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« "Aber Jabber": New Terrorism Studies Dust-Up | Main | Response to Innes: The Medium is the Message? »

Wired For Sanctuary: Technology, Threat, Agency, and Intent

I'll keep this brief, since I'm running short of time before flying out. The short version, Matt, is that you've misread my points and missed the mark on the ones that you make.

You write that I take "Andrew Exum to task for suggesting that 'common denominator that has emerged from domestic terror threats in places like the United Kingdom is that their staging ground was actually on the internet rather than in a physical 'safe haven'.' You then write that I subsequently paint "an image of terrorists uploading themselves into the net, and suggests instead that is is web-based propaganda that Exum refers to." You've badly misread this. I wrote quite clearly, of Exum's originally worded New Republic, that

I'm pretty confident he wasn’t trying to paint a picture of wetwired ji-hackers uploading themselves into the net to wreak digital havoc in ethereal form, and he later redressed the editorial misstep that led him referencing the internet per se, rather than web-based propaganda.

What's more, I'm not suggesting that this is what Ex meant. I'm relating clearly and directly that this is exactly what Ex himself had to say about his own piece. Straight from the horse's pen:

I made a mistake in the TNR piece... I did not correct the following sentence when it was edited:

The foiled 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot, for example, was allegedly plotted almost entirely within the confines of my old neighborhood in East London. And while some terrorists--such as Mohammed Sadiq Khan, who is believed to have masterminded the 7/7 bombings--travelled to Pakistan and trained in militant camps, the common denominator that has emerged from domestic terror threats in places like the United Kingdom is that their staging ground was actually on the internet rather than in a physical "safe haven."

Allow me to offer a slight correction. The common denominator I was trying to talk about is internet-driven propaganda rather than the internet more generally. I should have caught this when the sentence changed during the editing process. My bad.

This is distinct from your suggestion that that's the picture that I myself am painting. I'm most certainly not. In fact, I'm pointing out, as others have, what a profoundly misunderstood and commonly miscommunicated thing "virtual" havens really are; symptomatic of the sort of occultation of covert terrorist networks that makes its way into mainstream media inquiries and into cults of personality around which radical networks sometimes gel. We frequently know little about their actual locative dispositions at any given time, so basically we just imagine the spaces they occupy and describe them accordingly.

All of this lends itself to poor understanding of "virtual" havens in general, which have more to do, incidentally, with their social construction than they do with the media through which they operate. To be perfectly clear, the internet is a resource like any other, and its capacity for multimedia delivery of information doesn't change the fact that it's an element of Command, Control, and Communications (C3), nothing more. There are other, more complex variations on this scheme - Command, Control, Communications, and Information (C4I), or Command, Control, Communications, and Computers (C4) - that make this even more clear.

You then go on to correct me by offering a contradictory set of statements that serve only to support my point - largely by mixing and matching terms. You write: "it is not a question of Osama Bin Laden uploading himself so that he can float around somewhere in cyberspace on the information superhighway." Right, like I said, and I don't see how you've made this any clearer. You go on to write, "Rather, it is a question of using the internet as a staging ground to hatch plans as the terrorists are dispersed, in different parts of a city, or a country, or in different nations, and so on."

This is muddled, at best. "Staging ground" is the physical location from which operations - the sharp, pointy end of things that result in dead people - are launched. To stretch "staging ground' to fit every phase of insurgent and terrorist operational lifecyles isn't helpful. The internet is not a staging ground - at least not yet, and not until technologies like Black ICE - variants of Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics lethal to real world operators - become a reality. It isn't even where those things are planned, but how they're planned. The internet and its associated webs are augmented C3 resources tthat enable operators, in the real world, to more easily command, control, communicate, and so on. Certainly, there are graphic simulacra of reality within the net, but these are consensual hallucinations, not the physical locations in which the human bearers of online avatars reside. In real world CT and COIN operations, this is what counts: neutralizing an email account or zapping an avatar can be useful, but the point is to locate and arrest/capture or kill the user.

Based on this, your point that "while the internet does indeed require human interaction, it is a different beast than those training camps or caves, precisely due to the fact that it is virtual", misses the point entirely. My reference to caves, camps, and safe houses is founded on an understanding that there's an important difference, per militant organizational requirements, in scale and distribution of physical resources, from macro to micro and concentrated to networked. The internet (not the web) is one of those resources, shaped by those same dynamics.

Finally, as I noted elsewhere, there's a fundamental problem of threat, agency, and intent, that runs through the sanctuary debate - as in, for example, references to "the threat" of failed states, when what's really at issue is not threat but vulnerability. At that point, threat and agency are a function of the active intent - of terrorists, insurgents, or what have you - to exploit those vulnerabilities. Failed or failing states aren’t really capable of exercising monolithic intent, offering public goods, or precipitating a deliberate effect, in the name of a singly, unitary state- unless by "failing" we mean "rogue", which is a common enough conflation of meanings (and privileges Wesphalian presumptions). Then, it's a whole 'nother story.

My original aim in bringing up the sanctuary debate was to try to come to some understanding of what problems of refuge and intermediacy might mean in the face of ubiquitous battlespace surveillance and penetrating technologies from which little or nothing can hide. But I think there’s also a real discussion to be had on the distinctions between medium, message, and messenger, cross-referenced with corollary problems of threat, agency and intent. A large part of our Wired For War symposium has dealt with elements of artificial intelligence, autonomous battlefield robots, responsibility for their actions, and the messages they and they're use conveys. Any discussion of media and message in this sense that doesn't acknowledge a separate role of messenger, distinct from both medium and message, will suffer from the safe deficiencies as the sanctuary debate - regardless of what McLuhan wrote.

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