Brave New War

By Edward Cone  |  Posted Tuesday, May 01, 2007 08:05 AM
 
 

John Robb likens the United States to Microsoft, and its networked antagonists in the age of global terrorism to open-source developers. And that's just one of the scary thoughts that emerge from a discussion of his new book, Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization, just out from Wiley.

Robb, an Air Force veteran and former Defense Department counterterrorism expert, also has worked as an analyst for Forrester Research and as CEO of Userland Software, the blogs-and-RSS pioneer founded by Dave Winer. He blogs at Global Guerrillas.

His book posits an Army of Davids -- with the traditional nation state in the role of Goliath.

"The state used to be the monopoly provider of security, with the ability to crush all competitors for lethal force," Robb said in a recent conversation. "It's not like nation states are going to disappear, any more than open source is going to eliminate Microsoft -- the company will still do well, but it won't be a monopoly anymore."

Technology plays a key role in the new era of "individual superempowerment," says Robb. "High tech used to require a significant investment, but not anymore. Now we live in a globally connected world with a huge network that is neutral in moral character -- it can be leveraged for lots of great things, or used for warfare."

"We're at the point in the curve where small groups can fight nation states, and acquit themselves pretty well. The trend will move closer and closer to the individual, to the point where one man can potentially declare war against the world, and win."

It may sound apocalyptic, but Robb is a contrarian when it comes to some familiar nightmare scenarios. "I didn't want to come up with threats off my fear list, the movie plot threats," he says. "I wanted to find what was changing in warfare, where it would take us. These things don't just come out of the blue, they are tested and refined."

Loose nukes, for example, may cause isolated catastrophes, but "there's no way small groups or individuals can replicate the huge manufacturing base and expertise requirements for a meaningful nuclear program."

More of a threat, says Robb, will be biological attacks. "That knowledge is more ubiquitous, and the tools for manipulating it are undergoing the same process as Moore's Law -- it's highly informational in character, and lends itself to computing power. You'll probably see the tinkering and replication that allow the development of weapons."

Another area of concern: attacks on infrastructure, like the recently-foiled plot to destroy Saudi oil fields. "I don't think attacks are coming directly to our shores as quickly as people fear," he says. "I think most attacks will be on systems, from a distance. Al Qaeda is focused on systems disruptions." But much-predicted efforts to cripple Internet may be less likely, because of its resilient nature and because the terrorists need it themselves.

The new, empowered terrorists aren't just anti-American Islamists, says Robb. Already they are emerging in places like Nigeria, Brazil, and Mexico, often funded by the illegal drug trade. Still, "Iraq is like the Spanish Civil War of this era, the preview of what's coming. We see the insurgents there learning fast, with a rapid innovation rates around things like IEDs. The science of networking is very much in effect."

What can we do? Technology is a key template. "We need more resilience at the community level," says Robb. "Backup systems and alternative sources of supply. A bird flu epidemic could mean six months with nobody in the office -- are you set up for that kind of remote work?"

His advice: simplify and plan to route around problems. "We focus on economies of scale and reward specialization, but there's not a control system complex enough to manage the whole global system. You can dampen the shocks by simplifying your processes and planning to switch around as needed."

More centralization of government power is a road to ruin, he says. "We need a more resilient approach, that allows for more community participation in security, and more connectivity." Special ops forces, cooperation, and rapid response to threats are all critical as well.

Sound familiar? Says Robb, "A lot of what we've learned in the past 20 years about technology is incorporated into this viewpoint."