Swarming Crisis Response

[Cross-posted from my Conflict Early Warning Blog]

John Arquilla had a very interesting Op-Ed in the New York Times this weekend on “The Coming Swarm.” I’ve been interested in John’s work for years given his application of complexity science to the study of terrorism and would have assigned this Op-Ed as required reading for the graduate course I co-taught on “Complexity Science and International Relations.”

John writes about the recent simultaneous suicide attacks in Kabul last week and argues that a new ‘Mumbai model’ of swarming, smaller-scale terrorist violence is emerging:

The basic concept is that hitting several targets at once, even with just a few fighters at each site, can cause fits for elite counterterrorist forces that are often manpower-heavy, far away and organized to deal with only one crisis at a time.

[…] 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.

Current strategy for counterterrorism contemplates having to respond using “overwhelming force” to as many as three simultaneous terrorist attacks. This would imply mobilizing as many as 3,000 ground troops to each site.

If that’s an accurate picture, it doesn’t bode well. We would most likely have far too few such elite units for dealing with a large number of small terrorist teams carrying out simultaneous attacks across a region or even a single city.

“So how are swarms to be countered?” John asks. In his opinion,

The simplest way is to create many more units able to respond to simultaneous, small-scale attacks and spread them around the country. This means jettisoning the idea of overwhelming force in favor of small units that are not “elite” but rather “good enough” to tangle with terrorist teams. In dealing with swarms, economizing on force is essential.

For the defense of American cities against terrorist swarms, the key would be to use local police officers as the first line of defense instead of relying on the military. The first step would be to create lots of small counterterrorism posts throughout urban areas instead of keeping police officers in large, centralized precinct houses. This is consistent with existing notions of community-based policing […]

At the federal level, we should stop thinking in terms of moving thousands of troops across the country and instead distribute small response units far more widely.

I think John’s recommendations are very important and directly applicable to the field of operational crisis early warning and rapid response, particularly on the response side.  This means taking more of a people-centered or community-based approach to early response and shifting away from the top-down mentality of “The Responsibility to Protect” to one of “The Responsibility to Empower” from the bottom-up.

5 responses to “Swarming Crisis Response

  1. Hi Patrick,

    I’m as much a fan of decentralised, human-centred solutions as the next reader of your excellent blog, but I’m really at a loss to understand what you think would be “empowering” about having an armed anti-terrorist garrison on every block. Such a proposal is neither “people-centered” nor “bottom-up” – it’s merely the same old top-down solution at a finer granularity. The Roman empire subdivided its army into small, mobile units – that did not make them “swarms”, and it certainly didn’t make them “empowering” to anyone except the Romans.

    It’s now been almost nine years since Arquilla and Ronfeldt adopted the language of “swarming warfare” in their RAND monograph, and I think it’s time we started to take a critical look at whether everything swarm-shaped is necessarily liberatory.


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  3. Hi Patrick,

    Thanks for the reply. I’m sorry for misunderstanding your analogy. Perhaps I unfairly singled out your post as an example of something that’s been bothering me for a while – the ease with which arguments about swarming phenomena can be transferred from one context to another, based on the recognition of a common structure, but without enough attention to the social or political differences between those contexts.

    The reason such “argument by structure” bothers me is that (like you, I wonder?) one of the reasons I’m interested in emergent processes in the first place is their structural resemblance to participatory, bottom-up politics – I want swarms to be inherently liberatory, and yet examples like John Arquilla’s remind me that they’re not.

    So I guess there are two ways to proceed. One would be to abandon my own “argument by structure” and accept that the swarm, as an abstract form, is politically neutral. The other would be to argue that police garrisons aren’t “true” swarms, because they’re designed and controlled from the centre. But perhaps the same argument applies to insect colonies – which surely have the right to be called true swarms if anything does – in which case it’s me, not John Arquilla, who needs to go in search of new terminology. 🙂

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