John Robb ‘s Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and The End of Globalization (Global Guerrillas Blog) adds a few concepts to the topic of new wars and the changing nature of warfare. At the same time, for those of us who have studied the changing nature of warfare and are familiar with the writings of people like Mary Kaldor or Herfried Munkler, there is a lot that is neither new nor original.
At the same time, John Robb’s perspective is different Kaldor’s or Munkler’s because he has worked in intelligence and counterinsurgency. His first hand experience in this field provides interesting insights as well as some issues.
Let me get out of the way the things I did not really like in the book. I think the author has a tendency to latch on to easily on all the fashionable concepts of the day: black swans, long tails, etc. And the author’s contention regarding resilient communities (the author’s idea of empowered communities able to resist oppression and terrorism) smells a bit too much of the fetishism of the local for my taste. Again, the local is not an automatic equivalent to empowered autonomy and resistance.
Things get a lot more interesting when we delve into the changing nature of terrorism and conflict in the global context. Specifically, Robb argues that one of the strengths of insurgent groups, such as the ones in Iraq is their open-source networked nature that lacks a clear center for greater flexibility. This has allowed for smooth and flexible connections between terrorist groups and organized criminal networks and these connections permeate the global economy.
According to Robb, the Iraq insurgency is the future of insurgency and terrorism with a new method: systems disruption: the disruption of basic services that are essential to smooth societal functioning and whose disruption damages the legitimacy of governments and nation-states. One problem here: this is not new. This used to be the tactic adopted by white African groups (the Executive Outcomes type) again newly independent African nations. To attack power plants and water treatment centers repeatedly would force these new governments to spend enormous resources rebuilding them. And if it led to government failure, then, it would prove that Africans were unable to govern themselves.
However, one can clearly see, as the author argues, the rise of “virtual states” in the sense of “superempowered groups” who can challenge national governments (and, I would say, especially, failed states) and connect to other groups and criminal organizations through ICTs. Which is why many peripheral conflicts are not fought between states but between a mix of sub-national actors dedicated to system disruption.
“This new method of warfare offers clear improvement (for our enemies) over traditional terrorism and military insurgency. It offers guerrillas the means to bring a modern nation’s economy to its knees and thereby undermine the legitimacy of the state sworn to protect it. Furthermore, it can derail the key drivers of economic globalization: the flow of resources, investment, people, and security. The perpetrators of this new form of warfare, however, aren’t really terrorists, because they no longer have terror as their goal or method. A better term might be global guerrillas, because they represent a broad-based threat that far exceeds that offered by terrorists or the guerrillas of our past.” (14-5)
But global guerrillas are not only distinctive because of system disruption. Their organizing structure – the decentralized network – is also a specificity, as opposed to hierarchies. These global guerrillas are main actors in what Robb calls fourth generation warfare (4GW), the first three being
- Mass warfare: use of massive firepower on clear conflict fields, such as the Napoleonic wars or the US Civil War.
- Industrial warfare: wearing down of the opposing state through greater mobilization and firepower, such as World War I.
- Blitzkrieg: taking down of an enemy army and state through maneuvers, deep penetration and disruption, such as World War II (I would argue that WWII was also industrial warfare).
And here, Robb was prescient:
“The use of systems disruption as a method of strategic warfare has the potential to cast the United States in the role that the Soviet Union held during the 1980s – a country driven to bankruptcy by a foe it couldn’t compete with economically. We are staring at a future where defeat isn’t experienced all at once, but through an inevitable withering away of military, economic, and political power and through wasting conflicts with minor foes.” (32)
As an aside, this is something Michael Mann had already written about in Incoherent Empire.
The issue I have then is the supposed big discovery of the changing nature of warfare (decentralization, networks, etc.) as if this were the first book about this. Seriously, Mary Kaldor is not even mentioned or referenced even though she wrote the book (literally) on New Wars. And P.W. Singer and others have also written quite extensively about the de-nationalization of warfare and the emergence of non-state actors and their prevalence in contemporary conflicts. And it has been long known that these global guerrillas and global criminal networks have been pretty savvy with ICTs.
Robb also argues that global guerrillas be distributed according to the long tail model (as opposed to Gaussian distribution).
There are several reasons for this:
(1) War is cheap. The barriers of entry due to costs have declined considerably and one can conduct warfare with AK-47s and child soldiers at really low costs (which create some incentives).
(2) Also, the decentralization of warfare and system disruption mean that small events can create massive costs for the injured party.
(3) Networking technologies allow for a “long shelf life” on ideas driving the guerrillas whose number don’t have to be large. Social networking allows like-minded people to easily find each other. Here, I would add that the strength of weak ties is also relevant as absolute consensus and strong ties are not necessary for a global guerrilla to be operational (and for someone so in love with concepts, I am surprised – disappointed – that Robb did not consider that one).
So, beyond the Iraq insurgency groups, who would count as a global guerrilla? Robb mentions the Chechen guerrilla as well as the Niger Delta movement or the Balochs in Pakistan. How do states fight back against guerrillas that are so adept at asymmetrical warfare? Robb mentions the use of paramilitaries including the US minutemen. And here is another source of annoyance for me:
“Armed to the teeth with semi-automatic weaponry and survival gear, this paramilitary force has formed organically to police the U.S.-Mexican border.
Though many Americans have lamented their existence, few have tried to explain it.” (87)
Really? I guess David Neiwert has not been writing about all this for years now, and showing how such movement has not arisen “organically”. And Robb displays a disturbing respect for these paramilitary groups (including those the US used in Central America) even as he acknowledged their corruption and human rights abuse. It is unconscionable to me to legitimize their use.
Also included in the global guerrillas category are what Robb calls third generation gangs (3GG).
- First generation: turf protection, unsophisticated leadership, opportunistic petty crime.
- Second generation: organized around business and financial gain; broader geographical footprint, violence used for intimidation of commercial competition and against government interference.
- Third generation: global, sophisticated transnational operations, political control in failed government and state areas, high interference in state function.
“Third generation gangs fit the model of global guerrillas perfectly. They operate, coordinate, and expand globally. They communicate worldwide without state restriction, often via the Internet. They engage in transnational crime. They participate in fourth-generation warfare, and their activities disrupt national and international systems. Finally, they coerce, replace, or fail states that stand in their way. In all these categories, they parallel the development of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Like Al-Qaeda, these gangs are rivals of nation-states.” (93)
All these groups engage in system disruption as main tactic, targeting specifically (or trying to) what Robb calls Systempunkt, the crucial point in a system whose disruption can create system collapse. These may be economic or infrastructural. Anything whose disruption will trigger a collapse in global flows (Appadurai’s scapes) is such a Systempunkt. In the current context, one could argue that global guerrillas are not the only ones who can engage in such system disruption. “Legitimate” economic actors seem to do so as well.
For global guerrillas, then the structuring in scale-free, decentralized and flexible networks allows for capillary kinds of disruptions (Foucault’s micro-power) that can trigger cascading failures, as opposed to coordinated yet non-networked attacks of former generation terrorist groups.
Finally, the last characteristic of global guerrillas is open-source warfare (OSW):
“In OSW, the source code of warfare is available for anyone who is interested in both modifying and extending it. This means the tactics, weapons, strategies, target selection, planning, methods, and team dynamics are all open to community improvement. Global guerrillas can hack at the source of warfare to their heart’s content” (116)
As with open-source software, the main characteristics are as follows:
- Early release and continuous updates
- Constant problem solving through community sharing
- Community members as allies and co-developers rather than competitors
- Simplicity and easy adaptability of solutions
OSW is one big bazaar of warfare solutions.
I have already mentioned above and throughout this pose the issues I had with the book. I would add that there is too much conflation of security = protection of assets and defense of the capitalist system as it is (or whatever is left of it at this point). Too much defense of paramilitary seen as legitimate actors. And not enough recognition of the work done before on this topic. Some of the ideas in the book are useful in terms of conceptualization but there is too much grasping of fashionable concepts from a variety of fields.
That being said, the book is a quick an interesting read and I would recommend also bookmarking the blog (link above). But I would also say: go read Mary Kaldor first.