Terrorism, State Failure, and Reorganization

Science fiction writer, journalist, and green design professor, Bruce Sterling writes about the shadow of globalization and Global Guerrillas John Robb’s weblog about – “Networked tribes, infrastructure disruption, and the emerging bazaar of violence. An open notebook on the first epochal war of the 21st Century.” His analysis is fairly similar to what the MA scenarios group thought about state breakdown. Sterling writes on a 2005/2006 state of the world web discussion:

There’s a lot of meritorious analysis going on [Global Guerrillas], and it’s very counterintuitive by 20th century standards, and that’s a good thing, because this isn’t the 20th century. It’s not about state-on-state violence any more; it’s about the emergent global order versus failed states. The victory condition for global guerrillas is a failed state. And there are lots of global guerrillas and huge scary patches of failed and failing state right nows. And the Disorder and the Order physically interpenetrate; globalization melts the map; there are physical patches of state-failure even inside the most advanced states.

However, there is a nascent order inside the failure, too. People who live in conditions of failure can see what justice, law, and order look like. They see that on those satellite dishes, they get news about that every day from the many, many people who flee the Disorder and become new global diasporas.

Yugoslavia went to pieces; it’s not going to reunite, but the pieces are being subsumed into something better-organized, the EU. Lebanon was a hell-all Iraqi-style mess for 13 solid years; suicide bombers even drove the US troops offshore in a scarified, humiliating retreat. But ‘the terrorism as extreme sport thing’ died away in Lebanon, not because it was put down with American bayonets, but because, in lurid reality, it was inherently unstable. The terror’s not gone completely from Lebanon; there are still carbombs killing leaders there; but, with time and personal experience, the population lost their taste for general mayhem. When your society is run by profiteering warlords, it’s a major drag. Even the warlords themselves get tired of the Sword of Damocles. It’s just no way to live. It stinks every single day.

The Disorder is not self-sufficient; it is the dark shadow of the Order. It can’t exist without the Order, it is parasitic. It lacks productive capacity; it can’t feed itself and clothe and shelter the populace. If a state truly and utterly fails and it isn’t propped up by the ordered states outside, local people become refugees and starve to death, they die of epidemics.

A nonstate like Somalia, which also defeated the US, survives only because Somalis, many of them in the US, send money home.

So, you can lose an asymmetric engagement with an enraged population if you invade their territory. But they’re not going to get it together to re-invade your state in return. Terrorists are not a state, they’re not tyrants. They don’t have any of the organizational mechanisms needed to run states. They can’t accumulate and manage enough resources to put together a functional military. And wherever global guerrillas do try to settle, they soon find they have to pull up stakes and move somewhere else.

And, though they’re doing really well in Iraq and the borders of Pakistan, electronically linked networks of guerrillas have a hard time surviving in organized states with a functional police force. Having email and a website doesn’t make you Zorro. Laptops get captured. Cellphones get tapped. Conspirators get rounded-up. I never heard of an Al Qaeda guy ratting out his pals for reward money, but their gizmos betray them all the time.

Not only do they blow themselves up, but they’ve got a high burn-rate in arrests whenever they settle in any area with an honest cop on the beat.

In this conversation, we’ve been describing a world where (a) warm and fuzzy bohemian networks vanish instantly and (b) evil, demonic terrorist networks thrive hugely and indefinitely, but, dark sentiments aside, there’s a logical disconnect there. Those two things can’t happen both at once, that’s just not possible. Bohemians aren’t terrorists, but networks are networks, globalization is globalization. The technosocial forces that shape these historical developments, they’re not trying to make things as bad for us as they can: they’re impersonal forces.

This era too will pass. And when it does, who will sum it up? Try to name a single positive legacy of any kind that Al Qaeda has left to anybody. A building, a bridge, a novel, a piece of music, a movie, a style of clothing, even. If they all blew up tomorrow, who would miss them in the future?

Time is not on their side.

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