ISIS: A Self-Organizing Superorganism Threat?

While analysts have recognized a plethora of emerging non-traditional threats to national and international security there has been a consistent effort to portray them as objects. Notably the Global War on Terror brought confusion since the stated objective was to eliminate a means of conducting attacks. In fact, it was elimination of terrorists that was the objective. Using the snake model of counterterrorism, military action focused on elimination of key leadership such as Osama bin Laden. The premise was that decapitation would disrupt or significantly degrade the entire organization. However, it has become apparent that there was no terrorist snake. Rather, lurking treacherously was a virulent Hydra capable of constant regeneration and multiplying.

As the threats are perpetually morphing government agencies are relegated to constantly playing catch-up. Most analysts assume that recognizable structures for their adversaries must exist. Further they tend to anticipate that opposing organizational structure will follow the rules normally associated with Western social order and inherently are hierarchical in nature. After attacks there is a search for the architect that they assume must be present. The reality is that these attacks, even coordinated ones, do not require highly skilled leadership at the operational level. That means, though popular with news media, the proverbial "mastermind" need not exist to orchestrate terrorist activities.

To understand such terrorist organizations the model of a superorganism may be useful. Note that being a superorganism does not impart fantastical powers or assume the entity to be omnipotent. Rather it refers to a complex structure comprised of elements that could not behave at higher levels independently but exhibit specialized functions. The results are not achievable by any element acting independently and often are synergistic. Ant colonies and bee hives are often cited as biological examples. In countering terrorists slime mold may be a better fit. Slime mold is made up of many unicellular organisms and requires moisture and nutrients to survive and seems to possess intelligence even though devoid of a central nervous system. Fonticuli in particular, during periods of prolonged drought, gathers together to form tubercles that reach into the air. The cells in lower stem sacrifice themselves. The uppermost dehydrated cells detach and get blown by the wind until they come to rest in an area with the requisite moisture for continued survival of the species.

The corollary for terrorism is that many of the slime mold cells voluntarily commit suicide to support the greater goal. Obviously unicellular organisms do not have the higher-order mental capacity to make the conscious decision necessary for their act. Instead they follow relatively simple codes that are intrinsic to their species. The codes may be as unsophisticated as binary instructions (if A, do B). Analysts need to consider that suicidal terrorists too may be following simple instructions. Our general assumption is that self-preservation is innate and a supreme edict. Thus, an act of suicide entails thought processes that override nonpareil human programming. Both ISIS and al Qaeda have employed suicide bombers extensively. Motivations of both fear and revenge have been cited by some of those failed attempts who were captured alive. To understand the outcomes we should assume that some of the successful suicide bombers are following options deemed attractive to them by simple logic patterns, albeit by ones we judge perverse.

So too should analysts consider that attacks by terrorist cells or individuals may be coordinated with relatively rudimentary preplanned instructions. The pervasiveness of information technology makes such acts of violence ever easier to execute. Even logistics are simplified as instructions for commercially available materials for explosive devices can be found readily on the Internet. While enhanced civilian encryption capabilities and use of the "Dark Web" are now blamed for lack of threat intelligence, the reality is that the need for direct coordination between elements is not necessary. Similarly there is no need for continuous senior-subordinate relationships between terrorists desiring to execute an attack and their mentors. The lack of "chatter" intercepted before the November incidents in Paris suggests a planned reduction in communications. Globally, terrorist groups have become aware of the vaunted communications intercept capabilities of the NSA and similar organizations. It has been an expensive lesson for them as their leadership has been systematically decimated for missteps in communications procedures. As with organized crime, burner phones and face to face contact has provided some increased, but not total security.

During World War II the OSS perfected a method for contacting agents operating in occupied territory. Once dropped behind German lines agents listened to the BBC every night. Blind transmissions provided them with instructions. As an example a friend of mine, Sully de Fontaine, heard such a broadcast. Coordinating with the French Maquis and while escorting survivors of a downed bomber crew he was informed via a broadcast to stay in place as the Allied Forces were about to liberate their area and they did not need to travel any further.

Unwisely the U.S. and several European countries have allowed some of their citizens to return after spending time with ISIS in Syria or Iraq. Exactly how many have come back is unknown, but the number is sufficient to exceed the resources of government agencies to keep track of them. Openly ISIS has advised sympathizers to stay in place and act locally. As current terrorist organizations have demonstrated exquisite social media skills, their ability to transmit blind messages must be assumed.

This technique for activating "sleeper cells" is far from perfect but good enough to create grave concern and place overburdening demands on internal security forces. The November attacks in Paris demonstrated several aspects of this thesis. Reportedly there was little chatter about the impending actions that was sufficient to raise alarms. Horrific as they were, the toll could have been much higher had the suicide bombers targeting the stadium gotten close to the spectators before detonating their vests. Notably some people were used as support staff with no awareness of the impending activities. And finally, most of those involved in the attacks were killed, just as they had anticipated. This operation was small suicidal teams, little communication, logistically simple with minimal need to coordinate yet yielding catastrophic results.

It appears that ISIS also exhibits the qualities of a self-organizing entity. That is it emerged from disequilibrium of smaller elements, each focused on a common objective yet unable to fulfill its destiny without support. Chaos theory discusses self-organization in terms of islands of predictability in a sea of chaotic unpredictability and Syria and Iraq embodies those qualities. Self-organization of ISIS was partially spontaneous in response to the existing conditions some of which tie directly back to the imprudent actions of Paul Bremer when he assumed power in Baghdad. Of specific note was the dissolving of the Iraqi military and purging all former Baathists which left many skilled former officials in untenable positions (intelligence and warfighting expertise with no job).

A dichotomy that exists is the ISIS appears to both have geographic territorial ambitions while having subcomponents physically not associated with the central organization. Specifically there are elements spread from Libya to Afghanistan with loyalty pledged from Boko Harem in their struggle for control in northern Nigeria. It appears that membership in ISIS is volitional and thus self-organizing. In addition foreign fighters from many countries willingly join the conflict even though the casualty rate is extraordinarily high and recruits not well treated. Most amazing for most Western observers is the number of women who choose to join and marry ISIS members whom they have never previously met.

As a self-organizing entity these attributes are typically robust and able to survive and, even, self-repair substantial damage or perturbations. This has been demonstrated during the persistent bombing missions that have taken a substantial toll on leadership and logistics. Still, after more than a year of relentless targeting by allied forces, their strength is estimated to remain constant as their ability to reach their adversaries has increased as in the downing of the Russian airliner flying from Sharm el Sheik and suicidal attacks in Paris. With ideological inspiration ISIS is now credited with attacks in 18 countries, several in Europe plus Canada and as far away as Australia.

As I wrote a decade ago, the nation-state is a failing concept, albeit a tenacious one. A fundamental prevarication began over a century ago. Based primarily on European edicts, the land masses of the world were subdivided and designated as "counties." This was orchestrated for the benefit of the exploiters and not that of the inhabitants of the area. While deemed pragmatic at the time those actions have precipitated many of today's conflicts. As a matter of structural and philosophical considerations nation-states became the fundamental building block for interactions between geographic areas as well as internal governance.

In the post-Cold War era circumstances have emerged that strained many of the previous designations of nationhood. As an example, Yugoslavia, a once formidable and relatively stable country, disintegrated as subelements sought and obtained autonomy. So too did Czechoslovakia split. Farther east Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine based on cultural similarities.

Always tumultuous, Africa experienced the formal creation of the Republic of South Sudan as it broke away from its pervicacious northern neighbor. Mali has endured serial civil insurrections with the nomadic Tuaregs while several countries of the Sahel face sovereignty challenges from Boko Haram. In the Middle East the Kurds, reliable allies of the U.S., sought autonomy in Iraq and engaged in conflict with other contiguous countries hosting their large numbers of their homogeneous ethnic populations. Examples abound as globally the trend toward tribalism has become pervasive.

As devolution of the nation concept accelerates, loyalty primarily based on the geographical happenstance at birth can be assumed no longer. Nationalism has given way to tribalism in the most complex meaning of the word and the joining of tribes volitional in many settings. The technical advancement and proliferation of information technology (IT) has fundamentally exacerbated the significance of alternative and competing belief systems. Most important, it allows linkage and agglomeration of geographically dispersed entities based on ideology in ways not previously possible or envisioned. This was exemplified by Syed Farook, an American born and raised Muslim, who spread terror throughout the country with his heinous murders in San Bernardino. With Farook IT provided direct contact with fundamentalist terrorist ideology and facilitated coordination with Tashfeen Malik, a foreigner, who became his wife and assisted in the attack. Hardly an isolated case, Farook's attack was preceded by Major Nidal Hasan (born in the U.S.) at Ft. Hood, Texas and Muhammad Abdulazeez (naturalized citizen) in Chattanooga, Tennessee which is now officially a terrorist incident.

A decade ago it was predicted that in the near future it would be believe systems that would become the predominant factor for macro-social organization, even trumping biological relationships and propinquity. The trend is now emergent. Traditionalists struggle to evaluate occurrences based on old models of systems behavior. The evolution of ISIS suggests that we need to examine a newer model including self-organization and the role of superorganisms. Even at that, destroying a concept will be far tougher than physically killing the leaders.