The Lessons of the Virus

A terrorist organization is a network — a loosely affiliated group of nodes that exhibit emergent properties as they form, execute a task, and then disband. Their organization fits within the standard model of modern complexity theory: nodes of prominence emerge naturally as the forces of coevolutionary development (namely, natural selection and auto catalysis) battle it out. That is to say that terrorists are, in a sense, born not made (and no, I don’t mean that as a slight on Arabs or the Islamic culture).

Open source and complexity theory hold strategic keys to managing risk in the age of terrorism.

The Internet is also a loosely affiliated group of nodes that exhibit emergent properties. In fact, if the structures of the two organizations were lined up side by side, they would be nearly indistinguishable. As such, that which seriously damages the Internet could teach us tactical lessons about damaging a terrorist network.

The Nimda virus hurt the Internet more than corporations are willing to acknowledge. This sucker impeded performance, and certain systems are still cleaning up. A virus temporarily brought a portion of the Internet to a crawl: our first clue.

Terrorist networks are distributed intelligence. They do not respond to attacks of command and control architecture — tank battalions are pretty useless. Hacks against computer networks, on the other hand, provide a blueprint for harm:

  1. OK, so Nimda didn’t do this in theory, but in practice it might as well have. For a terrorist network, this means physical destruction of camps, training centers, and monetary sources (and cell members, if possible).

  2. Begin a denial-of-service attack.

Nimda — at its core — did this on an individual node basis, occupying servers with its incessant spreading. Translating this to terrorism requires some creativity. A denial-of-service attack is essentially a request for information. The analogy in the terrorist lexicon is similar to gathering intelligence at such a rapid rate that they become alerted to your encroaching presence — on a repeated basis. This forces the network to constantly seek to reorganize connections to maintain viability.

This is where the Internet analogy incorporates complexity theory. The life cycle of a complex system (be it terrorist network, ecosystem, or Internet) runs as follows:

  • Initial conditions build to a point wherein autocatalysis (self-organization) occurs among the existing interactive elements. The autocatalysis leads to an organizational network of prominence, wherein certain nodes gain levels of importance over other nodes. The key here is the process — the value and viability of the system is its ability to interact node-to-node.
  • Information is generated in the process between nodes, and it is at that point that the coevolutionary drives kick in. (We see this in terrorist networks in loose actions that ripple across cells that do not actually know each other — the operation only becomes viable as the nodes process interactions with each other).

  • The system, once organized, will evolve to encourage maximum levels of diversity. The system will push itself to the edge of chaos as it seeks to remain viable. Systems on the edge achieve maximum productivity (viability) but become increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic events, which push them into a reorganizational state equivalent to extinction. Alternatively, systems that do not reach this edge become rigid in their responses to information. This brings their extinction rate to 100 percent.

  • The dynamic nature of the terrorist network implies that it lives on the edge of chaos — a network whose viability depends upon its ability to rapidly respond to incoming information. The network is therefore vulnerable to repeated deluges of assault — not in the physical sense but in the intelligence sense. By forcing the network to adjust to ever-tightening circles of intelligence, it’s required to respond more rapidly to information requests — effectively setting up a denial-of-service attack. Insistent, aggressive intelligence forces the network to expend its energy reorganizing and ensuring survival rather than pursuing its mission.

  • This will push the network over the edge of chaos and into a state of disarray. Whether it is able to reorganize is anyone’s guess.

So the terrorist network can be fought.

For business, this means distributed approaches to organization are now doubly important. And, while I hate to admit that we can learn from the open source movement (if only because Eric S. Raymond wrote the single most asinine piece of the decade in response to the terrorist strike) — well, it’s true. We can.

Related reading