In case you weren’t aware, I am a military operations research analyst for the U.S. Army. One of the stories associated with the origins of my field of work involves a study of Royal Air Force bombers returning to England after missions over the Continent during WWII. Time and time again the same parts of aircraft were pockmarked with holes from enemy anti-aircraft fire. A study was convened to determine ways to reinforce those areas of the aircraft in order to protect the crew. Prior to the study’s conclusion Patrick Blackett, an experimental physicist and early operations research proponent, offered the seemingly counterintuitive idea that the focus was completely wrong. Instead of looking at where the holes were, they should concentrate on where the holes weren’t. Since every part of the aircraft was equally likely to be hit by enemy fire, the real threat to the safety of the crew was in those areas of returning aircraft that almost never saw damage–his idea being that, when damage occurred in those areas, the aircraft likely didn’t return.
Blackett’s mathematically based intuition, was of course, correct. The areas of returning aircraft that exhibited comparatively little damage were places like cockpits and fuel tanks. The larger lesson was that sometimes what we see obscures our ability to see what isn’t there.
I offer that background to accompany this Stratfor article about “lone wolf” terrorist attacks. In recent months I’ve noticed that the focus of anti-terrorism has begun to shift to include countering so-called lone wolves and Al Qaeda “inspired” individual actors. Major Nidal Hassan’s attack on soldiers at Fort Hood is often identified as one such example. This Stratfor piece by Scott Stewart rejects that focus. Stewart’s key point is this: “When a group promotes leaderless resistance as an operational model it is a sign of failure rather than strength.”
Tragic though the loss of life from lone wolf attacks is, that tragedy obscures our vision of what isn’t there. And what isn’t there is an organized threat. As a military assessor, my counter-intuitive observation is that a shift to lone wolf attacks might in fact be an indicator of having achieved a desired effect against an enemy organization. In other words, is it possible that an increase in lone wolf attacks, along with a corresponding fall in organized activity, means that we are succeeding?
I passed this idea around to a few others today and would like your thoughts as well. I’d particularly like some help with this question: how would you distinguish between what I’ve postulated and “an army of Davids” networked enemy?
UPDATE: Thanks for all the responses. I’m working on piecing this together, though unfortunately, much of it may be for a product that I can’t share.