former’s ideas, which seem to be spreading — and which threaten to re-energize the whole al Qaeda movement. Al-Suri himself was taken into custody several years ago — eventually being rendered to Syria — but his concept of operations has taken hold.

Opposed to this new terrorist trend are the rising informational networks of many countries that hinge upon the sustained effort to unmask small cells and preempt them before they can strike. These counterterror networks have been doing pretty well, and to date have prevented about 20 major terrorist attacks — not least two recent ones involving cells comprised of North Caucasians that were aiming to hit Americans at Naval Station Rota, in Spain, and British targets at Gibraltar. In the United States, one of the more important organizational innovations has been the creation and growth of joint inter-agency task forces, which bring together intelligence, special operations, and law enforcement capabilities.

Recently, there have been some very high-profile endorsements of this sort of network building. Perhaps the most important came from Admiral William McRaven, head of Special Operations Command, who in testimony before a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee two weeks ago emphasized his intent "to build lasting formal and informal networks" with a wide range of allies. McRaven’s plan should be viewed as a logical extension of ideas advanced a decade ago by another admiral — and former national security adviser to Ronald Reagan — John Poindexter. Admiral Poindexter’s concept of "total information awareness" sounded a bit too Orwellian, and even softening it to "terrorism information awareness" didn’t help, so the concepts were publicly dismissed. But his ideas about collecting and networking big data flows have lived on under new programs whose code names cannot be mentioned. If al-Suri is the godfather of the small-cell concept, Admiral Poindexter is surely the wizard of big data.

And so the organizational race is on. Abu Mus’ab al-Suri’s "program" (al-manhaj) has clearly borne fruit, with small cells popping up in many places around the world. The goal is to build enough of them so that no single cell has to mount an attack more than, say, once per year. It is their cumulative effect that will achieve the desired terrorist drumbeat. If this is the model to which the Tsarnaev brothers were adhering, it then made sense for them to remain in the area in the wake of their attack on the Boston Marathon rather than to go on the lam immediately. Under the al-Suri model, they would just remain dormant until the heat was off, then strike again in a year or so. Al-Suri’s hope is that the limited scale of attacks conducted by his cells will, even now, cause disproportionate psychological trauma and one day achieve massive cumulative material effects.

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.

Clearly, counterterrorism forces have gotten into the organizational race to build networks of their own to counter the dark networks that our — and our world’s — enemies are forming. And they are giving a good account of themselves in the field. But this is hardly a time for even the slightest degree of complacency to set in. What our adversaries have shown us over the past decade and more is their resilience and creativity. This fight, like the race that was struck by terror last week, is a marathon.

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