Cross-posting this after submitting it on Abu Muqawama, in response to a query AM initiated. You can read the full version here; my thoughts follow below. I told myself I wouldn't get too caught up with debates in the blogosphere, not because they're not worth it, but because I have a day job, and the body, as they used to say, is meat. This one was interesting enough in that it's caught up in some issues that have been in need of thorough corrective thinking for years. Some of the reader responses were right on the money on the aspects of the debate that they addressed, so I would highly recommend going to AM's site to read the entire thing through.
I'm going to weigh in here, but only because I'm surprised that this is still being debated the way that it is.
AM: the internet is used by terror groups and guerrilla groups to spread TTPs -- tactics, techniques, and procedures
AQ Expert: while the internet was certainly central to the radicalization process, you need an actual physical space to spread tactics and know-how
1. Not only is this not an either-or issue, but judging from the way you wrote it up - and the way your audience responded - everyone's talking past each other on the very basic elements of this.
2. I suppose my root assertion is: define "spread". Instruction and learning involve a range of practices and processes, but in the absence of applied learning, the "spreading" of "tactics", "techniques", and "procedures" is nothing more than "sensitization" to TTPs. That's a far cry from being able to demonstrate proficiency through applied knowledge.
3. The process of learning and communication is not divorced from the physical world. Regardless of the kind of primary activity the insurgent or terrorist is involved with, the physical NEVER goes away until he's dead. Ideas can persist and evolve independent of any one entity. But there's no such thing as an insurgent or terrorist conducting the sharp kinetic end of the operational spectrum while in a disembodied state. That - the virtual havens argument - is what's been exaggerated, and I suspect that that's the point Mike Scheuer was making. :)
4. I know that there are manuals for any number of activities - say, flying aircraft - but if I don't spend time studying them AND applying that learning by actually getting into the cockpit and into the air, I'm probably not going to get too far as a pilot. So, "spread" is a big word, whichever way you cut the argument.
Sorry, maybe the pilot analogy is a bit tasteless - not meant that way.
5. The last point I'll mention is that disputes over physical vs. virtual domains - read the sanctuary discourse in U.S. policy - has always been overblown. The most sensible approach I've seen on this is David Kilcullen's 2003-2004 ADF concept paper, Future Land Operations Concept: Complex Warfighting.
That document, and the thinking behind it, have been extremely influential in shaping contemporary COIN, asserting that the real and metaphorical enemy "terrain" is complex, not simple, and warfighters need to approach it in terms of its physical and material conditions, human & demographic conditions, and informational & cognitive dimensions - not in isolation one from the another, but as part of a thick weave of obstacles to clean, direct, linear combat.
6. Despite its post-modern flavor, that approach also never loses sight of the fact that at the end of the day, the blood you shed isn't a poor pixilated facsimile on a computer screen, but the real slippery deal, in the real world.
The thread at Abu Muqawama has generated 35 comments to date. There were a few that preceded and followed my original note, including an Anonymous poster, who wrote:
OMG, who killed all the straw men? I'm with Complex Terrain Lab in terms of understanding the argument, but it strikes me as inane.
Let's look at an example here: a jihadi reads an internet article -- let's assert that this is his only possible source for this information -- on the proper way to use a mil-dot reticle and then goes out and practices with his rifle. Abu M. is arguing that the internet was critical to the process and the rebuttal is that the jihadi still had to go out and practice?
Sounds like another intellectually overbred academic who's more in love with his mind than advancing COIN. If only practice is required, then let's save some money by stopping the creation and distribution of all military manuals.
May 3, 2008 6:28 PM
I took the opportunity to elaborate some points I'd wanted to make at the outset:
We agree with Anonymous - to a point.
The issue isn't simply that terrs still need to go out and practice, and that that's the requirement for physical space. It is a requirement, at least for acquiring a level of proficiency and the ability to implement.
The requirement for physical space, though, is broader than that. It may be disingenuous to suggest that there's an absolute requirement for physical space, regardless of where a terr is in the recruitment or operational process. But the plain fact is that the terr, his colleagues, and their organization, don't cease to be a corporeal entities, even when reading by remote over digital media.
More, the problem of digital media isn't non-physical. Here we need to step back and define terms, before trying to describe the problem.
The "internet" and the "world wide web" are two different things. Our knowledge of this end of things is superficial, so an experts on strategic communications/technology/information in war might like to chime in.
The internet is the distributed network of computing resources that allow the collected information it contains called the "web" to function - which makes it a physical space. The web, furthermore, can only be accessed via the physical media of the net, ie. through a computer of some kind, its visual (monitor), tactile (keyboard, mouse) and sensory (web cam, microphone) interfaces . By extension, interfacing via the web, through internet resources, is a physical act requiring a blend of material, human, and cognitive presence.
In this sense, the use of online media as an extended C2 mechanism - understood broadly - isn't really all that different from the use of broad spectrum communications strategies in places like Rwanda, Liberia, which were albeit very different scales, concentrations, and types of conflict.
There, radio was the physical media, exploiting national broadcast infrastructure and ubiquitous sub-tactical receivers (hand-held radios) to control public information and transmit the expectations of the power elite - in others words, guidance.
These were also primarily oral societies with high rates of illiteracy - hence culturally susceptible. Not to widespread anomie and interpersonal violence, but to both medium and message. The function was distributed command and control under materially unclear circumstances, and the outcome was social diffusion (to varying degrees) of destructive ideas.
There's more to the argument, but I'll cut it short with that. Sorry to fixate, but we do need to define our terms of reference on this one.
I'd been thinking about this sort of issue for a while - distinctions between the physical/real and the virtual/unreal, and how to unpack what means what. This is an interesting one. Thanks to Abu Muqawama for initiating the thread to begin with - not a new discussion, but certainly a good vehicle for sparking and invigorating the debate. I think I'll be able to work from this and move the sanctuaries argument past the physical-virtual paradigm and position it more firmly within the realm of complex terrain.