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From Ideal Networks to Real Ones: Al Qaeda and Chaoplexic Warfare

Are Networks Networks?

One of the weaknesses of a Latourian sense of the world as Networking is that though such sociological analytic takes its traction from the fashion in which actual networks have been coming to dominate our communications and industry, it is not really the Internet or other literal networks Latour and ANTS are talking about. Indeed, everything is to be explained by the transformations of networks, and it may be that literal networks are some of the things that are least explainable in such terms. Which is to say that the dispositions of any of the actants and their various trials of strength really are not the best, or at least the most compelling causal narratives by which we should come to understand them. For while it does something to undress prima facie non-network social phenomena such as Scientific discovery so as to reveal their networked, actant natures, something else seems to occur when we consider networks themselves, things that don’t nearly have to be demystified to such a degree. In the past I have argued that Latour is in need of a Spinozist rationality of cause (here, here and here), but Latour is not so much the aim here as the context for an interesting historical example which gives me pause to ANTism.

The source of my series of thoughts is The Scientific Way of Warfare by Antoine Bousquet. I got the title from Nick at Accursed Share. I can say that he does a much better job then I ever would in reviewing the book. Instead I would like to take a very small snippet from the quite interesting analysis which attempts to expose the conceptual schema of modern warfare organization, as exemplified or inspired by the four devices: clock, engine, computer, network. Really the first two are only cursorily handled without much historical depth, providing only conceptual framework for the latter two of which the author has the most knowledge and interest.

What Antoine Bousquet contends is that with the advent of the computer military organization took on a largely cybernetic concern of command and control. Under this command and control approach, like a computer, military action was thought of as a closed organization whose interrelatability of parts had to be perfected in terms of information processing so as to best rule out informational “noise” from the environment. And this closed-circuit organization is achieved through negative feedback, the steering of the closed system away from events that disturbed its homeostasis. Bousquet thus suggests that historically with the rise of real networks in the world – principally the Internet which began as a military program that become civilized – coupled to the increased applicability of Chaos Theory and Complexity Theory, decentralized organization was discovered to be far more resilient and adaptable than the Closed System. Decentralized modeling followed Positive Feedback instead of the computer model’s Negative Feeback, and became the new paradigm for vital military and security organization. As he traces it, this paradigm has been adopted by the United States military to only a limited degree, as hierarchical, topsight priorities have used growing network connections for increasedly centralized control, in a kind of culturally entrenched conceptual backlash.

Deviations From Homeostasis

Rather, the better example of military chaoplexic warfare seems to be that of al Qaeda, the description of which I will quote at length:

Since September 11, the focus has naturally been on al-Qaeda and the wider movement of radical Islamist militancy and terrorism. The nebulous and dispersed nature of these organizations has invited their analysis in terms of decentered networks and complex adaptive systems. Thus al-Qaeda is seen as a decentralized and polymorphous network “with recursive operational and financial interrelationships dispersed geographically across numerous associated terrorist organizations that adapt, couple and aggregate in pursuit of common interests” [citing “Observing Al Qaeda Through the Lens of Complexity Theory: Recommendations for the National Strategy to Defeat Terrorism,” Beech]. For Marion and Uhl-Bien, interactive non-linear bottom-up dynamics are behind the self-organization of al-Qaeda in which bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership are an emergent phenomena: “leaders do not create the system but rather are created by it, through a process of aggregation and emergence” [citing “Complexity Theory and Al-Qaeda: Examining Complex Leadership,” Marion and Uhl-Bien].While a diffuse movement of Islamic radicalism coalesced to create terrorist networks from which the leadership could spring, the latter has also assisted the continued development of a decentralized movement by maintaining and fostering “a moderately coupled network, but one possessing internal structures that were loosely and tightly organized as appropriate.” The authors distinguish between loosely coupled networks in which the parts have functional independence, thus granting the system great resilience to large scale perturbations, and tightly coupled networks in which the leadership imposes control mechanisms that enable it to direct activities and receive regular reports. In between these two poles, we find moderately coupled networks which allow some degree of directing by leadership but retain great resiliency. [note the rhetorical disbalance here: modest “some” vs. the still threatening “great”]. If the wider radical Islamist movement is only loosely coupled and individual terrorist cells are tightly coupled, the pre-9/11 al-Qaeda leadership network sat somewhere in between, performing the function of a galvanized interface.

Even in the case of [a] single operation such as September 11, it has become increasingly clear that its planning and execution were far more decentralized than initially supposed. The different cells in the plot, although tightly coupled internally, functioned quasi-autonomously, and although they received some financial, logistical and training support from other parts of the organisation, were not exclusively dependent on them. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, said to be the operational “mastermind” behind September 11 (a designation which, although commonly used in the media, is problematic as it suggests highly centralized planning and control) and now in American military custody, is alleged to have claimed that “the final decisions to hit which target with which plane was entirely in the hands of the pilots.” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was only then subsequently informed of their decision in July 2001. According to this same testimony, bin Laden and the high ranks of the al-Qaeda organisation were only loosely informed of specific details and had only a very limited directing role. Many of bin Laden’s close associates were never even made aware of the plot. This form of organisational and operational structure is one that is particularly alien to Western states and their heirarchial military and security apparatuses, as Mohammed himself recognises, “I know that the materialistic western mind cannot grasp the idea, and it is difficult for them to believe that the high officials in al-Qaeda do not know about operations carried out by its operatives, but this is how it works.”

The Scientific Way of Warfare, 208-209

And here are three worthy quotes explaining how complex organization is to be thought of…

Complex adaptive systems constitute a special case of complex systems that are capable of changing and learning from experience. Complexity theorist John Holland defines a complex adaptive system as a dynamic network of many agents acting in parallel, constantly acting and reacting to what the other agents are doing. Since the control of a complex adaptive system tends to be highly dispersed and decentralized, any coherent behavior in the system arises from competition and cooperation among the agents themselves. It is the accumulation of all the individual decisions taken by the multitude of agents which produces the overall behavior of the system, which can thus be said to be emergent. (175)

The worldview constituted by chaoplexity marks a seismic shift away from the dominant conceptions of the natural world. No longer is order to be seen a product of the natural tendency towards equilibrium. On the contrary, it is with non-equalibrium that order emerges from chaos, at the point where instability and creative mutation allow for the genesis of new forms and actions. Consequently, the systems produced through these processes of self-organisation have distinct emergent features which cannot be understood solely through an analysis of their atomized components since it is their pattern of interaction which constitute their complexity. (181)

“Up to a point, tightening the connections between elements in the system will increase efficiency when everything works smoothly. But, if one small item goes wrong, then that can have a catastrophic knock-on effect throughout the system. The system literally switches over, from smooth functioning to interactively complex disaster”

Global Complexity, Urry

We can see the beauty of this particular kind of networked conception one which Bousquet reads as perched between order (systematic, heirarchial, negative feedback restrictive control) and chaos. A non-equilibrium juxtaposition that uses its very instability as an advantage of its own becoming. And indeed there is something of a parallel to philosophies of becoming that want to read things in terms of primary deterrorializations. When one considers something like Latour’s notion of actants in network somehow the critical analogy which seems to hide within many of our non-network seeming processes don’t really seem to explain what is happening, or how information and organization is acquired in al Qaeda:

in order to spread far…. an actant needs faithful allies who accept what they are told, identify itself with its cause, carry out all the functions that are defined for them, and come to its aid without hesitation when they are summoned. The search for these ideal allies occupies the space and time of those who wish to be stronger than others. As soon as an actor has found a somewhat more faithful ally, it can force another ally to become more faithful in its turn. “despite everything, networks reinforce one another and resist destruction. Solid yet fragile, isolated yet interwoven, smooth yet twisted together, [they] form strange fabrics.” (199)

The Pasturization of France

Beds of Chaoplexic Organization

It is not enough to say that bin Laden has performed a trial of strength and created allies, or that each of the cell groups have identified with his cause, and then carry out “the functions”. There is something more going on here. It is true that networks such as al Qaeda are resilient and reinforced (though their persistent media image as THE threat no doubt goes a long way in preserving and overstating this); yet this is not just a story of alliances. As Bousquet tells it, it is a story of patterns. It is the very distinct pre-Chaotic level of al Qaeda organization that the figure of its strength lies, such that it cannot be either predicted (only perturbed), nor destroyed (only fragmented). One suspects rather strongly that it is not even in the pattern itself that the whole causal story is told, but as well in the ideological substrate, the entire imaginary, affective pool of Middle Eastern, and indeed global Islamic realities, as well as very concrete political-economic stratifications, which serve as immanent possibility for such a Chaoplexic organization. It is not just that they are braided into alliances, but also that the ideological well-spring is rich enough that fragmentation does not kill operation.

In this way the initial conditions prove significant sources for the possibilities of Chaoplexic collectivity, whole-cloth ideational dispositions that work as a body upon which organization can express itself so as to arise with emergent (and fluctuating) powers of action. There is something more than actants and their transformations.

In this way ideology and economy serve as a kind of perspective intermediate stage between full-blown metaphysics (which once only had the State as its avatar), a pseudo-divinity of effects which is neither object (actant) or its relationships (network). Not a material plasma, but an affective/conceptual coherence between bodies that readies actants for a change in the degree of order/chaos ratios, hence adaptive intelligence. In a sense, al Qaeda structures exhibit the very radicality of democracy itself, perhaps governed (made possible via Negative feedback) as it is by other significant anti-Western cultural factors.

Addendum: Here is a interesting, well-summed blogged review by Chet Richards, over at Defense and the National Interest, an electronic source even cited by Bousquet, with mention of Boyd’s OODA loops which is perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book, something I hope to post on soon. Included in the review is link to the influential essay by Linda Beckerman “The Non-Linear Dynamics of War” (1999), also cited by Bousquet.

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