A militant Palestinian guerrilla leader is using information technology to evolve new organisational and operational strategies for his armed struggle. Such a shift offers an important insight into the future trend of warfare and terrorism.
Holed up in the Ain il-Hilweh refugee camp in south Lebanon, ‘Colonel’ Mounir Maqdah is harnessing the power of Information Technology to grow a networked organisation to extend his strike capabilities beyond all borders. The embracing of IT by small groups to create global networks of communication and coordination points to a new facet of warfare.
Maqdah is using a website, e-mail and cellular telephone to share information, procure and channel funding, and coordinate and command the launching of attacks. Technology is revolutionising his armed struggle.
That armed struggle has to date made him a wanted man. He is sentenced to death in absentia in Jordan for having links with Al-Qaeda and plotting attacks against Israeli and US targets in the Hashemite kingdom during the millennium celebrations three years ago. He is also accused by Israel of directing and financing suicide attacks inside Israel carried out by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an offshoot of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.
Despite being soft-spoken, he is a man of fierce determination and uncompromising views. He believes that what he calls "resistance, jihad and martyrdom" is the only way to liberate Palestine, destroy Israel and to fight any possible American-led war against Iraq. The networked organisation he is developing is a means by which he will attempt to achieve these ends.
Maqdah is a bullet-scarred, die-hard guerrilla fighter: a practiced exponent of asymmetric war. For this reason, he is using IT tools to offset his disadvantages and increase his capabilities to strike big against his conventionally more-powerful enemy.
"We can’t go up against the Israeli occupation army to army because of its huge capability and the support it gets from America and the world," said Maqdah in an exclusive face-to-face interview given to this writer for a television documentary. "So we confront this occupation by a war of small cells. This type of war spreads and scatters. Every cell can work by itself as a base, a leader and a decision-maker, deciding the right time and place to attack. This type of organisation is a complex system which is very difficult to destroy. It can reproduce itself and grow on a daily basis."
Over the years Maqdah has run military training courses in the Ain il-Hilweh refugee camp on a disused football pitch. Countless numbers of men have been trained in the art of guerrilla warfare and have received ideology lessons on Islam and militancy. Many of these men arrived at the camp from abroad, via Syria, and may now be living in various countries in the Middle East or elsewhere – some perhaps even in Europe and the United States.
Maqdah is keeping the size and scale of his network a closely-guarded secret. The network may include many of the men who trained at his camp. It may be part of an even larger network, with Maqdah as one ‘node’ point among many. The network may also be the reason behind Maqdah’s recent threat, issued via a local magazine, that should the US attack Iraq then "hundreds of martyrs are ready to send America into hell."
Network structures are well adapted for the deployment of myriad, dispersed individuals who can converge, strike and then scatter. The fluid and amorphous nature of this type of network enables like-minded individuals to operate autonomously without necessarily having to resort to a central command or leader. Overall strategic guidance is minimised. Such a network can be simultaneously pervasive and intangible, ubiquitous and invisible, everywhere and nowhere –classic guerrilla tactics now transposed to the cyber-terrain.
Maqdah’s network represents a move away from formally-organised, hierarchical groups to decentralised and flexible structures. This is a break from the past when groups and factions relied on a state sponsor for physical location and financing. Technology has reduced the need for state support since a virtual organisation can solicit and procure funding via the Internet and can operate clandestinely in many bases at the same time without the need for an ostensible headquarters.
Maqdah explained that his network benefits from online donations made via a website. So who exactly is funding him? He is guarded in his response: "We collect donations from the whole Arab and Islamic world, as much as we can," he said, avoiding any further elaboration on this matter.
Confined as he is to the backwater of Ain il-Hilweh refugee camp, and surrounded by only a small contingent of loyal fighters that seem to number no more than between ten and twenty, it is all too easy to dismiss Maqdah as inconsequential. Yet in a world where warfare has moved into the virtual realm, looking solely at the physical size of his force could be misleading.
Maqdah walks calmly around the muddy camp streets, greeted by shopkeepers and passers-by. He is flanked by four heavily-armed bodyguards. But he seems otherwise untroubled by any possibility of an assassination attempt. Perhaps it is because he understands a key concept of networks: that they are essentially hydra-headed. Kill one node and another one, or more, can pop up as replacements.
Maqdah is using information technology in an attempt to redefine the balance of force, in his favour. The shift towards IT by such men portends the emergence of a new and potentially dangerous form of network warfare. And as the West focuses its guns on Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq, the scale and potential of this more elusive form of warfare is increasing exponentially. It is not immediately and obviously visible. Yet when it explodes at whatever time, in whatever place and whatever manner, it has a very real and potentially drastic impact.