Starfish: Al Qaeda, the Tea Party, and the power of a list

Cut off a spider’s head, and the spider dies.  Cut off a spider’s limb, and you have a crippled spider or a dead spider.

Unlike the spider, a starfish has no head.  It has no brain; its intelligence is distributed throughout its nervous system.  Major organs are replicated throughout each arm.  Cut an arm off a starfish, and not only does the starfish survive, but the severed arm may grow into a new starfish.

Al Qaeda is like a starfish… which helps explain why the organization seems to be thriving, despite the President’s claims to the contrary.  (With the 2012 election approaching, the President and his followers were obliged to cover up the fact of  Al Qaeda’s success, which is why they concocted the preposterous storyline that the Benghazi disaster was the result of a YouTube trailer for a non-existent movie.)

The Tea Party movement is like a starfish… which helps explain why it was monumentally successful in the 2010 election. (The Tea Party movement is independent of the GOP, and, indeed, is the direct adversary of the party’s establishment wing. Nevertheless, the movement, by educating millions of people about Washington corruption and turning many of those people into activists, created the ideological environment that gave Republicans their best election in eight decades.)


The Brafman and Beckstrom concept

The Starfish and the Spider concept is rooted in a 2006 book of that title by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, entrepreneurs and activists from California. (Beckstrom, by the way, is now head of ICANN, the body that manages the domain-name system at the heart of the Internet.)

Al Qaeda, Brafman and Beckstrom noted in their book, is united by a common ideology and a common method of operation, not a hierarchical leadership structure.  Members of al Qaeda are organized into circles and cells that commit acts designed to inspire others to commit similar acts.  Each new group copies what has been done before.  And so its spreads around the world.

Reminded of a group of French businessmen who simply could not understand the distributed intelligence of the Internet—they kept asking to meet its leader—the authors wrote that, “After the 9/11 attacks, the United States sought out the leader of al Qaeda, much as the French investors sought the president of the Internet.”

The failure to understand the decentralized nature of al Qaeda leads to a dangerous error: “take away the catalyst and the starfish organization will do just fine.  If anything, it’ll be even stronger; if a catalyst is killed, the power shifts to the circles, making the organization that much more decentralized.

“TheU.S.government didn’t just go after the catalyst, however.  It also went after the circles.  But this tactic is no more effective than going after the catalyst.  Take out a circle or two—or a hundred circles for that matter—and the decentralized organization does just fine.  New circles sprout up like mushrooms.”

Many Americans thought that, with the death of Osama (Usama) bin Laden, the war with Al Qaeda was over. In fact, although the work of our Navy SEALs and our intelligence agents was truly heroic, and although the killing of UBL was absolutely justified, his death appears to have had little if any impact in the war, or perhaps a negative impact on our side, and it cost us dearly in some ways, such as by giving away valuable intelligence assets.


Al Qaeda, the base

With regard to Al Qaeda, I think the organization’s name is the key to understanding it.  Al Qaeda means “the base,” as in the base of a pyramid, or perhaps “the foundation.”  I think it is best understood as the qaida ma’lumat – the information base.

In London’s Guardian, August 24, 2002, Giles Foden reported that, when bin Laden was expelled from Sudan in 1996, he is said to have had with him “a laptop computer containing the names of the thousands of fighters and activists who would help him further expand his struggle against the west.”

In a document posted on the Web site of the PBC Frontline documentary “Hunting Bin Laden,” an anonymous source close to bin Laden noted:

In 1988 he [bin Laden] noticed that he was backward in his documentation and was not able to give answers to some families asking about their loved ones gone missing inAfghanistan. He decided to make the matter much more organized and arranged for proper documentation. He made a tracking record of the visitors, be they mujahedeen or charity or simple visitors. Their movement between the guesthouse and the camps had to be recorded as well as their first arrival and final departure. The whole complex was then termed Al-Qa’edah which is an Arabic word meaning “The Base.” Al-Qa’edah was very much public knowledge. It was funny to see some people triumphing because they discovered it!

In other words, al Qaeda is like the conservative movement, back when it was separate from the Republican Party, or the Tea Party movement.  (I am not suggesting moral equivalence, only a similar organizational structure.)

We will never defeat al Qaeda until we understand how it is less like an army than like a mailing list.


Defeating a starfish

The view of al Qaeda as a starfish organization was not new to Brafman and Beckstrom’s book.  For example, at the end of 2001, Jason Zengerle of The New Republic wrote of the organization’s “decentralized structure of tightly knit, highly autonomous, virtually anonymous cells.”  Zengerle contrasted al Qaeda with previous terrorist threats to theU.S. such as New Left groups which, “in accord with Leninist principles . . . were structured hierarchically with tight central control, [so that] when the bureau [the FBI] arrested the top guy, the rest of the organization often crumbled.”

What was new in Brafman and Beckstrom’s book were some ideas for defeating such an organization.  The authors suggested:

► Undermining the adversary’s ideology.  The authors noted the effect of literacy classes conducted in Afghanistan by the Poggel (“crazy”) Party, which charged 200 sun-dried bricks for membership.  If you help improve people’s lives, and you do it long enough, people stop hating you. The authors admit that this approach is difficult and takes time because “we don’t change our worldviews overnight.”

► Decentralizing oneself. The authors tell the story of an unnamed Muslim country where the government “created small circles to combat al Qaeda. By day, the circles’ members are police officers or former military experts . . . By night, the circle members go out and hunt al Qaeda cells. The government supplies them with ammunition and doesn’t ask many questions.” The members of each circle know little or nothing about the other circles.

► Centralizing the adversary. Once the Spanish attacked the centralized Aztecs and the centralized Incas, and took our their leaders, each of those great civilizations fell within two years.  But the decentralized Apaches, who became nomadic and whose leaders had no authority but moral authority, lasted for centuries.  In fact, the Apaches remained strong into the 20th Century, until theU.S. gave the Apache leaders cattle.  As the authors note, “Once the Nant’ans [the Apache leaders] had possession of a scarce resource—cows—their power shifted from symbolic to material.  Where previously, the Nant’ans had led by example, now they could reward and punish tribe members by giving and withholding this resource.”

Wonder why the Obama administration chose to use the IRS non-profit certification process to go after the Tea Party movement? Because that was the point at which the Tea Party, a starfish organization, was vulnerable. The tax-exemption process was akin to a narrow mountain pass through which an army must pass, the strategic location at which all the chaos of battle is boiled down to a few soldiers making their way through a narrow space one at a time, or a wide array of Tea Party-related groups that must make their way through the bureaucracy. If you can head ’em off at the pass, you can beat them.

We know that the Obamaists were aware of the idea of the Tea Party as a starfish organization, because the idea appeared in a number of articles in major publications during the 2009-2010 period including “The new Tea Party bible” [The Starfish and the Spider] by Kenneth P. Vogel, Politico, July 7, 2010; “Why Tea Party is Like a Starfish, Not a Spider,” National Public Radio “Morning Edition” [interview with Beckstrom], September 2, 2010; and “How Tea Party Organizes Without Leaders” by Jonathan Rauch, National Journal, September 10, 2010.

Plus, by demanding and obtaining critical information on the Tea Party groups’ members and donors, the administration and its allies could create social network diagrams showing the most valuable parts of the Tea Party network—revealing precisely which members and donors must be intimidated by audits or threats of audits, or pressured by government regulators, or otherwise weakened or eliminated. [More on social network analysis in a later article.]


Republicans and conservatives and Tea Partiers

Allow me to relate the Brafman-Beckstrom model to my experience.

Less than two months after The Starfish and the Spider was released, and roughly three weeks after the 2006 election, I attended a gathering in Washington, D.C. at which the topic was the future of American politics. Several people at the gathering mentioned The Starfish and the Spider in the context of explaining the recent loss of the GOP majority in Congress. They noted that conservative political groups, many of which date their origins to the 1950s and ’60s, were, until recently, remarkably independent of each other and of the Republican Party. The conservative movement’s only real organizational structure was a massive computerized database, a list (initiated by advertising-mail expert Richard Viguerie) containing the names and addresses of tens of millions of people who had contributed money to conservative organizations or had otherwise supported conservative campaigns and causes. With rare exceptions, the leaders of the conservative movement were not elected officials; they were those who, through their political activism, found the new contributors and volunteers whose names were added to the shared list. With the list, it became possible to create new organizations quickly when new issues arose and to provide grassroots funding for candidates for public office. The list made it possible for conservatives to get their message out while flying under their adversary’s radar; often, a liberal officeholder had no inkling that he was in trouble with a large part of the electorate until he lost his seat.

Conservatives were like the Apaches, with no central headquarters and no fixed organizational structure.

Then, with Republican control of Congress and the White House, conservatives suddenly had access to real power, provided that they pursue that power via the Republican Party. The movement began to focus on such efforts as the K Street Project, which was supposed to ensure that the GOP got its fair share of lobbying jobs in Washington. The movement’s informal strategy meetings in Washington came to be attended by staffers from Congress and the White House. From that point forward, criticism by conservatives of Congress and the President was muted, because there was too much to lose by complaining, and too much to gain by going along. GOP leaders lost their ability to hear, and respond to, rumblings from the grassroots, and conservative organizations lost their ability to dissociate themselves from politically unpopular policies of their Republican allies, even from policies that conservatives had opposed.

What happened to the formerly independent conservatives?  They got cows. Meanwhile, liberals and Democrats did a good job undermining conservative ideology and decentralizing themselves, with bloggers taking the lead. They became Apaches.

What happened in the period leading up to the 2010 election? The Tea Party movement arose, a movement that included not only traditional conservatives but libertarians and a wide range of others who correctly identified the threats posed to the county’s future by the extreme, elitist, bullying ideology of the “Progressives.” Critically, the Tea Partiers recognized as their foes not only the Obama extremists and sycophants but the so-called RINOs (for “Republicans in Name Only,” something of a misnomer given that many of them had GOP pedigrees going back generations). In 2010, the Left’s real opposition was not the hapless Republican Party establishment but the independent, flexible, living-off-the-land Apaches of the Tea Party movement.

And what happened in the leadup to the 2012 election? The Republican Party establishment struck back, denigrating and demonizing the Tea Party movement and anyone associated with it—Sarah Palin, for example. Meanwhile, as we now know, the movement was being sapped of its energy and momentum by bureaucrats such as those at the IRS who, blinded by ideology and eager to please higher-ups, convinced themselves that Tea Partiers were, at best, con men trying to game the tax-exemption system and, at worst, racists and terrorists and, in the President’s words, a “threat to democracy.”

If only the Obama administration saw Al Qaeda as a threat at the same level as the Tea Party movement, perhaps today we’d be winning the war.


Share this post!