Opinion

OPINION | NIALL FERGUSON

It takes a network to defeat a network

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The word of the week has been “network.” I have lost track of the number of times I have read that a terrorist network carried out last Tuesday’s lethal attacks in Brussels. The same is now being said about Sunday’s massacre in Lahore. Terrorists used to belong to “groups” and “organizations.” Increasingly, however, we say they belong to networks.

This is more than a matter of semantics. We stand no chance of defeating the Islamic State if we fail to understand the significance of its being a true network. President Barack Obama declared recently that “killing the so-called caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is one of the top goals” of the final year of his presidency.

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The president is so proud of his achievement in authorizing the assassination of Osama bin Laden that he thinks he can decapitate ISIS by the same means. But the point about a network is that you cannot easily decapitate it. It is not a hierarchical structure, with an all-powerful leader at the top.

Media depictions of the terrorist network responsible for the Brussels attack typically show around six people. But this, too, misrepresents the problem, because these people were part of a much larger network.

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The fact of the matter if that most of people who use the term “network” have no idea what it really means. So let’s begin with the six degrees of separation. You don’t know Khalid el-Bakraoui, one of the Brussels bombers. But you know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows him. That is because of the remarkable way that we as a species are socially connected. Each of us is no more than six degrees of separation away from everyone else on the planet. The sociologist Stanley Milgram called this “the small-world problem.”

In some ways, of course, it is not a problem at all. Our ability to connect over long distances is the reason that good ideas spread. The trouble is that networks are just as good at spreading bad ideas as good ones.

Although people speak of ideas “going viral,” there is in fact a difference between, say, Ebola and Islamic extremism. Viruses spread indiscriminately, seizing every available pathway. Ideas spread only when we as individuals consciously embrace them. Still, that process can seem like an epidemic, depending as much on the structure of the social network as on the quality of the idea itself.

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Think of ISIS as the Facebook of Islamic extremism. When it started out in 2004, Facebook was just a bunch of nerdy Harvard undergraduates. Today it has more than 1.5 billion users. When ISIS started out in 2006, it was just a bunch of Iraqi jihadists. Today, according to data from the Pew Research Center, ISIS has a minimum of 63 million supporters — and that is based on opinion polls in just 11 countries.

Only a very small minority of members of the ISIS network need to carry out acts of violence to kill a very large number of people indeed. Naively, the US government talks about “countering violent extremism.” But what makes the network so deadly is precisely the non-violent extremism of the majority of its members. Some preach jihad: they are the hubs around which clusters of support form. Some tweet jihad, with each tweet acting as a link to multiple others nodes. Non-violently, the network grows.

True, some networks are vulnerable to targeted attacks on key hubs: that is true of the world wide web, for example, or the power grids in some countries. But if the network is sufficiently decentralized — and I suspect this one is — then even a hundred drone strikes against its supposed leaders would not destroy it. Indeed, they might even strengthen it by reinforcing the martyrdom mania that is central to its ideology. ISIS may turn out to be “anti-fragile” (in Nassim Taleb’s invaluable term): our attacks could make it stronger.

This poses a terrifying problem for all governments, as the ISIS network, though densest in the Middle East, is now global. Yet there is a solution. During the decisive phase of the surge in Iraq, as he battled to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq — the forerunner of ISIS — General Stanley McChrystal had an epiphany: “It takes a network to defeat a network.”

Consider Britain. Anyone who still thinks that it would help matters for Britain to leave the European Union has not been paying attention. Underfunded and overstretched it may be, but Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, is at least the beginning of the network Europeans need to build if they are to stand any chance of beating ISIS.

Just as McChrystal broke down the silo walls of American military bureaucracy, turning Joint Special Operations Command into a war-winning force, so today the West’s intelligence and security forces need to get networked as never before.

It takes a network to defeat a network. Those eight words — McChrystal’s Law — are the true lesson of Brussels and Lahore.

Niall Ferguson is professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.
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