Ori Brafman, Rod A. Beckstrom
September 15, 2006
FIVE YEARS after 9/11, al Qaeda continues to run wild. It's easy to blame an unfocused administration's diversion of resources to Iraq. But what if it really comes down to the surprising power of starfish? Cut off a starfish's arm, and not only will it grow a new one, but the severed arm will regenerate into a whole new starfish. This amazing feat is possible because a starfish is decentralized; its internal systems are distributed and replicated across each arm. Like a starfish, al Qaeda is decentralized -- more similar to Alcoholics Anonymous than to a traditional army. No one really runs AA. Anyone can start an AA group. The only thing that binds AA members together is a shared ideology. No one has ever waged war on AA, of course. But we can learn a lot from two lesser known starfish organizations that proved immune to attack.
In the 1980s, headlines told of radicals waging a secret war, of hidden cells and of the FBI's inability to do anything about them. They weren't talking about al Qaeda, but about the Animal Liberation Front, which took direct action on behalf of animals (i.e., broke into labs). Some applauded the ALF's efforts; others condemned them. But the FBI wasn't able to contain these tofu-eating activists. The more aggressively the ALF was pursued, the more easily it recruited new members.
Like AA, the ALF lacked formal leadership, top-down hierarchy and structure. It was just a loose collection of informal circles linked by common beliefs. But its seemingly chaotic structure made it incredibly resilient to attack. The ALF drew its power from its decentralization.
Back in the 1580s, the Spanish were the ones surprised by the power of a seemingly chaotic starfish enemy. They had easily conquered the Aztecs and Incas -- impressive civilizations with elaborate infrastructure and strong leadership. But now the Spanish encountered the Apaches. For 200 years, the Apaches withstood Spanish (and later Mexican and American) attacks. Unlike the Aztecs or the Incas, the Apaches were a distributed society. Instead of cities, they had small villages; instead of formal structure, loosely connected groups. Instead of powerful chiefs, they had Nant'ans (the most famous of whom was Geronimo), who led by example. When the Spanish burned a village, the Apaches moved on; when they killed a Nant'an, another tribe member would take his place. The harder the Spanish attacked, the more decentralized -- and resilient -- the Apaches became.
When you fight a starfish, traditional tactics won't work. There's no headquarters to bomb. Remove the leader, and another one will replace him. Eliminate circles, and new ones will spring up. But there are three strategies that will work against a decentralized foe: Change ideology. Eliminating al Qaeda's leadership and taking out individual cells is futile. But, by establishing schools, providing services and creating cultural bridges, we can counter the ideology that fuels al Qaeda. Centralize the opponent. Why did the Apaches finally lose, after two centuries of independence and insurrection? As compensation for moving to reservations, the Americans gave the Nant'ans cows to distribute among the tribe. With this scarce resource came real, as opposed to symbolic, power. As a result, the Apaches became more centralized, and therefore much easier to control. Rather than pursuing al Qaeda's leaders, we can look for ways to centralize the organization. Decentralize ourselves. "It comes down to a game of soccer," a senior special-ops officer told us, describing U.S. efforts to combat terrorism. "It's like handing a soccer team a pigskin and expecting them to be able to play football. But it's a different game with different rules." The kind of forces that could defeat al Qaeda would look much more like special-ops units than a centralized army.
History teaches us that a battle with a decentralized opponent has a different set of rules. As we sit here believing that we're playing soccer, we're quickly losing the most important football game of our age. It's time to pick up the ball and play with a new strategy.
Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom are co-authors of the forthcoming book, "The Starfish and the Spider" (Portfolio / Penguin Group).