Fighting world terrorism is like fighting the war on drugs or trying to keep cyberheads from pirate-copying music CDs. In other words, it's not easy, says John Arquilla.
He and his colleagues at the Naval Postgraduate School teach courses on information warfare and intelligence at the Navy school and are frequently called on as experts by organizations fighting terrorists.
The major problem, Arquilla said, is that networks like al-Qaida, the Medellin and Cali drug cartels, or Napster are "networks that are completely leaderless and highly effective."
It doesn't matter if Osama bin Laden's body turns up or if he is tracked down and captured, Arquilla said, because his network will go on, just as the Colombian drug trade continued to flourish after major drug lords were killed or captured, and disk pirating continued after the Napster computer was closed down.
In fact, more drugs and pirate CDs than ever are being trafficked, he said.
Arquilla has been involved in intelligence work from the Gulf War through the Balkans and into the current post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism. His specialty is cyber warfare. He contends the Internet is key to counterattacking al-Qaida as well as networks pushing drugs or stealing intellectual properties.
The U.S. intelligence budget is about $30 billion a year, Arquilla said, most of it spent on space satellites that are good "for counting tanks and guns," but not much help in learning the inner workings and plans of al-Qaida and other terrorist networks.
"We need to grow human intelligence capabilities," placing agents within organizations.
Al-Qaida can be infiltrated by Americans, Arquilla noted. He cited the case of John Walker Lindh, a Marin County resident turned Taliban fighter, who now faces 20 years in prison.
Counterterrorists should also invest in Internet-monitoring technology, he said.
Technology already exists to read signals emanating from a computer screen and to "reconstruct every keystroke made by an operator," Arquilla said.
The Internet is "crucial" to al-Qaida and other networks, and using it to hunt them out is relatively inexpensive, compared to satellites.
"The old spirit of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the World War II precursor to the CIA) needs to be recaptured.
"I would recruit master hackers," rather than sending them to prison when caught, Arquilla said.
"To my mind, hackers need to be thought of the way we considered German rocket scientists after World War II."
No one knew specifically that 20 people would hijack four airliners and use them for suicide attacks against major buildings, he said, but the idea of such an attack was well known, had been wargamed as a possibility in exercises before Sept. 11, and previous airline attacks had been attempted. The Armed Islamic Group tried a similar hijack attack on Paris eight years ago, he said, and the World Trade Center was bombed nearly 10 years ago.
And suicide bombers are not just Muslims, Arquilla said. The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka wear a cyanide pill around their necks to show their readiness to die for the cause, and regularly launch suicide missions.
"911 was an organizational, not an intelligence, failure," he said.
Kevin Howe can be reached at 646-4416.