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The S.P.E.C.T.R.E. of Terror, Inc.

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"Terror, Inc." (Part One | Part Two) drew an interesting reader comment over the weekend, one worth expanding on. "Code Slinger" writes:

"Have you considered how "Bond" this vision of the future of terror organizations is? In five years, will the IRA/FARC be distinguishable from SPECTRE?"

No... and yes. In order to make sense of that reply, let's look at 2 trends I covered - and 2 that I didn't.

-- The Trends --

"Terror, Inc." described the evolution of terrorist organizations from haphazard movements, to state proxies, and thence to independent existence. That isn't a future or a vision, it has happened and is happening.

The transition to independence has involved a sharp rise in the use of organized crime to raise funds, the creation of shadowy but sophisticated commercial networks, and advanced money management skills. Tying all of this together is the growing application of technology. Advanced technologies of a class usually thought of as reserved for nation states are well within their financial reach, and are being deployed. The Colombian cartels are believed to use mini-subs as part of their smuggling operations, for instance. Meanwhile, Moore's Law ensures that the same diffusion of computing and telecommunications technology that we see in our businesses, is also happening among organized criminals and terrorists.

So: (1) new organizational structures and tools for terrorist organizations that allow for professional management of distributed infrastructures and assets, plus (2) large-scale organized criminal activities as a critical funding backbone. "Terror, Inc." covered that in detail. Now add (3) weapons of mass destruction also becoming more accessible thanks to technical advances; and (4) the increasing clout and resources of non-governmental organizations, to a point where they are beginning to enter realms usually reserved for nation states.

-- S.P.E.C.T.R.E ? --

Put all that together, and stir in Neal Pollard's scenario re: terrorists or organized criminals inciting chaos in key political regions in order to create "safe zones" of criminal operations, and what do you get? If not James Bond's S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and its plots, something damn similar.

In fairness, this is not an original set of ideas. Jonah Goldberg's May 31, 2002 column in NRO dealt with this very issue:

"When you look around the globe you can see all sorts of candidates. Hamas operates as a nation-less state already, feeding and providing medical care for its supporters. Narco-terrorist groups in South America have de facto control over lots of geography. And you don't even need much geography at that. With modern communications equipment you could have some Pope of Badness ensconced in a villa in Switzerland barking out orders to his minions across the globe. Oh wait, that's actually how S.P.E.C.T.R.E. did things."
Along those lines, how about these 3 scenarios:
  • Shell Game Boom! Under pressure from a strong nation-state who is striking it in its semi-anarchic failed state sanctuaries, a criminal group with strong terrorist ties creates a local guerilla war with a revolutionary group as political cover, has them issue threats to strike against the forces of their common enemy, and procures or manufactures weapons of mass destruction. Their extensive smuggling links and local lab infrastructure help them insert these materials into the attacking nation or one of its key allies. Here's the twist - delivery is courtesy of a terrorist group that is not generally part of its network, but is known to oppose the attacking nation's actions abroad. The point is made, pressure on the attacking nation to withdraw rise sharply, and whom exactly does one strike back at?

  • Al Capone International, With Bigger Toys: A terrorist group with strong criminal connections seeks to create sanctuaries from which it cannot be bothered. Aside from the usual payoffs, it also creates political groups in its customer-states, supported by local profits from the drug trade etc. Following the well-marked trail of corporate "astroturf" (phony grassroots) campaigns and acting in part through local charities that solidify neighbourhood support, strong campaigns are launched to ensure that taking serious action against their sanctuaries abroad is seen as too risky, unclear, and immoral. Selective blackmail at the political level reinforces these points. Meanwhile, governments around its sanctuaries receive some small-scale demonstrations of the group's weapons of mass destruction capabilities via isolated attacks. The threat is then conveyed that unless the host governments play ball, they'll see more. As control over its sanctuary regions and their resources tightens, geopolitical leverage is added to the strengthening criminal network and the political connections growing in key customer-states. Soon, the terrorist group seeks to grow similar "safe sanctuaries" in those customer states as well.

  • 4GW Judo - Let's You & Him Fight: Under pressure from a strong nation-state with the power to harm it, a terrorist group with strong ties to narcotics seeks to inflame tensions between its enemy's allies or other regional powers, possibly leading to a war in which weapons of mass destruction are used freely. This will either create so many complications that its attacker cannot persist, or allow the terrorist group to take control in the chaos and acquire come of these WMDs and delivery systems. Oh, wait. That one's being tried right now.

If you consider 4th Generation Warfare (4GW) to be a real phenomenon or trend, the conclusion that we'll be fighting S.P.E.C.T.R.E.-type organizations in future as serious adversaries is almost inescapable. Indeed, the looming clash with "The Axis of Evil" is all about pushing the day when these kinds of organizations get weapons of mass destruction further away. Yes, part of that war is indeed about defeating Islamism, and we need to be clear about that. An equally important facet of the war really is about terrorism, however. Specifically, it's about drastically thinning the ranks of state sponsors for terrorist organizations, in order to slow the rapid growth in terrorist capabilities.

-- The Bad News --

So James Bond is our future? No.

S.P.E.C.T.R.E. is, but James is not. There are no scriptwriters working to save us, and in reality James would make a lousy spy. Derring-do and suave world-saving? Nuh-uh. This is going to be a set of back-alley brawls whose defining properties will be their intensity and viciousness, not to mention their uncertainty.

Perhaps the following table will help to illustrate some of the other important differences:

James' villains ...Our future adversaries...
  • Undertook dramatic thefts of destructive devices
  • Would rather bring the pieces together in secret
  • Issued dramatic threats
  • Will work to keep even their major actions deniable
  • Used the threat of mass destruction to gain power and wealth
  • Will use power and wealth to gain the threat of mass destruction
  • Were easy for James to infiltrate
  • Aren't
  • Demand large payments from governments, officials, and businesses in order to buy protection
  • Make large payments to governments and officials in order to buy protection, and own many businesses
  • Plot and execute from exotic locales, which serve as the hub of a wider network
  • Plot and execute from within one's own country, with links to a dispersed wider network
  • Are funded by enemy governments and eccentric billionaires
  • Have access to large-scale, ongoing cash flow from legal and illegal businesses that extend beyond any one individual
  • Can't seem to pull the trigger when necessary
  • Can, easily, and will
  • Are clearly "bad guys" who present no major dilemmas in terms of going after them with "license to kill"
  • Unless our attitudes change, don't count on this. Non-Islamic foes of this type, merged with transnational criminal syndicates, will create deep schisms on the left and right as polities try to deal with them
  • Are clear foes of our intelligence agencies
  • May have gotten their start as friends of same

This isn't going to be easy. Conventional armies will be only one piece of the puzzle, albeit a necessary one. Expeditionary units, raider units, and special forces will grow in importance within our militaries. So will the role of good intelligence, at both the domestic and foreign levels. Running like a thread through all of this will be questions of empire and colonialism, and the nature of our society and its freedoms at home.

-- The Good News --

Government jokes aside, there are solid reasons why criminal syndicates are not the dominant governing class worldwide. As terrorist organizations turn more heavily to crime as a method of finance and operations, their priorities and the people they attract both change. These changes tend to reduce the organization's appetite for risk, for instance, because a terrorist group and a criminal syndicate are fundamentally in business for different things. Crime and the people it attracts also shrink one's support base, and make ambitious political goals harder to achieve (even as they make limited political goals easier). That can come back to bite the terrorists later if they push things too far, and suddenly find that their anticipated support base isn't there. Like state aid, criminal fund raising also has its share of strings. They're just less obvious.

Second, despite the impressive figures cited in "Terror, Inc. Part 2," there is finite space in the criminal firmament. While major criminal groups from the Yakuza to the Mafia to the Russian "thieves within the code" are increasingly cooperating on a global level, it's a delicate balance. If too many well-armed groups start trying to carve out their own niches, the balance that currently maintains relative non-aggression between international criminal syndicates could be destroyed.

Should criminal syndicates and terror group wannabes find themselves at odds, they will find each other to be formidable foes. Here's hoping.

-- The Future --

Major warfare between nation-states, with set-piece armies, isn't going to go away. I talk about 4GW here on Winds of Change.NET because its importance is rising fast. Reading this piece, you may have a renewed grasp of why this is so. Still, don't confuse that insight with a belief that all future warfare will fit that description.

Having said that, it's also clear to me that Osama Bin Laden and his ilk are not unique in the problem they pose. Future enemies driven by rational hostility, less blinded by ideology and with a greater ability to move through Western states, could create long-term situations that are threatening and corrosive in ways that Islamism could never hope to be. Worse, as these groups' capabilities grow, changes to their power hierarchies could represent sudden trouble on a whole new level.

Preparing for those eventualities will test our civilization in new ways. It will test not only our brains, but our will and unity. Not just our military, but our culture and values. Think through the full implications of these trends, and the possible responses to them. If you can't come up with plausible cases for at least 2 conclusions that surprise you, you probably aren't thinking hard enough.

The ground is shifting under the feet of the nation state as a political entity. Real structural changes are in the offing, of a kind that can create a very different world. Are we up to the challenge? I don't know. What I do know, is that there is no scriptwriter behind the scenes to ensure a happy ending.

WE are the scriptwriters. Happy endings are NOT guaranteed. And the drama is just beginning.

1 Comment

If not James Bond, can we at least set up a real world counterpart to the (book, not movie) secret agent Matt Helm?

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