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August 13, 2016

The starfish and the spider


August 13, 2016

The carnage in Quetta tells us there is something just not right with the way we are fighting our war on terrorism. Experts may take umbrage at the temerity of those pointing fingers at the efficacy of the counterterrorism strategy of the state but the hard facts point towards the need for a reappraisal of our present approach towards countering this hydra headed menace.

What we need at this juncture is not energy-sapping polemics about capability and will but a different approach. Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstorm in their internationally acclaimed book, ‘The Starfish and the Spider’, draw out the lineaments of one such approach.

Our intelligence and counterterrorism apparatus needs to break out of the time warp of an outdated mode of counterterrorism that relies on an execution strategy that, despite its outward decentralised appearance, is highly centralised in essence.

We are presently targeting multi-cellular and amorphous terrorist outfits with a hierarchical and centralised organisational structure that is not as agile and supple compared to the threat to be countered. As per Ori and Beckstorm, the starfish is an organism that does not have a centralised nervous system and has a regenerative capacity. Consequently, it has better capacity to survive in a predatory environment compared to a spider that has a centralised brain with no regenerative capacity.

Today’s terrorists are organised like starfish. Starfish-like terrorist organisations rely on asymmetric warfare by denying spider organisations the organisational advantages of mass, brain, and technology. These deny the armies, police, intelligence agencies, and special forces the competitive advantages of mass, speed, and technology through reliance on low technology, innovation and a multi-cellular network whose efficacy does not decrease with the loss of individual cells.

Al-Qaeda, Isis Khorasan chapter, and some sectarian terrorist outfits along with their urban avatars in Sindh are such starfish organisations that draw their sustenance from five sources – circles, catalysts, ideology, hard-core network, and champions.

Starfish terrorists wreaking mayhem in Pakistan are open system organisations that have power and knowledge distributed throughout the organisation and do not die if one part is cut off. Like a starfish cut in half, which regenerates in two new halves, they have the power to mutate energised by an ideology that is subliminally internalised by all circles and nodes of a motivated network.

The champions in the system are individuals and ideologues who have the capacity to generate new ideas to combat governments and their counterterrorism apparatuses. In such organisations the circles of likeminded individuals are formed using the internet.

The catalysts are the charismatic leaders and initiators of a big idea that is then latched on by the members of the circle or network independently. The examples of James Wales as initiator of Wikipedia and Craig Newmark of craigslist are apposite as the main catalysts receded into the background having founded an idea.

An analogy can be drawn with Osama bin Laden who remained on the circle as a node having initiated an idea of global terrorism cleverly employing jihadi ideology. The leaders in these organisations prefer to stay incognito, having inflamed the passions of the followers unlike the hierarchical organisations. An atavistic instinct and a feeling of autonomous power sanctioned by an ideology motivates the foot soldiers and the planners alike, each one of them thinking and behaving as an independent entity.

So are we organisationally and ideologically prepared to confront such starfish organisations? The answer is no. Our intelligence agencies need to learn what the US counterterrorism planners learnt the hard way after unsuccessfully targeting organisations like Al-Qaeda with FBI, CIA, and Pentagon in hunter-killer mode.

To counter a starfish-like organisation we require a similar organisation that is non-hierarchical, autonomous, possessing power and knowledge at the lowest level. To asphyxiate such organisations we need to deny these the oxygen of their ideology and the strength of the ideas generated by their main ideologues. So are we doing any of the above? Partially and half-heartedly yes – but with full vigour, no.

We do not need organisations like Nacta to generate the big ideas on countering the virulent ideology of the terrorists. This job can best be performed by the local seminarians and the intelligentsia duly supported by the media and civil society.

Government and intelligence agencies cannot do that job just as a spider cannot kill a starfish. Similarly, the hard-core hunting and killing of terrorists cannot be done by the Rangers and Special Forces alone. We need people’s participation in the process. Our police and local population have to create cells organised like a starfish to hunt and kill terrorists while the ideological space is squeezed for them via a battle of ideas by religious scholars, local seminarians, prayer leaders, educationists, journalists, and intellectuals.

And lastly, any of the above would not be possible unless the state removes the genuine grievances of aggrieved segments of the population and creates meaningful stakes for them in the system of governance.

The writer is a PhD scholar at Nust.

Email: [email protected]



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