Social networks and the war on terror

For those interested in the role of networks in contemporary warfare, Chris Wilson’s recent Searching for Saddam: A five-part series on how the U.S. military used social networking to capture the Iraqi dictator in Slate is worth reading. Wilson provides an accessible account of social network analysis and the manner in which interconnections can be mapped. His account of the construction of link diagrams to identify those that were harbouring Saddam after he had been deposed from power in 2003, resonates with much that has been written about the relationship of networks and contemporary warfare.

Wilson’s account touches on several of the classic tropes of what John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt called ‘netwar‘. For example, he outlines the contrast between hierarchical organisations and horizontally affiliated networks.  This transition from the vertical to the horizontal is a common trope of discourses on networks and netwar. For example, Arquilla and Ronfeldt argued that “netwar differs from modes of conflict and crime in which the protagonists prefer to develop formal, stand-alone, hierarchical organizations, doctrines, and strategies”.1 Mary Kaldor has similarly argued that so-called  ‘new wars‘ are characterised by horizontal affiliation rather than hierarchical organisation.

Wilson’s story also points to what Arquilla and Ronfeldt referred to as the “blurring of offense and defense”. 2 That family networks are both a source of insurgent violence and protection emphasises Arquilla and Rondfeldt’s point that networks blend offensive and defensive capacities. This blurring is said to lead, moreover, to the most problematic feature of networks, namely that they tend :

to defy and cut across standard boundaries, jurisdictions, and distinctions between state and society, public and private, war and peace, war and crime, civilian and military, police and military, and legal and illegal. This makes it difficult if not impossible for a government to assign responsibility to any single agency—e.g., military, police, or intelligence—to be in charge of responding.3

This defying of ‘standard boundaries’ is exemplified in the way that the basic tools being used to capture Saddam can be used both to supply intelligence to a military campaign and for social networking such as seen on facebook. The ambivalence (literally ambi-valence) of the network means that it defies the boundary between the connectivity of friendship 4 and the destructive, deconstructive dynamics of warfighting. This ambivalence is, of course, precisely why networked entities are confusing and ambiguous. And why Arquilla and Ronfeldt note the difficulty the military and police will have in understanding their transgressive nature and isolating the threats they are perceived to pose.

However, in addition to being an excellent illustration of the various arguments about the potential of networks in the contemporary era,  this is also a story about the power of the network as a discursive trope. In other words, this article shows that the network is becoming a powerful trope organising the thoughts of those engaged in counter-insurgency. I have noted elsewhere that the discursive trope of interconnection associated with networks has driven practice in the US military in particular directions. In particular I have argued that it leads to a radical expansion of battlespace. Previously , for example, cities might have been regarded as a territorial zone to be avoided by forces for both ethical and operational reasons. However, the trope of the network encourages engagement with nodes in a web of interconnection rather than the assault and occupation of territorial zones. This leads to an expansion of what might be considered legitimate battlespace. Just as the target of military operations shifted from Iraq’s armed forces to its family trees, so network centric warfare has shifted from the invasion and occupation of spatial zones to the application of force to perceived nodal points, wherever they may be. 5 The network – whether it is a genuine empirical phenomenon or not – is thus an important discursive trope guiding the organisation of violence in the contemporary era.

You can see a further discussion of the role such network analysis might play in the war on terror based on Wilson’s Slate article here.


  1. Arquilla, John, & Ronfeldt, David, ‘The Advent of Netwar (revsisited)’ in Arquilla, John, & Ronfeldt, David, eds., Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy (RAND, 2001), p.6
  2. Arquilla & Ronfeldt, Networks and Netwars, p.14
  3. Arquilla & Ronfeldt, Networks and Netwars, p.14
  4. putting aside for the moment any reservations about the depth of the connections established through social networking
  5.   Of course it could be argued that network centric violence such as the Shock and Awe assault on Baghdad is, by virtue of being targeted, preferable to the area bombing that characterised Allied assaults on cities such as Dresden and Tokyo. Of course discriminate targeting is preferable to indiscriminate bombing. But the question is more that of the perceived legitimacy of targeting the city. Area bombing has largely been viewed as  illegitimate in the wake of re-evaluations of WWII practice. At present the idea of striking nodes – particularly because it is perceived to be proportionate and discriminating – is seen as legitimate, even if it means striking right at the heart of cities. This is not a matter of whether one type of violence is better than another, but rather whether the discursive trope of the network has essentially made all targets legitimate and thus removed any previously existing proscriptions that existed for ethical or operational reasons.

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One Response to “Social networks and the war on terror”

  1. Nate says:

    Hey Martin, regarding the trope of networks expanding the battlespace, you might want to look into a report by the Reut Institute in Israel. Indications seem to be that they are an influential security/policy think tank and they’ve now identified international networks which criticize Israel as an existential and national security threat — as much as or more than Iran.

    They’re lobbying — apparently with some success — for the government of Israel to begin targeting activist networks in key “hubs” around the world which criticize Israeli actions. We’re getting lots of press about the “friendly” side — the Foreign Ministry trying to get Israeli travelers to be PR bodies for them. But classifying these networks as security threats suggests we’ll also eventually see a more hostile side, whether that means infiltration, accusations based on planted information or whatever.

    You can find the report online here:

    They claim an alliance of the “radical European left, Arab and Islamic groups .. negate Israel’s right to exist based on a variety of political and philosophical arguments”.

    Israel has long infiltrated and harassed international and NGO groups inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip (and now there’s even some targeting of Israeli groups and their funding — see the recent scuffle around the New Israel Fund). It will be interesting to see what they do now that they’ve begun targeting international groups.

    It certainly suggests your point — that the idea of the network tends towards an expansive conception of the enemy and of valid battlespaces.