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The Virtual Enemy

Five years have passed since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington of September, 2001, yet it seems that policymakers have learned little about how terrorist cells operate, and what their weaknesses are. The Bush administration still uses the phrase “war on terror” and behaves as though it really is a war, the ordinary kind where one government fights another. Yet after five years of military exertions, strategies based on targeting a united aggressor have only made the situation worse. It is time to understand the new, emerging model of conflict.

In order to make the “war” paradigm fit, the Bush administration alludes to al-Qaeda as a centrally directed enemy. In fact, there is now no master planner or funder of terrorist activities. The Madrid, London, and Bali attacks, as well as several thwarted operations in the United States and Britain, were all characterized by their dispersed organization. Independently generated plots emerged and used ad hoc resources, often within the target country.

Those small operations also lacked a common internal design. Terrorist motivations differ from cell to cell, even from person to person. Individuals can be involved for profit and power, or for political and religious reasons, while others participate for hate or thrills. Moreover, there are vast differences in terms of risks, rewards, and imperatives as one moves up the organizational chain, or jumps from cell to cell. Conventional military models are geared to decapitate something that, in this case, has no head.

The characteristics of this new structure have already been studied in a very different context. Terrorism is a violent version of an “agile virtual enterprise.” A virtual enterprise is any small group that self-assembles into an organization that is just large enough to accomplish the collective intention.