Sunday, August 31, 2008

The new terrorist?

Martin Amis is one whose writing (op-ed at least) I have some admiration for. He is clear. He is concise. He sets out his position with logic and precision. And so it is with his most recent Economist article.

That does not mean that I necessarily agree with him.

History is accelerating; and so the future becomes more and more unknowable. Among our foremost thinkers, we find only one presentiment that is universally shared. This turns out to be a sinister variation on the idea of "convergence." Not the convergence of nations and polities, whereby the world's autocratic regimes would gradually align themselves with the democratic and contentedly globalized mainstream. This particular expectation, even neoconservatives now concede, was a triumphalist fantasy of the 1990s -- that curious holiday from what Philip Roth has called "the remorseless unforeseen."

The convergence we have now come to anticipate is the convergence of international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction -- of IT and WMD. ... Their convergence is guaranteed by the simplest of market forces. Marginal costs will fall; and demand will climb.

Now I confess that on first reading, I missed IT as “international terrorism” and automatically substituted the more everyday meaning. Even then, the link between IT and WMD and international terrorism is even more substantive than Amis portrays it.

Amis gives as his example of the first WMD attack on the US as Ivins’ small anthrax “bomb” and follows with the potential of 1000 kg of anthrax spores distributed from an aircraft (better ban the importation of NZ FU-24s and derivatives – perfect for the job!!).

The idea ranks with that of the container-load of polonium with a small bomb inside. Not as a fission weapon but as a means of rendering a comparatively small but highly populated area (such as Manhatten or San Francisco or San Diego) totally lifeless.

Now follow the Amis argument through – I am not going to repeat it here. That is not because I think his logic is wrong. Far from it. The only dispute that I have is the nature of the “convergence” to which he applies the logic.

Al Qaedaism, for them [John Gray and Philip Bobbitt], is an epiphenomenon -- a secondary effect. It is the dark child of globalization. It is the mimic of modernity: devolved, decentralized, privatized, outsourced and networked. According to Mr. Bobbitt, rather more doubtfully, Al Qaeda not only reflects the market state: it is a market state ("a virtual market state"). Globalization created great wealth and also great vulnerability; it created a space, or a dimension. Thus the epiphenomenon is not about religion; it is about human opportunism and the will to power.

At this point, ask the question –

“What is the greatest vulnerability of the US and the western world in general?”

This is where Amis missed – IT. No, not international terrorism; Intelligent Technology.

If you wish to get truly paranoid about terrorism and its potential impact on the western world, just think for a few moments on the increasing dependence on IT as part of our daily activities. What impact would a DDOS (and if you do not know what DDOS is then you should find out) attack have on Wall St? What impact would the failure of American banking IT systems have on the nation and the wider world? Sorry, can’t use your credit card because...

Not that that idea is new...

Dan Ronco was a long-term IT executive as a General Manager with Microsoft, Senior Principal with Laventhol & Horwath and President, Software Quality Management. With degrees in Chemical Engineering, Nuclear Engineering and Computer Science, his understanding of technology and its implications is exceptional. Dan is the author of two thought-provoking science fiction thrillers, PeaceMaker and the newly released Unholy Domain.

PEACEMAKER, a start-at-a-dead-run SciFi thriller, is set in the near future, where software revolutionaries are pushing artificial intelligence to the brink of terrorism. The prologue plunges software architect Ray Brown into a life-or-death contest with PeaceMaker, a deadly artificial intelligence that has infected most of the world's computing devices. Ray's determination to eliminate PeaceMaker leads him into a dangerous conflict with the Domain - a clandestine organization dedicated to a new world order.

Let’s roam a bit further.

Recent IT (not international terrorism) articles have warned of the dangers inherent with the most recent telephone systems, especially those built around WAN/WAP principles – like the iPhone. It has been found possible to “infect” these with the equivalent of your everyday “computer virus”. The warnings thus far have centred on privacy, banking and credit card fraud. But if a cellphone can be infected in this manner, what is the potential for a bug capable of performing widespread disruption of communication systems?

The crux of Amis’ logic is the meeting of “marginal cost” with fanatical desire for power. I have no argument with that. He is right.

By far cheaper than enriched uranium, by far more widespread and hence effective in disrupting western society than fission weapon or anthrax, is the IT bomb. Yes, the former might kill far more people but in the overall scheme of things the damage would be “limited” in both extent and cost. But imagine what 20 million infected telephones might do to New York if they all decided to “call in” or TXT at the same time. Continuously. For three days. Easy to fix, I know – turn the cellphones off. All of them.

Putting Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme out of commission is difficult? How do you prevent the same level of research and effort into the development of IT weapons? Bomb Iran?

Banking systems would not fail at the mainframe level. They don’t need to. They rely entirely upon the transmission of data - communication – of everything from the multi-billion dollar international corporate deal and settlement, to the petrol purchase at the local gas station. Not being able to get that data assembled and processed would in very short order create chaos in technicolour.

Having to re-equip anything from banking to telephone or traffic control systems because of the “damage” caused by invasive and destructive programmes would have far greater impact on the foundations of our societies. That kind of disruption need not be continuous. It need only be there for an afternoon or even an hour; not one afternoon or hour but once a week or at random. It is the disruption that creates the mayhem not the duration.

So, all in all, quite a disappointing article from Amis. He has gotten so close to the mark yet (if I may be permitted the metaphor mixture) missed by a mile.


Dave Justus said...

We have seen some coordinated cyber-attacks recently, most likely originating from Russia. Georgia was under a cyber-seige as well as a conventional attack. Other incidents of this nature have been reported as well.

I don't think though that it is terribly likely that a terrorist group like Al-Qaida would find a cyber attack all that appealing. Part of what they are doing is creating a narative drama, with bodies as the props, and a cyber attack doesn't carry the message they are going for.

However, a single hacker could do a lot of the damage you have described, and obviously a system with the backing of a powerful nation state could be quite scary (I imagine that the U.S. through the NSA could do quite a number on a computerized enemy.)

That being said, I think you are a little pessimitic regard the speed that somewhere like Wall Street or major banking systems or major cell carriers would be able to restore service and if not solve, at least route around the problem.

The probligo said...

"...a cyber attack doesn't carry the message they are going for. "

Not necessarily so. Alqaeda is not the only possible threat. They are the most visible at the present time. Consider too that there are others such as the "Russian mafia", or extremeist groups opposing "globalisation", and the picture becomes much more murky.

I like the way that Americans think - good/bad, us/them. It always reduces the "opponent" to a generalised singularity. Amusing but sad.

Dave Justus said...

"I like the way that Americans think - good/bad, us/them. It always reduces the "opponent" to a generalised singularity. Amusing but sad."

After all, generalizing, like for example charactizing everyone from a certain count as just thinking one way would be something someone from an enlightened nation like New Zealand would never do.

I freely admit that I didn't address Russian mafia or anti-globalization groups. As I explicity said, I was talking about groups like Al-Qaida, the only really successful and signifigant international terrorist group current existant.

If we want to include the Russian mafia (not really a terror group as far as I am concerned, although certainly criminal) I could see that they might target a specific business as a means of gaining extortion money, but a large scale attack on financial institutions wouldn't be in their best interest and they would have no motive to do so.

As for anti-globalization groups, I can see a single hacker with this sort of motivation, but generally speaking this wouldn't really fit the anti-globalization organizations that I am familiar with. While they often advocate illegality, it is more the publicity seeking civil disobediance kind. I imagine that their are fringe groups, but the very nature of them being small fringe (of an already finge segment) makes them not really 'international terrorists' which is the subject of discussion. In any event, there is no anti-globalization group that I am familiar with that would qualify as an international terrorist organization.

Perhaps though you are thinking of something different then I am when that term is used. What do you consider to be the meaning of the term international terrorist group/organization?

The probligo said...

Personally, I think that the term "international terrorist group/organization" is somewhat overblown. It is the product of the (understandable) public reaction to 9/11 fuelled by the political hype and rhetoric of the time.

For me, alQaeda is no more than a gang of (very dangerous) criminals. Their motives are no less criminal than those of the Russian mafia (as supported by sections of the Russian administration); no less dangerous than Pol Pot as a political force.

You ignore the "anti-globalisation" (and read here "anti-capitalist" as well) at some peril. Whilst not "dangerous" in the same way as alQaeda or similar organisations they are able to put a very powerful and sometimes violent force on the ground at getherings such as the G8 meetings.

Think of it this way Dave. What were bin Laden and alQaeda before 9/11? A small and "disorganised" bunch of religious nutters. Look at them now.

The probligo said...

On reflection over a cup of tea this morning it occurred to me that I could have chosen in place of the Russian mafia, Pol Pot, and anti-globalisation such organisations as -

Cosa Nostra
Columbian drug cartels
DGSE (the French organisation responsible for sinking Rainbow Warrior) and Mossad
IRA (that is tapping history as well I know) and UFF.
Tamil Tigers

Of those, the most likely to move from "local" to international would be the drug cartels and COsa Nostra. DGSE and Mossad are both proven state-sponsored terrorist organs given that they are "mission specific" rather than indiscriminate.

"a single hacker could do a lot of the damage you have described... can a single suicide bomber. Remember Richard Reid? McVeigh?

I think you are a little pessimitic regard the speed that somewhere like Wall Street or major banking systems or major cell carriers would be able to restore service ..." they did in the New York blackout (or the Auckland one for that matter :o ) some years back. Oh but then I guess that things have changed since then, huh! Every one has much better technology, much better systems protection.

Dave Justus said...

Certainly not enough attention was being paid to Al-Qaida before 9-11, but it wasn't their debute performance. They had blown up embassies, attacked a U.S. warship, seized defacto control of a sovreign nation, ran perhaps 10,000 people through training camps and had a wide spread and fairly sophisticated fundraising network, as well as fairly sophisticated communications and counter-intelligence programs. The organization was specifically designed to be international in nature, with global goals and scope.

Your other examples frankly don't fit that very well. This is not to say that some of them don't present dangers, or that they don't need to be dealt with, but they are not really all that similar to Al-Qaida.

DGSE and Mossad or course are part of sovreign nation states, not extra-national groups. While I am sure they could manage cyber attacks, they belong with Russia as I already mentioned, or the NSA, not a terror group. Different things.

The Cosa Nostra and the Columbian drug cartels are focused on monetary gain. That motivation dramatically changes what activities are useful and desirable to them. Destroying the international banking system, for example, would wipe out their wealth along with everyone elses. Certainly they can be violent, but for the most part they play within predictable established rules.

FARC, the IRA, the UFF, and the Tamil Tigers are are nationist organizations, not internationalist. The most obvious effect of this is that they are not likely to attack anyone outside their own area of contention. None of them would (even at the height of their activity) gain anything by launching a cyber attack on Wall Street, for example.

I could further argue with your description of some of the groups, most pointedly any reasonable person understands that sinking the Rainbow Warrior was a botched sabotage rather then an act of terror. Mossad is also not a terrorist group, anymore then the Aukland police are, even though I am sure that the Aukland police sometimes scare people.

The Anti-Globalist/Anti-Capitalists can indeed be dangerous. I don't discount them, but I think it unlikely that a cyber attack such as you describe would appeal to them very much. Like Al-Qaida, a good portion of the motivation for their activities is the drama and theater of the thing. The medium is the message if you will.

That certainly doesn't imply that they are not dangerous, just that like other groups, the way they will be dangerous is largely constrained by their motives. A Drug cartel wouldn't explode a nuclear weapon in a major city, no profit in it, but Al-Qaida probably would.

The probligo said...

... and so we declare war on them, in exactly the same way as we declared war on drugs, war on communists in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile ... and with as much effect.

How many Palestinian suicide bombers are reacting to Israeli policies and actions?

How many alQaeda operatives take up the cause because of US actions in ... (name whatever you like; primary would be support for Israel as I read it. Remember that 9/11 was before Iraq, not after.).

When do you think the US will win the war on terror? Next year? Next decade? Next century? It took the Brits and Irish some 90 years to get Ulster and Eire to take the heat out of their historical bellyaches. Some of those "wrongs" went back about 400 years.

Just think - the next millenium might see the end of the war on terror!

"A Drug cartel wouldn't explode a nuclear weapon in a major city, no profit in it, but Al-Qaida probably would."
Depends entirely upon how desperate you make them. If US invades Columbia to set things right, who knows what might be the consequences? Admittedly there are not as many desperate Columbians as there are Islamoextremists. Perhaps we can thank the Spaniards for that.

Dave Justus said...

I'm afraid I can't follow the theme of your last comment. You seem have jumped in in the middle of a thought and then to be stringing things together that have nothing in common.

As for your last paragraph, I suppose you could posit that it the U.S. invaded Columbia (who is a strong ally of the U.S...) then perhaps some of the cartel could be patriotically inspired and turn there resources to insurgent activity, which might include attacks upon American cities. In that regard though, they arn't any different then any other Columbian who has resources (such as a regular business man) and might become motivated in some patriotic manner. I suppose that their Drug running might give them some useful skills, but it is still a bizarre example.

The probligo said...

So, we get to the point where the only dangerous "international terrorists" are the ones that directly attack the US.

OK, so be it. All the others (like the Sudanese, the Sri Lankans, the Thai, Columbians, Venezuelans, Lebanese, and the rest) can solve their own problems. When we get to the nub, as I hear you saying it Dave, the only terrorists that are worthy of the name are those that attack the US on its own soil.