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The value of "least tech" or "most efficient tech" in subverting complex civilian systems


I had a recent opportunity to comment on John Robb's The Dark Side of the Long Tail, an application of the work of Chris Anderson and others on the effects of globalization, new production tools, and the Internet in shifting market dominance in certain industries from a few providers (which in terms or warfare would be called nation states) to a long and sustaining 'tail' of niche suppliers (such as terrorists and criminal gangs).

In support of applying this shift of a "limited, truncated distribution of violence" (force projection by nation states) to various nonstate actors, Robb presented three trends:

  1. A democratization of the tools of warfare. Niche producers [are] made possible by the dislocation of globalization. All it takes to participate is a few men, some boxcutters, and a plane (as an example of simple tools combined with leverage from ubiquitous economic infrastructure).
  2. An amplification of the damage caused by niche producers of warfare. The magic of global guerrilla systems disruption which turns inexpensive attacks into major economic and social events.
  3. The acceleration of word of mouth. New groups can more easily find/train recruits, convey their message to a wide audience, and find/coordinate their activities with other groups (allies).

I offered this clarification to point 1, that the simplicity was not in the box cutter but in the elegance of the surveillance that identified a box cutter as a sufficient means to gain the ends:

I would submit that the key is not the simplicity of the box cutter but the richness and patience of the sustained surveillance that preceded the attack, a surveillance trajectory that went through a process of broad information gathering, target evaluation and selection, advanced target surveillance once selections were made, et al. Their asymmetrical surveillance process is designed to gather actionable information while reducing discovery prior to putting the attack into motion. They did not use an assault rifle because they were able to determine that a box cutter would suffice, i.e., they used no more complexity than the task demanded.

Nice datum: In a discussion of supposedly low-tech highjackers using box-cutters, the authors of Safe: The Race to Protect Ourselves in a Newly Dangerous World cautioned against such simplistic thinking, punctuating it with an example of the terrorists paying close attention to US airline procedures and airframe peculiarities. They say that they are the first to document that the hijackers found that the collision avoidance systems could be turned off in a Boeing but not in an Airbus, thus they only hijacked Boeings.

In their surveillance, they were anything but simplistic, and it is that surveillance maturation that I submit that we are not now attempting to detect and counter. Such a failure will only guarantee the arrival of one or more shooter teams.

Robb agreed, noting that:

Terrorists are increasingly able to substitute thinking for weaponry. This is done by transforming civilian systems into weapons. In this new model low tech weapons + good planning + complex civilian systems = an attack on par in damage with the best weapons systems of the western world.

My follow-on was:

Agree with the concept of "transforming civilian systems into weapons" as it offers maximum efficiency at minimized cost and risk of disclosure and execution. For your readers, however, I would like to substitute "least tech" or "most efficient tech" in your equation of 'low tech weapons + good planning + complex civilian systems = an attack on parů' as we cannot lull ourselves into believing that adversaries will only use low tech solutions (augmentations) in order to achieve their aims.

11 September is an excellent example in identifying generic control of a flight deck for terrorist aims as the critical path to success, not necessarily a low tech process. Box cutters were only a means to gain access to, and control of, the flight deck. Following is a snippet from an earlier Low risk terrorist access to the flight deck:

"Terrorist supply chains, or asymmetrical attacker Supply chains, are not built for commercial efficiency but for detection avoidance at least until the attack is in progress. The terrorist risk calculus is not based so much on survival as on mission success. In terms of using aircraft as weapons, the critical path in the terrorist chains has been access to, and control of, the flight deck. [The] plan that matured into the 11 September airliner attacks started as the attempted purchase of light twin aircraft that were to be modified for aerial spraying (but in this case the liquid tanks were intended to transport flammable materials onto the target rather than spraying). Only when that plan failed, did the attackers turn to airliners. Control of the flight deck remained the critical path element.

Post 11 September, airline passengers are now alert to the fact that they will be part of the missile, rather than being held for some form of ransom, and so are much more likely to resist the hijackers. Given that risk to mission success, where is the next least defended flight deck? Three that come to mind are: Freight and cargo aircraft, Bizjets and executive jets, and Medivac and executive helicopters."

In closing I noted that this was not a scenario-based analysis but a risk-based process analysis. Scenario planning is consumptive of resources, ultimately paralytic as to 'protect everything is to protect nothing,' yet usually misses the scenario that delivers the payload.

Safe: The Race to Protect Ourselves in a Newly Dangerous World
Martha Baer, Katrina Heron, Oliver Morton, & Evan Ratliff
HarperCollins, 2005

Gordon Housworth

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