ATbar Knowledge - The thermonuclear weapon for terrorists in the information age

Knowledge - The thermonuclear weapon for terrorists in the information age

06/03/2003 | by Ariely, Gil-Ad (Dr.)  

The phrase “Knowledge is the thermonuclear weapon” is taken from Thomas Stewart’s 1997 book on Intellectual Capital [1] , and only its continuation is mine. In our era, as the events of 11th September 2001 have shown, more efficient than any bomb is the knowledge which incorporates skills and competences, original and creative thinking, some understanding of engineering, learning, and integration of many context insights, such as the effect of communication etc.

As many today agree, the smartest bomb ever invented, and that probably ever will be invented, is the human one; it’s the only bomb that adapts flexibly to a changing situation (in addition to being “pre-programmed”).[2] [3]

Interestingly enough, the same Stewart, who coined the quote cited above just recently wrote about the difficulties encountered by large hierarchical organizations and states in fighting such networked organizational structures and knowledge-based organizations as Al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations.[4]

Terrorist organizations, by their very definition, are organizations. And as such, the tremendous changes in organizations and modern organizational theories in the post-industrial age, predicted by Marshal Mcluhan [5] and Toffler [6] are also applicable to these organizations. The understanding of these fundamental changes is the key to the ability to confront them.

The structure of the networked Al-Qaida, which lacks a geographically-defined headquarters, is vastly different from that of the more “traditional” PLO in Lebanon or Tunis, which had a clear hierarchical structure, and whose forces were clearly delineated and structured.

The difference goes way beyond “managerial” level and the chain of command; as recent research literature on organizational theories and knowledge management has shown, it involves a fundamental change in patterns of behaviors. The organizational structure has evolved from the clear “conservative” structure familiar to as from industrial-age organizations, to that of an organization built upon a horizontal network of operatives, who, as “knowledge workers”[7] [8] are accustomed to activities not dependant upon geographical location. Such operatives are identical to knowledge workers in the industry today. (The well-known example is Al-Qaida operatives’ extensive use of the Internet for communications, as well as the usage of Hamas of that infrastructure to conduct decentralized classes on explosives, etc.)

Research in knowledge management and organizational learning has proposed a revolutionary change in perception of the organization. Formerly, the organization was seen as a “machine,” a metaphor most appropriate to the industrial age, when one could choose any color for a car, so long as it was black (Ford) and when the classic economic resources played a part (Land, Capital, Labor). In the informatage, at least one resource is acknowledged to have been added to these classic resources—knowledge.[9] This new resource behaves differently from the former conservative resources, and promotes a better metaphor of the organization as a living body.[10] This way of looking at an organization is certainly appropriate for terrorist organizations.

As firms and organizations today acknowledge, knowledge, and intellectual capital, are resources of enormous importance; the ability to continuously learn and change is recognized as critical to the competitive edge. This lesson is essential to our understanding of terrorist organizations, as well as our own organizations (the largest form of which, is of course, the nation).[11][12]

To begin with, we must apply our understanding and insights regarding the behaviors of “knowledge workers” and “knowledge centered organizations” to the behaviors of terrorist organizations and their operatives. Terrorists have been as affected by the information and knowledge revolution as the rest of the world. Furthermore—as they have proved to our misfortune time and again—terrorist and guerilla organizations are “learning organizations” by their very nature, and achieve intuitively what hierarchies—large organizations and nations—must struggle to learn today.

In fact, the learning curves and learning cycles (— >Learning — >Action — >)[13] of the hierarchical organizations that confront terrorism, and of the terrorist/guerilla organizations, can be described as part of the asymmetric molding factors of the low intensity conflict in general;

One can imagine two sine-waves, each accounting for a learning curve of one organization, and where every change in the curve represents an event that requires learning, adaptation and change, but where any learning on one side obliges the other side to change its own learning curve accordingly.[14]

By their nature, it is more difficult for complex organizational hierarchies to deal with the swift learning cycle and quick response of smaller networked organizations. The similarity would be to an American-Football team, with a well-planned strategy in advance of each move, which plays against a more flexible Soccer team, with no accumulated baggage at the organizational level, and whose strategy is formulated “on the fly.” We could say then that the ideal organizational strategy of the West would be “to plan like a football team; to react like a soccer team.” We must learn how a networked, knowledge-centered organization is built and what its patterns of behavior are, in order to duplicate its strengths and exploit its weaknesses. This is similar to the way we imitate, or “benchmark” on the tactical level, the advantages of guerilla warfare over our forces. The goal is to implement them better than the guerilla/terrorist organization itself, but within the military organizational framework; this is a methodology employed with great success by special forces such as the Egoz units, etc.[15] .

It is also apparent, that the fast organizational learning abilities inherent in networked structures give terrorist organizations a distinct advantage; knowledge is the main resource in our era and knowledge flow is much more dynamic and successful than the knowledge flow (or lack of it) in hierarchical organizations. This is especially problematic with regard to knowledge flow between governmental organizations and nations, and is one of the greatest weaknesses of the organizations attempting to fight against the global Islamist Jihad. For example, while large organizations strive to create “organizational memory” for codifying apreserving their knowledge, Al-Qaida has prepared a vast reservoir of guidance and documentation, including video cassettes documenting how to use ground-to-air missiles against airliners, a method later used in Kenya.[16] Another example is the way terrorists incarcerated in Israeli jails have developed a kind of “Prison University” which has made available to inmates whole “textbooks” on how to carry out attacks. Such examples illustrate the intuitive awareness of terrorist and guerilla organizations of the importance of organizational learning, of the significance of knowledge as a resource for fighting, and the value of efficient knowledge management and sharing.[17] [18]

This principle is also understood by modern military organizations, even if it is much harder to implement. Just recently, at a conference on “learning through fighting,” General Gabi Ashkenazi, the IDF’s Deputy Chief of Staff, defined “learning” as a value indispensable to military leadership.

In the low intensity conflict, the learning cycles (learning — > action) are short. Whereas in conventional war, the majority of the learning is done before and after the conflict, a low intensity conflict is an extended process with episodes of varying intensities. Here the learning must be conducted during the fighting. The other side understands this and acts accordingly, thus creating a process of continuous improvement and a learning curve, as Hizballah proved in Lebanon.

The scope of this abstract does not allow for a full analysis of the evolution of theories of organizations and organizational theories over the past decades or their projection to organizational developments in terrorist organizations. However, this is analysis is crucial to the fight against terrorism. In commercial organizations, the development of insight, as the organizational structure evolves, result in added competency and efficiency, which translates into added competitiveness. This is yet more critical when the added competence and efficiency translates into saving human lives—and perhaps even tips the balance of the entire low intensity conflict.

In order to develop better organizational learning, we need to employ conceptual tools taken from the domain of knowledge management—a field of research newly defined and framed, though ancient in its essence. Such tools include developing realistic scenarios for coping with situations and creating context-dependant learning, as well as methods for transferring and preserving knowledge and extracting innovative knowledge out of collaboration with other elements in the fight against terrorism. The outcome is a transformation to a learning organization—ever changing, creating efficient learning curves and applying knowledge to the daily organizational behaviors.

Knowledge management is also the key to effective management of another characteristic aspect of low intensity conflicts—information-warfare.[19]

Recently, the “mother of all knowledge management projects” was launched in the United States, in the form of the new “Department of Homeland Security.”[20] This new governmental department will integrate 22 hitherto separate agencies. As if to underscore the critical role played by knowledge management in this effort, two of the four founding elements of the Department are information sharing and international cooperation (the other two are science and technology, and law)

In conclusion, in order to effectively counter the kind of terrorism that now threatens much of the world, we must invest in research, paying particular attention to interdisciplinary research. Some of the essential domains for such research are organizational learning, operational knowledge management, and themes taken from management of information systems and human resources. Research should not only deal with these topics as applied within the organization, but also as applied to relations between organizations and nations. These lessons must be learned, and learned quickly, lest terrorism gain the upper hand.


The author is currently completing his PhD in knowledge management at the University Of Westminster, London.

Bibliography and notes:

1. Stewart, T.A., Intellectual capital : the new wealth of organizations. 1st ed. 1997, New York: Doubleday / Currency. xxi, 278.

2. Davenport and Prusak offer the “working definition” of knowledge as “a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information, and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information.”

3. Davenport, T.H. and L. Prusak, Working knowledge : how organizations manage what they know. 1998, Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press. xv, 199.

4. Stewart, T.A., America's secret weapon, in Business 2.0. 2001.

5. McLuhan, M., Effects of the Improvements of Communication Media. The Journal of Economic History, 1960. 20(4): p. 566-575.

6. Toffler, A., Future shock. 1970, New York,: Random House. xii, 505.

7. Drucker, P.F., Post-capitalist society. 1st ed. 1993, New York, NY: HarperBusiness. 232.

8. Burton-Jones, A., Knowledge capitalism : business, work, and learning in the new economy. 1999, Oxford England ; New York: Oxford University Press. viii, 248.

9. Boisot, M., Knowledge assets : securing competitive advantage in the information economy. 1998, New York: Oxford University Press.

10. Geus, A.d., The living company. 1997, Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press. xiv, 215.

11. A terminology need for differentiating “knowledge” versus “information” is emphasized in the literature. Information is a natural resource for countering terror and has always been acknowledged as such, being the foundation of intelligence, and the building blocks for Knowledge. However, knowledge, is defined by Brooks of the NSA as "a dynamic mix of information in context, experience, insight and values”

12. Brooks, C.C., Knowledge Management and the Intelligence community. Defense Intelligence Journal, 2000. 9(1): p. 15-24.

13. Baird, L. and J.C. Henderson, The knowledge engine : how to create fast cycles of knowledge-to-performance and performance-to-knowledge. 1st ed. 2001, San Francisco: BK. x, 146.

14. Nir, S., S. Or, Y. Bareket, and G. Ariely. Implications of Characteristics of Low Intensity Conflict on the issue of Learning and Operational Knowledge Management. in Learning throughout Fighting. 2002. School of Command: IDF.

15. Gordon, S.L., Israel against Terror -- A National Assessment. 2002: Efi Meltzer.

16. CNN , Aug 2002

17. The literature differentiates tacit knowledge from explicit- and a lot has been written regarding what could and should be codified.

18. Polanyi, M., The tacit dimension. 1st ed. 1966, Garden City, N.Y.,: Doubleday. xi, 108.

19. Snowden, D. and J. Luke, The Knowledge Salient. WTC, 1999: p. 9.

20. Datz, T., Integrating America, in CIO Magazine. 2002.