Vox Nihili: The Disembodied Insurgent

Cross-posting this after submitting it on Abu Muqawama, in response to a query AM initiated. You can read the full version here; my thoughts follow below. I told myself I wouldn’t get too caught up with debates in the blogosphere, not because they’re not worth it, but because I have a day job, and the body, as they used to say, is meat. This one was interesting enough in that it’s caught up in some issues that have been in need of thorough corrective thinking for years. Some of the reader responses were right on the money on the aspects of the debate that they addressed, so I would highly recommend going to AM’s site to read the entire thing through.


I’m going to weigh in here, but only because I’m surprised that this is still being debated the way that it is.

AM: the internet is used by terror groups and guerrilla groups to spread TTPs — tactics, techniques, and procedures

AQ Expert: while the internet was certainly central to the radicalization process, you need an actual physical space to spread tactics and know-how

1. Not only is this not an either-or issue, but judging from the way you wrote it up – and the way your audience responded – everyone’s talking past each other on the very basic elements of this.

2. I suppose my root assertion is: define "spread". Instruction and learning involve a range of practices and processes, but in the absence of applied learning, the "spreading" of "tactics", "techniques", and "procedures" is nothing more than "sensitization" to TTPs. That’s a far cry from being able to demonstrate proficiency through applied knowledge.

3. The process of learning and communication is not divorced from the physical world. Regardless of the kind of primary activity the insurgent or terrorist is involved with, the physical NEVER goes away until he’s dead. Ideas can persist and evolve independent of any one entity. But there’s no such thing as an insurgent or terrorist conducting the sharp kinetic end of the operational spectrum while in a disembodied state. That – the virtual havens argument – is what’s been exaggerated, and I suspect that that’s the point Mike Scheuer was making. 🙂

4. I know that there are manuals for any number of activities – say, flying aircraft – but if I don’t spend time studying them AND applying that learning by actually getting into the cockpit and into the air, I’m probably not going to get too far as a pilot. So, "spread" is a big word, whichever way you cut the argument.

Sorry, maybe the pilot analogy is a bit tasteless – not meant that way.

5. The last point I’ll mention is that disputes over physical vs. virtual domains – read the sanctuary discourse in U.S. policy – has always been overblown. The most sensible approach I’ve seen on this is David Kilcullen’s 2003-2004 ADF concept paper, Future Land Operations Concept: Complex Warfighting.

That document, and the thinking behind it, have been extremely influential in shaping contemporary COIN, asserting that the real and metaphorical enemy "terrain" is complex, not simple, and warfighters need to approach it in terms of its physical and material conditions, human & demographic conditions, and informational & cognitive dimensions – not in isolation one from the another, but as part of a thick weave of obstacles to clean, direct, linear combat.

6. Despite its post-modern flavor, that approach also never loses sight of the fact that at the end of the day, the blood you shed isn’t a poor pixilated facsimile on a computer screen, but the real slippery deal, in the real world.


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One thought on “Vox Nihili: The Disembodied Insurgent

  1. Mike,I saw your comments on that thread and broadly agree with you. I’ve made the point elsewhere that whilst the internet, and global mass media more generally, have been very influential in the current conflict environment, the virtual (at present, I might add!) is firmly rooted in the physical world.As you say in the thread, access to the virtual is via the physical – an obvious point to make, perhaps, but I agree that it’s been missed in a lot of the debate. I have this sneaky suspicion that a similar mentality was responsible for RMA thinking, now firmly discredited in my view (as the be-all and end-all, anyway).

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