Need to Know vs Imperative to Share
© 2008 FrontLine Security (Vol 3, No 1)

The Network Centric War and Terrorism
The terms Network Centric Warfare (NCW) or Network Centric Opera­tions have many definitions and have inspired much debate. They were explored by Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, USN, and John J. Garstka in their 1998 book, Network Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future, Proceedings of the Naval Institute. In general, however, NCW is a concept in which operations are enabled by the networking of the force, giving it a common situational awareness and communications system that allows it to be more flexible and to act and react more rapidly than can the enemy. NCW is also characterized by the ability of a military force to better produce, share and access information in real time or near real time. The military operation can, it is argued, leverage this information advantage and more effectively dominate the geographical and virtual “battle space”.

The increased capabilities of NCW are obvious on the conventional battlefield. An NCW force has an advantage in speed, ­precision and should be able to put more effective ordinance on target in a shorter time using less munitions. The concepts of NCW should be able to assist multi-national operations as well. Is this the case in Afghanistan?

However, it appears that Al Qaeda and its associated groups are doing a demonstrably better job of employing the principles of Network Centric Warfare than NATO or other Western institutions. Given the asymmetric resource levels, perhaps it is not surprising that the smaller group (Al Qaeda) is doing a better job of adapting to new concepts faster than the larger group (NATO). The Darwinian pressure for ­survival often outweighs various other bureaucratic imperatives that drive larger organizations.

NATO in Afghanistan
NATO is the key component of the international community’s commitment to Afghanistan. Currently, almost 40 countries have committed resources to the conflict under the flag of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). While the concept of NCW appears very much alive in the Afghan theatre, questions about its effectiveness have arisen. The integration of military forces in an NCW environment faces multiple challenges. While there are many obstacles, the greatest of them all is probably the self-imposed security measures.

The information that can make NCW so useful needs to be managed within a secure system. The systems involved need to be able to both “push” and “pull” information and this implies a high level of trust between the partners. In my view, this is clearly not the case in Afghanistan. NATO briefings talk of “trusted partners” which is a polite way of saying there are partners who are not as trusted. Today’s partner in Afghanistan, it is thought, could be tomorrow’s opponent in another theatre of operations. Consequently, serious limits exist on the flow of information in many different directions and the situational awareness is inconsistent and varies accordingly.

At the end of the day, NATO and its leaders in Afghanistan appear to have chosen “security of information” over the ability to share it effectively. Given that knowledge is the key factor in defeating an asymmetric opponent in an insurgent operation, this policy appears to be self-defeating.

Information Operations
Al Qaeda, its associated groups, and inspired followers operate at a significant operational disadvantage. Among the major problems that they face are depleted staff, money shortages, disrupted training bases and adversaries who have an overwhelming advantage in technology and firepower.

In spite of these problems, the “core” of Al Qaeda is rebuilding itself in Pakistan and continues to inspire a growing wave of radicalization around the globe. Its presence has been substantially felt in over 90 countries. One key aspect of Al Qaeda’s resilience is its ability to effectively ­network its information operations and communicate their message to a global audience.

Perhaps most interesting is Al Qaeda’s view on the distribution of operational and training information.

Al Qaeda does have two distinct sets of information that is distributes. One set of information is designed to be for “external use” and is regularly published on the Internet and on CDs and DVDs intended for widespread distribution. This material is intended to discourage the West while at the same time reinforcing the interest and beliefs of followers and potential recruits. It is, in short, propaganda. Al Qaeda also has information documents on the Web that are more intended for “internal use.” One such example is the treatise by Osama bin Laden called “Moderate Islam is a Prostration to the West.” This material is designed to be an internal debate among Muslims on contentious issues such as Offensive Jihad. It could be called doctrinal theory.

What is key to note here, however, is that the various works by Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri are all available to those who are interested or will take the time to translate or read them.

What is even more amazing is that many other works are published online that refer to training methods, “lessons learned” from successful and failed operations, technology, surveillance and counter surveillance and a broad range of other subjects.

Unlike NATO and many of the West’s intelligence agencies, Al Qaeda has chosen to prefer effective communications and success over “security of information.” Perhaps this is one reason that a small core of some 300 Arabs operating in the tribal agency areas of Pakistan is capable of leading and inspiring a truly global ideological movement.

The Cold War required and produced a rather traditional and symmetrical approach to conflict with an operations and intelligence environment that required coercion, secrecy, compartmentalization and raw power. The Soviet Union was a fixed and known geographical entity with reasonably well-defined limits and capabilities. Now, however, the West finds itself engaged in a battle of ideas with an entity that has no fixed geographic boundaries and no clearly defined objectives beyond vague statements about the rebuilding of the “caliphate.”

The struggle is clearly ideological and an asymmetric one. Raw power and advanced technology are not always useful assets in this duel. In fact, they can often prove obstacles to success. The requirements in this struggle are for openness, sharing and cooperation. Effective NATO application of NCW in this conflict can be achieved only if the “fine grains” of intelligence that are being collected by a multitude of agencies around the globe, can be assembled and collated. This would seek to produce a commonly shared and clear picture within which the coordinated yet independent actions of many can be taken against terrorism. The key is not the “need to know;” it is the “imperative to share.”

Tom Quiggin is a court-qualified expert in jihadist terrorism and a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore.
© FrontLine Security 2008