Live by the Network, Die by the Network

May 2, 2011

Two points in the initial reports of the death of the Obama Bin Laden caught my attention.

From The Cable at Foreignpolicy.com

“One courier in particular had our constant attention,” the official said. He declined to give that courier’s name but said he was a protégé of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and a “trusted assistant” of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a former senior al Qaeda officer who was captured in 2005. “Detainees also identified this man as one of the few couriers trusted by bin Laden,” the official said.

The U.S. intelligence community uncovered the identity of this courier four years ago, and two years ago, the U.S. discovered the area of Pakistan this courier and his brother were working in. In August 2010, the intelligence agencies found the exact compound where this courier was living, in Abbottabad, Pakistan….

“When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw,” one official said. …. The compound was 8 times larger than the other homes around it. It was built in 2005 in an area that was secluded at that time. There were extraordinary security measures at the compound, including 12 to 18 foot walls topped with barbed wire. There were other suspicious indicators at the compound. Internal sections were walled off from the rest of the compound. There were two security gates. The residents burned their trash. The main building had few windows.

‘The compound, despite being worth over $1 million, had no telephone or internet service. ‘

The key tool of intelligence has always been the detection of network flows – interception of mail has a very long history – even without being able to read the content who writes to who provides important information.  Today monitoring of telephone traffic, money, data movements are the staples of surveillance.  The implications of this for covert organization has been obvious for quite a while – the key to survival is to not just hide these connections but to avoid them completely.

It looks like bin Laden managed to minimize the risk of compromise by his electronic connections but was still done in by his social connections. He protected himself from the electronic network but his social network still gave him away.

Incidentally there is a well established line of thought about covert organization in the face of surveillance that connects groups as diverse as Al Qaeda, American survivalists and British animal rights activists. The theory of ‘leaderless resistance’ was originally put forward put forward on the American extreme right. In the Al Qaeda context Abu Musab Al-Suri (see Lia 2008, Sageman 2008) explicitly rejected hierarchical organization in favour of autonomous cells. In this model the leader broadcasts guidance to autonomous groups and by avoiding connection minimizes the risk of detection.  This line of reasoning also suggests that the implication of the death of bin Laden should be sought at an ideological and narrative level not an operational one.

Lia, B. (2008) Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al-Qaeda Strategist Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri. New York: Columbia University Press. Sageman, M. (2008) Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-first Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


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