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Assessing the Dangers of Illicit Networks:
Why al-Qaida May Be Less Dangerous Than Many Think

Original Article By: Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Calvert Jones
International Security Fall 2008 vol 33 no 2
Major Topic: Politics
Minor Topic: Sociology


         The network has become the conceptual basis for making sense of terrorism and organized crime. There is a growing notion that the primary source of conflict in the world is between states and terrorist networks. Furthermore, it is sometimes claimed that states are losing to networks due to the advantages of networks over hierarchic state agents.

         The authors' thesis is that “the prevailing pessimism about the ability of states to combat illicit networks is premature.” (page 8)

         The impression of a network as conceptualized by the business world is too often and too haphazardly applied to illegal networks. Illicit networks must function differently from their business cousins in matters of community, trust, distance, coordination and security. Networks in business are very effective but illegal networks do not share the benefits. Consequently terrorist groups such as al-Qaida are hurt by problems arising out of such matters.

         The authors consider a network to be a network if four structural properties are present. First, as opposed to hierarchies, networks are flatter and decentralized. Second, networks have self-enforcing informal rules based on trust. Third, networks are based on person to person relationships. Fourth, networks' decisions are made primarily by consensus. Additionally, networks fall into three categories: 1) the chain network, 2) the “hub and spoke” network and 3) the all-channel network.

         The authors present five advantages to a network over a hierarchy:

         1) Networks are more efficient in communication and information processing and hence possibly more innovative.

         2) Networks are more scalable therefore networks can expand better and faster.

         3) Networks are more adaptable and can lead to meeting new requirements better and more quickly.

         4) Networks are more resilient due to higher levels of personal contact and trust.

         5) Networks have a higher and faster learning capacity.

         However, these benefits do not accrue to illicit networks mainly due to increased security concerns and other problems associated with their illicit nature.

         Considering communications and information: decentralization means that getting information may be slow, bothersome and problematic. These problems are aggravated by the excessive need of security due to the illegality of the network.

         Compartmentalizing, again for security, results in a “need to know” mentality when sharing and verifying information. Isolation further reduces the quality of information.

         Making good decisions in an illicit network is hampered by the need for security, resulting in slower communication and decisions.

         Grand strategy needs hierarchy to make all the parts work together for a common purpose. A network's structure is designed to limit strategic cooperation in favor of innovation. However an illicit network further handicaps strategic planning due to security concerns.

         Compartmentalization and isolation, again for security, coupled with consensus decision making lead to a high risk tolerance according to various sociological studies. This makes detecting and apprehending terrorist and criminal cells slightly more likely.

         Illegal networks cannot grow in size not adapt as well as their legal kin. Illicit networks cannot depend on “the boss” or the law to resolve internal disputes. They are too trust based such that internal conflicts will lead more likely to the splintering or dissolving of the network. History has shown a tendency for large networks to splinter or divide into new and smaller ones. This suggests that there is an optimal size for networks that is closer to the small end rather than the large end of the network size spectrum. Larger networks also seem to lose focus and their relative effectiveness diminishes with respect to smaller networks.

         In the business world, network links are relatively easy to change for adaptive purposes. However, in illicit networks, where links are often maintained by personal relationships based on trust and common bonds, breaking links, for the good of the organization but to the detriment of the individuals, is harder to achieve.

         Internal conflict is a problem in every organization but it seems more damaging when it occurs in trust based environments as opposed to law based environments. Coupled with the increased autonomy of networks, internal conflict can lead to more damage to the network than to a hierarchy.

         There is a catch 22 with communications in illicit networks. Psychologically separation by distance, without face to face communication, undermines group cohesion but the use of technology to overcome this detriment results in the increased likelihood of detection.

         Although networks are harder to attack due to their lack of an indispensable command center, it does not follow that they are more secure once attacked. The network may just fall apart. More importantly networks are, in theory, easier to infiltrate due to the difficulty of monitoring and vetting new recruits.

         Illicit networks, at the node level, can learn just as easily as business networks, however, knowledge and experience do not move up or along the network as easily or as well as in business networks. Consequently the organizational memory of the illicit organization will be informal, less reliable and smaller.

         As a case study the authors considered al-Qaida. It seems that al-Qaida was most successful as a hierarchy. It has consistently displayed all the enumerated detriments as it moved from a hierarchy to a network structure. Most of its plans have failed or been foiled. Today al-Qaida's succeeds as a brand name which gives inspiration. The authors cannot give any credit to the network that al-Qaida has become.

         In addition to the overwhelming force that states can bring to bear against an illicit network, states have advantages in information gathering and processing, training, memory and time. The weaknesses of illegal networks makes them easier to thwart by instigating doubt, suspicions and mistrust. Illicit networks are not the invincible, not even the super, enemies they are sometimes made out to be.

Added on: 2009-04-16 22:14:09
Précis by: James Jeff McLaren
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