Tuesday, February 04, 2003

I've been thinking about proposed rule number three and the first subject for alpha testing. How can we destroy a distributed network such as Al Qaeda while minimizing the number of elements we kill? Steven Johnson talks about several examples such as cities and ant colonies in his book (as well as Al Qaeda), but doesn't really focus on methods of destroying them. Ant colonies can be killed with poison, but that involves killing most of the ants. An analogous method involving millions of civilian killings would tarnish our spirit more than anything Al Qaeda has done so far. History does have many examples of cities being annihilated without killing most of the people. Most of them are economic - a change in water availability or trade routes or farming conditions may cause the vast majority of the population to leave sometimes. The city is destroyed, but not the individuals who used to comprise it.

I'm clearly a little short on details at this stage, but I'm only one tiny element of the Global Brain. I found a really good place to start in this June 2002 post on Armed Liberal.

"What we really need is a system as decentralized and flexible as Al Qaeda's, one that is so diffuse and interwoven into the American fabric that it can detect intrusions much as an immune system can. Such a network of private citizens could then call in the airstrikes (FBI, etc) when they get a solid hit on the detection network. Furthermore, it seems that such a diffuse, low-power system would be far less prone to abuses since the amount of power concentrated would be small."

I found a few other hints elsewhere on the web.

At the very end, Barab├ísi can not resist wrestling with the networks most on our minds these days, terrorist networks. He sees Al Qaeda as a robust, self-organizing, distributed network that has the benefits and weaknesses of all scale-free topologies. We can’t defeat it by destroying small hubs. We can destroy this network only by finding and crippling the few large nodes that have the most links in the network. But, as a fitting conclusion to the book, Barab├ísi recognizes that terrorists are networks of people, and destroying their current set of links is not enough.

An important part of this is not underestimating the enemy. Here's a timely reminder that the enemy will be learning as we do.

Fortunately for Washington, the Taliban and al Qaeda forces seem to have been too rigid in holding their positions, counted too much on the advantages of similar positions and strong points in past wars, and to have concentrated too much in a single area. They also fought too determinedly once superior forces engaged them.

The next time around, enemies are likely to be more disperse, to try to fight in several different places at once, and retreat more quickly. They also may not operate under conditions where much of the local population is hostile.

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