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The Lion, the Starfish and the Spider

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The Lion, the Starfish and the Spider

by Chief Warrant Officer 3 Bruce E. DeFeyter

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.”1

Today policy-makers, law-enforcement officials and military leaders struggle to come up with innovative ideas for neutralizing terrorist organizations and their activities. One such idea, not given much thought until after Sept. 11, is attacking terrorist financing structures, methods and sources.2

Attempting to destroy terrorists by denying them financing or interrupting their money stream is unlikely to succeed as a sole point of effort for at least three reasons. First, organizationally, terrorists are structured to slip behind, around and underneath centralized organizations, rules and bureaucracies. Second, terrorist organizations can conduct operations for literally pennies on the dollar, and any serious effort to interrupt these financially insignificant activities will have serious second- and third-order effects on the larger financial community. Third, even with the thousands of laws enacted and the historically unprecedented cooperation between partner nations, terrorism continues to escalate by nearly every conceivable measure.3 Bluntly put, counterterrorism financing reform simply doesn’t work.

This is not to say that the United States and the larger worldwide community should ignore terrorist financing — instead, it should take a different approach, using the lion, the African predator, as a model. In order to understand the predator model, we need to define who our enemy actually is and understand the three reasons given above for the failure of financing reform. Only then will we be able to structure a more effective mechanism for interdicting terrorist organizations through their financing rather than by trying to starve them out of existence.

Define the enemy

In any conflict, it is imperative to understand exactly who the enemy is. It is generally understood that terrorism is a tactic and not an organization or group. Consequently, if we do not further define the enemy beyond a tactic, we risk fighting this war alongside other ill-defined wars declared on poverty, drugs, cancer and obesity. Therefore, for the purpose of this paper, a terrorist is better defined as a nonstate actor, someone who acts on the international stage outside the knowledge or permission of the state to which he or she owes allegiance. The quintessential nonstate actors are Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

The nonstate actor is the ultimate persona non grata, operating across country lines and boundaries, restricted by nothing but conscience. By definition, nonstate actors do not have a state (or legitimate authority) to report to and can be involved in criminal activities, such as selling drugs, smuggling weapons or, of course, terrorism. Primarily, nonstate actors remain behind the scenes and out of sight of the state, emerging only to make demands, threats or attacks.

Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, authors of the book The Starfish and the Spider, also define and classify most nonstate actors as decentralized organizations. It is this organizational definition that will illuminate a significant difficulty in attempting to attack a nonstate actor.

Current game

Brafman and Beckstrom note several interesting “rules” about decentralized organizations, which they call “starfish.” First, “When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized.”4 In plain language, an already dark and secretive organization, when attacked, becomes more dispersed and darker; meaning that it becomes exponentially harder to find.

Furthermore, the increased decentralization does not affect the organization’s performance — in some scenarios, performance actually improves. Granted, there might be some “trophies” captured in the attack, but the larger organization continues to exist in a more nebulous fashion. Furthermore, the starfish, operating in a more open environment, are more capable of mutating.5 That mutation allows starfish to adapt and change more quickly than centralized organizations can react by passing laws or effective legislation. Finally, and more ominously, smaller, autonomous, decentralized organizations have a habit of sneaking up on centralized organizations, or spiders.6 That effect has been noted separately by Jeanne K. Giraldo and Harold A. Trinkunas, who observe, “A decentralized, networked al-Qaeda composed of self-funded cells is more flexible and less vulnerable to attack.”7

The second major reason that financing reform will not work is that there has never been a single case of a terrorist organization that ceased to exist as a direct result of financing problems. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that nonstate actors conduct operations for literally pennies on the dollar. Thomas J. Biersteker and Sue E. Eckert note several high-profile terrorist operations and their associated costs, such as the 2002 Bali bombings ($20,000-$35,000); the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in Africa ($50,000); the 1993 World Trade Center bombing ($18,000); and more recently, the 2004 Madrid attack, estimated to have cost less than $10,000.8

Simply put, the cost of any single one of these operations could have been bankrolled by an average middle-class American family. Imagine the difficulty, complexity and absurdity of attempting to pass legislative and financial laws that can distinguish between a nonstate actor bent on terrorism and an American family taking out a loan to purchase a recreational vehicle or a home. Giraldo and Trinkunas deal with the issue squarely: “The truth is that such small amounts cannot be stopped,” no matter how badly we wish otherwise.9

Finally, the third reason for change is obvious — the 2007 report from the National Counterterrorism Center noted a steady increase in terrorist events, even excluding operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.10 This increase is in stark contrast to the decrease in the number of terrorists assets being frozen. “In the 16 weeks after the 9/11 attacks, 157 suspected terrorism fundraisers were identified, and assets valued at $68 million were frozen. The numbers fell after the initial rush by authorities. The totals for 2005 — $4.9 million frozen in the accounts of 32 suspects or organizations — suggest the effort is losing intensity.”11 As stated above, counterterrorism financial reform has been and is failing. These statements are consistent with the theory described and articulated by Brafman & Beckstrom. Therefore, armed with theory and facts, why do we insist on pursuing a method that is clearly failing?

Predator model

Since it is difficult, if not impossible, to pass financial or legislative laws that will starve nonstate actors into inactivity, is there another way? As stated earlier in the paper, the African predator model might be a better choice and strategy for dealing with terrorists and their money. The African male lion, with his pride, patrols an area of more than 100 square miles. Often, the pride will stake out a watering hole in the knowledge that sooner or later, dinner will have to come for a drink. As the prey drinks water, the lions position themselves along the exit route and “cherry pick” dinner off the trail. Could we not use money the same way to lure nonstate actors into our sights?

The predator model would have several advantages. First, it would use money to our advantage by illuminating and possibly destroying a dark network, without disrupting average American families. Second, money can serve as a means of centralizing starfish and thus making them more vulnerable to attack by traditional law-enforcement mechanisms. Third, it would overcome the problems noted earlier with attempting to “starve” nonstate actors into nonexistence.

Less than two weeks after 9/11, President George W. Bush noted, “Money is the lifeblood of terrorist operations,” and a few days later, Gordon Brown, then-finance minister for Great Britain, echoed that sentiment: “If fanaticism is the heart of modern terrorism, then finance is its lifeblood.”12 So if money acts as the lifeblood of terrorists, why can’t we use that to our advantage by taking the analogy further?

Imagine that a terrorist organization is like a human body, with its different elements acting as the heart, brains, legs and arms. Most dark networks will employ a series of cutouts and security measures to isolate and protect the organization from penetration. The only common thread throughout the organization is money. It flows from the collectors to the brains and outward to the limbs, and it identifies people associated with the organization by their very contact with it. Instead of automatically shutting down financial ties when they reach arbitrary thresholds of $10,000, why not monitor, investigate and infiltrate the organization through its money stream? Instead of making modern banking methods risky for terrorists, we should make the banking systems of the U.S. and partner nations attractive and encourage terrorists to come to our “watering hole.”

That technique would have several advantages. First and foremost, we would control the playing field and rules, as opposed to Third World hawallas (debt transfers) and other traditional financial methods. The rules that we control do not have to be made public, and we could institute random measures that would vary on a daily or weekly basis, requiring banks to submit names, accounts and activities to a central database for further investigation.

Second, we should not disrupt terrorist financial networks when we discover them. Instead, we should use our system of banking to trace the money as it comes into accounts and to see where it is transferred and who is accessing it, thus using money to illuminate a potentially dark network. This illumination would then give military and police forces the surgical precision to remove “cancerous lesions” instead of randomly seizing property and accounts by arbitrary activity and associations. Third, this illumination would generally provide intelligence agents with access points for penetrating the organization through distributors, suppliers and trainers in order to gain access to the network’s plans and intentions.

Another significant reason for encouraging nonstate actors to use our financial networks would be that it would give us the ability not only to monitor financial activity but also to set up financial deception operations designed to degrade terrorist networks. Joel Garreau, author of the article “Disconnect the Dots,” suggests that there are different ways of fighting terrorist networks.

Garreau makes the first point by recognizing that networks are not built along the lines of physical infrastructure. Instead, “they are political and emotional connections among people who must trust each other in order to function.”13 Trust is the key point of attack in a network — not the leadership, and certainly not the finances. “There’s no reason organizational glitches, screw-ups, jealousies and distrust that slow and degrade performance can’t be intentionally introduced.”14 Money might be one of the easiest ways to do just that. Accounts that are suddenly flush with money — or conversely, empty — could and will cause friction, as individuals attempt to explain unusual activity. Tensions would gradually build until the unity that was previously taken for granted would be ineffectual, as the group would have to sort out issues of trust and betrayal, thus turning the network in on itself. >Top

Caveats

Clearly, there would be some stipulations with regard to encouraging nonstate actors to use our financial networks. First, if the organization we are investigating knows that it is being monitored through its financing, the game is up, and we will need to send in police, lawyers and bankers to arrest, collect and seize what they can before the terrorists disappear. Secondly, and more challenging, the network would have to be exposed when it is ready to commit catastrophic operations that would result in the loss of life and or property. The trick would be to determine what thresholds need to be established in order to safeguard lives. Will the U.S. need to intercept the nonstate actor before it detonates a small bomb with no expected loss of life? These are the questions policy-makers and law-enforcement agencies will need to grapple with early on in the investigation in order to deal with them as they occur.

Risks

The current practice of freezing assets is virtually without real peril. Freezing assets, as well as legal and financial reforms, reward politicians and law-enforcement officials with the illusion of success — it provides headlines, figures and what appear to be results. Yet, as noted earlier, the very organizations that are supposedly the target of the reforms continue to exist and even flourish. The predator model is not without risks. It would be an extraordinary politician who would publically admit that a terrorist group that was being monitored had committed an act of violence on their watch. The public backlash could unseat all but the most stable or successful politicians. Next, much of what goes on would be done in secret, and accolades would have to be given anonymously as “tips” that brought down the terrorists. Again, very few political establishments are willing to take on that kind of risk without some political recognition for their actions when things go right. Finally, if money was introduced into terrorists’ accounts in the attempt to destabilize the network, as Joel Garreau suggests, the average citizen might not be so understanding, especially if the terrorists were able to carry out a successful operation under the eyes of the very people who put it there. However, it might be prudent to remember the adage, “With great risk comes a great reward,” and realize that the current game, with little to no risk, carries no reward at all.

Conclusion

Terrorism is increasing,15 in spite of a plethora of legal and financial efforts enacted to control it.16 This is due, in no small part, to the relatively tiny amounts of money it takes to launch spectacular attacks.17 According to the authors of The Starfish and the Spider, our very efforts to attack decentralized networks might be contributing to their proliferation and success.18 Because current methods are failing, it is only prudent that we change strategies in an attempt to thwart nonstate actors and their intentions. Because terrorists seem to have a preference for using our financial networks, why can’t we use that weakness to our advantage by centralizing them through the predator model outlined here?

The predator model allows terrorists to use our financial systems, like prey at a watering hole. The only difference is that we need to enact a series of random checks and triggers to identify suspicious movement. Once that movement has been identified, it can be turned over to investigative services who will try to trace the organization rather than arrest individuals for prosecution. Since we control the banking rules and methods, we might even be able to insert a question of trust into the network by inserting funds into various accounts or deleting them. That course of action would carry some caveats and some risks. In the end, it would be better to take that new course of action than to continue spending disproportionate sums of money on a method that has been proven to fail.

Notes:

1 Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” 1969.

2 Jeanne K. Giraldo and Harold A. Trinkunas, “Terrorist Financing: Explaining Government Responses,” in Jeanne K. Giraldo and Harold A. Trinkunas, eds., Terrorism Financing and State Responses: A Comparative Perspective (Palo Alto, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 2007), 283.

3 Adam Blickstein, Global terror increasing, says US state department (30 April 2008), (http://www.democracyarsenal.org/2008/04/global-terror-i.html) Accessed 25 May 2008.

4 Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations (Portfolio Hardcover, 2006), 21.

5 Brafman and Beckstrom, 40.

6 Brafman and Beckstrom, 41.

7 Jeanne K. Giraldo and Harold A. Trinkunas, “The Political Economy of Terrorism Financing,” in Giraldo and Trinkunas, eds., Terrorism Financing and State Responses, 16.

8 Thomas J. Biersteker and Sue E. Eckert, Countering the Financing of Terrorism (New York: Routledge Press, 2008), 6.

9 Nikos Passas, “Terrorism Financing Mechanisms and Policy Dilemmas,” in Giraldo and Trinkunas, eds., Terrorism Financing and State Responses, 31.

10 National Counterterrorism Center, 2007 Report on Terrorism (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2008), 36.

11 Kevin Johnson, “U.S. freezes fewer terror assets,” USA Today, 30 January 2006. (http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2006-01-29-terror-freezes_x.htm) Accessed 12 September 2008.

12 Craig Whitlock, “Al-Qaeda Masters Terrorism On the Cheap,” The Washington Post, 24 August 2008 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/23/AR2008082301962_pf.html). Accessed 11 September 2008.

13 Joel Garreau, “Disconnect the Dots,” The Washington Post, 17 September 2001: C1.

14 Garreau.

15 National Counterterrorism Center, 2007 Report on Terrorism.

16 Whitlock .

17 Biersteker and Eckert, 6.

18 Brafman and Beckstrom, 21.

This article was written while Chief Warrant Officer 3 Bruce E. DeFeyter was a student in the Warrant Officer Advanced Course at SWCS. He is assigned to the 3rd SF Group. He has served on ODA 3123 and ODB 3120 for six years as the assistant detachment commander, detachment commander and company operations warrant during three rotations to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He has also served at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School as a doctrine writer assigned to the Directorate of Training and Doctrine. Mr. DeFeyter holds a bachelor’s in management and administration from Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., and a master’s in defense analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif.

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