Monday, November 08, 2004

The Banner of Zarqawi

Ralph Kinney Bennet at Tech Central Station asks why Zarqawi should fight for Falluja and whether his men have not already melted away to other Sunni towns in the face of the imminent American strike.

The legendary Arab insurgent leader T. E. Lawrence described the characteristics of a guerrilla force as "speed and endurance, ubiquity and independence of arteries of supply." The "ubiquity" of al-Zarqawi and his fighters - their presence as a force to be reckoned with in Iraq -- will be severely compromised or eliminated if they choose to stay and fight in Fallujah.

One partial answer is that Zarqawi will fight for Falluja for the same reasons he wanted it in the first place. Anecdotal evidence in April 2004 suggested that many bunkers had been built. The secondary explosions from US strikes over the last days implies that a lot of explosive has also been stored up. Zarqawi had invested quite a lot of effort into Fallujah and he would have done this only if it were valuable to him. The interesting and apparently paradoxical thing about terrorism -- which is often characterized as rootless and spectral -- is how rooted it is in sanctuaries, an apparent indication of their utility. Whether South Waziristan, Pankasi Gorge, the Bekaa Valley, Fallujah or the banlieus of Paris, terrorism apparently needs some locus in order to exert a material force.

In Dark Networks the Belmont Club referred to idea of the Dunbar Number, which John Robb and others have related to terrorist networks. Robb observed:

Distributed, dynamic terrorist networks cannot scale like hierarchical networks. The same network design that makes them resiliant against attack puts absolute limits on their size. If so, what are those limits?

A good starting point is to look at limits to group size within peaceful online communities on which we have extensive data -- terrorist networks are essentially geographically dispersed online communities. Chris Allen does a good job analyzing optimal group size with his critique of the Dunbar number.

His analysis (replete with examples) shows that there is a gradual fall-off in effectiveness at 80 members, with an absolute fall-off at 150 members. The initial fall-off occurs, according to Chris, due to an increasing amount of effort spent on "grooming" the group to maintain cohesion. The absolute fall-off at 150 members occurs when grooming fails to stem dissatisfaction and dissension, which causes the group to cleave apart into smaller subgroups (that may remain affiliated).

Al Qaeda may have been able to grow much larger than this when it ran physical training camps in Afghanistan. Physical proximity allowed al Qaeda to operate as a hierarchy along military lines, complete with middle management (or at least a mix of a hierarchy in Afghanistan and a distributed network outside of Afghanistan). Once those camps were broken apart, the factors listed above were likely to have caused the fragmentation we see today (lots of references to this in the news).

Chester says more or less the same thing in commonsense terms.

... the sanctuary of weaponry, local political support, command and control infrastructure (however sophisticated), and ready ties to cash sources cannot be picked up and moved. I've touched on this earlier when I mention why I think Zarqawi is still in the city. I'm not saying that small bands of insurgents can'tleave, posing as civilians and setting up shop elsewhere. What I'm saying is that by doing so, they will completely cut themselves off from command and control from above, and will no longer be able to mass in a single place. The US won't let this happen again. Therefore, if some small groups do leave, even if they are successful afterwards in some bombings or beheadings, eventually they will run out of steam without the logistical, moral, and command support that can be readily found when they have coalesced in a physical place.

Lawrence's Arab guerillas always had a base, -- their tribes -- fixed in concept yet mobile as camels and his perennial difficulty was keeping the tribes in the field in the face of pastoral demands. It was a difficulty Lawrence did not surmount until he obtained sufficient gold from General Allenby to keep his warriors in funds, for ride where they would, the desert legions could live only for as long as somewhere, their tribe existed. When Falluja is taken, Zarqawi's tribe will be dispersed, to meet furtively by the roadside perhaps, but never to muster under their full banner again.