Brad Crane: Are you endowing these bees with human motives? Like saving their fellow bees from captivity, or seeking revenge on Mankind?
General Thalius Slater: I always credit my enemy, no matter what he may be, with equal intelligence.
~The Swarm, 1978
It’s “Time to Worry,” says Christopher Dickey’s Newsweek article. Al Qaeda is now using swarm intelligence to organize terrorist attacks. This means that even interagency information sharing – which has been grudgingly improving since 9/11 – will not be adequate against an enemy with an increasingly decentralized leadership. The race is one of adaptation.
In the article, Dickey portrays a beleaguered and overwhelmed intelligence community who feel “blind” to imminent attacks within the United States. Part of the problem stems from government officials “believing that the only really valuable information is the intelligence it’s paid millions, even billions, of dollars to obtain.” In other words, putting faith in *experts and specialized knowledge. Such narrow thinking leads to two vulnerabilities: 1.) an inability to see “the forest for the trees,” and 2.) knowing without sensing.
Doubtless many terrorist attacks have been prevented due to the domestic efforts of the Homeland Security and the foreign efforts of the military. We remember Tom Ridge, first secretary of Homeland Security, warning us back in 2004 “we have to be right more than one billion times per year, while the terrorists only have to be right once.” The irony, however, is that they have been so successful at monitoring “chatter” and isolating “sleepers” that it has cultivated a perfect environment for Al Qaeda’s organizational transformation. Since 2001, we have seen a difference in the type of terrorism attempts (the ones we are aware of anyway). Gone are the days of leadership-planned, well-coordinated attacks like those carried out on 9/11 by an organized group. From the Shoe Bomber (2001) to the Underwear Bomber (2009), attempts are now perpetrated by individuals acting independently.
The first reaction to such botched attempts is to have the impression Al Qaeda has been reduced to desperate, and slightly inept, individuals. However, even if that were the case, given time and the right conditions, the swarm of terrorists will develop an intelligence of their own. As mentioned in a previous post, Dave Snowden suggests that there are the three such conditions under which innovation thrives within a complex adaptive system (swarm): starvation of resources, pressure and perspective shift.
We are already seeing evidence these conditions are producing both more innovative leaders and spontaneously coordinated attacks. “The new leaders are now showing the imagination, determination, and organizational ability to carry out attacks on America,” writes Dickey. Such “invisible leaders” may very well lead a self-organized swarm attack as was witnessed in Mumbai, India and Kabul, Afghanistan. In his Op-Ed The Coming Swarm, John Arquilla suggests that Americans should learn from these swarm attacks and not write off the possibility it could happen on U.S. soil:
This pattern suggests that Americans should brace for a coming swarm. Right now, most of our cities would be as hard-pressed as Mumbai was to deal with several simultaneous attacks. Our elite federal and military counterterrorist units would most likely find their responses slowed, to varying degrees, by distance and the need to clarify jurisdiction.
~John Arquilla, New York Times (February 14th, 2009)
Complexity science, derived from nature itself, tells us that swarm members need not communicate directly to accomplish their goal. All it needs, in order to self-organize, is a unified sense of purpose, and Al Qaeda has that for sure. But within complex adaptive systems is a saving – or condemning – paradox. The great “melting pot” of diversity that is America’s strength must also be forged together in one purpose if it is to have any hope of knowing and sensing the enemy among us.
*Our next Book Review will be about the problem with trusting “experts” as we look at David H. Freedman’s new book Wrong: Why experts* keep failing us–and how to know when not to trust them *Scientists, finance wizards, doctors, relationship gurus, celebrity CEOs, … consultants, health officials and more