Accelerated swarming; Mumbai is just the beginning

March 3, 2009

Military theorist John Arquilla (author of Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy and several other excellent conflict and war studies books) argues in the New York Times that Mumbai style terrorists attacks are likely to become more frequent and more successful in the coming decade.

“The basic concept”, he writes, “is that hitting several targets at once, even with just a few fighters at each site, can cause fits for elite counterterrorist forces that are often manpower-heavy, far away and organized to deal with only one crisis at a time.”

Arqilla cites current US counter terrorist strategy that plans for up to three sites being simultaneously hit and using “overwhelming force” against the terrorists, “which probably means mustering as many as 3,000 ground troops to the site.”  He suggests that in an age of force multiplication, networks, and flexible fighting styles, this is the wrong strategy and doesn’t bode well for security in modern megacities.

Nightmare possibilities include synchronized assaults on several shopping malls, high-rise office buildings or other places that have lots of people and relatively few exits. Another option would be to set loose half a dozen two-man sniper teams in some metropolitan area — you only have to recall the havoc caused by the Washington sniper in 2002 to imagine how huge a panic a slightly larger version of that form of terrorism would cause.

John Robb over at GlobalGuerillas agrees.  He writes,

The reason we will see more swarming is due to the pervasive influence of decentralized organizational forms, like open source insurgency, on warfare’s evolution.  Swarming is a characteristic of these loosely connected organizations.

Robb suggests we’ll be more likely to more sophisticated and ambitious attacks soon, which “ventually attempt complete and sustained urban takedowns”.  Scary thinking, and while Robb argues there is little we can do, Arquilla suggests using similiar tactics will be an effective countermeasure.  These include smaller, more flexible, less centrally controlled response teams with more individual autonomy and less connection to HQ.

Implications for humanitarianism?  Expect more Mumbai-style actions in your home town soon.  Just as small, flexible, semi-autonmous rapid response teams could be needed for a military response, might the same model work for humanitarian response?

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