Nada, a former CIA analyst, examines the recent attack in Libya and what it means for the future of US counterterrorism:
That said, watching for the evolution and alignment of these small, like-minded groups is important, but it is a problem that we, as a nation, understand. It was from relatively small-scale attacks against “soft” diplomatic targets in Iraq that Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi first made a name for himself and his loosely knitted network in jihadist circles. After joining al Qaeda in 2004, Zarqawi leveraged funding, personnel and the brand to galvanize support for his operations. Still, Zarqawi remained focused on engaging U.S. forces inside of Iraq, which at times did not align with al Qaeda’s central leadership strategy of executing attacks on US soil. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been rumored to have a possible role in the Benghazi attack. Even if AQIM played a role in the attack, the intelligence collection challenge remains in targeting small, loosely affiliated groups that act as the executioners with localized agendas.
This is great stuff and something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. In some respects this recent explosion of violence seems to show al Qaeda increasingly taking on architectural characteristics of other loose network threats such as Anonymous and the Occupy Movement. It’s not like they are left with many options since organizational structure essentially equals death.
The hacker group Anonymous illustrates the threat posed by these networks perfectly. The upside is that, so far at least, these networks are generally less threatening than the model embodied by al Qaeda at its strongest. The real threat is in the unpredictability of their reach and action. With the benefit instant global communication they can recruit, coalesce, and strike with relatively little effort or central planning. It is also difficult to measure the number of sympathizers or people who self-identify as members. And of those, how many of them will resort to violence or some sort of disruptive action? Their distributed nature also allows them to stage attacks from nearly any spot on the globe or to strike many places at once. So, they aren’t an existential threat but they are quite difficult to pin down and they are capable of catching you off-guard quite quickly.
Despite the advantages inherent in loose networks there are limiting factors that work against them. One weakness inherent in all of these groups is their reliance on technical means for communication and coordination. Anonymous needs its IRC, Jihadists have their forums, and Occupy has its vast array of websites, twitter channels, and video feeds. All of these are deep wells of easily exploitable intelligence that will be leveraged by law enforcement and intelligence organizations to keep these groups in check. In the end the most unpredictable and potentially dangerous threat lies in those small cells of competent true-believers who are skilled enough to evade detection.