Nodes, net centric warfare and the woolly mammoth hunters

Consider a group of cavemen leaving the cave to go hunting a woolly mammoth. The woolly mammoth is bigger, stronger and faster. Death is certain for the cavemen and yet with spears and rocks the mammoth is felled -the team splitting into three groups and surrounding the mammoth without a word spoken, or any communication between them. We –the western liberal world- are the mammoth and ISIS is the group of cavemen hunting us.

This is the best image to understand how ISIS operates internationally. Like the mammoth hunters ISIS have no radios, no internet chatter, no centralised C2 (command and control) leakage once deployed. Domain awareness is provided by local knowledge, by virtue of the hunters being native to the territory. They may often have an older more experienced mammoth hunter leading them, to show how to deliver the death blow. But this more experienced hunter will have trained and briefed the group before leaving the cave. They would have practised on smaller mammoths and other game extensively before setting out.

ISIS is a unique proposition in the modern era. It is the opposite of everything that is modern. Even its methods of engagement overseas demonstrate its basis in pre modern thinking and strategy. Force and brutality and the ability to hide in plain sight, ensures their lethality when the attack commences. ISIS operators will have had extensive experience in combat zones and be seasoned in the art of warfare. Instead of hiding on the internet these operators hide behind the proverbial trees of the pre modern mammoth hunter era-they blend into the local population to hide their tracks. It is impossible to pick them out unless you know exactly what you are looking for because they are our community members. Their success rate comes from their ability to operate in isolation and silence but with a doctrinal understanding of each other’s’ ultimate objective.


ISIS does have a formidable ability to conquer and control populations in their assumed territory. This comes from their functionality and the ability to deliver specialised services to their dominated populations. It is governing space with a population of 8 million. Services and jobs and salaries are provided for this population. Law and order, such as it is, is maintained. There are jails and public punishments and laws and practices which are upheld by morality police. This is a functioning society with banks and business. ISIS is therefore neither a terrorist group nor a state but it displays aspects of both. For example it has both a paid standing army as well as asymmetric expertise on land. State responders usually have to deal with one or the other but not both, simultaneously. This makes it a unique threat to states engaging with it. States think like states and fight like states but states fighting a non-state actor are at a disadvantage. To begin with non-state actors don’t have to follow state rules of engagement or consider international law in shaping their tactics and behaviour.


ISIS overseas is a concept. It is an idea which people follow. It is not a group or a hierarchy. This ability to apply centralised government and advanced command and control to maintain a population and shifting territorial boundaries does not apply when examining the increased activity of ISIS internationally. The concept that ISIS is a terrorist group with complex hierarchies and reporting structures which refer to and relate back to ISIS central for direction, in order to conduct overseas operations is erroneous. Centralised command and control- conducting an operational army of forward columns, suggests more coordination and strategy than actually exists with ISIS international operators.

We, in the west are afraid of this possibility and can only define the threat in this way because this is what we know. We are afraid of this possibility because this is how our law enforcement is designed to operate. Network centric operations are designed to give law enforcement and military responders the ability to achieve shared awareness and self-synchronisation in order to be agile and effective. Once plugged into information we are effective. This mind-set is one of the reasons we are not as effective as we could be in dealing with ISIS operators. They operate outside the information based net centric space. This is partially as a result of the Snowden leaks giving an amazing description of the way law enforcement dominates an operational domain. The nature of ISIS and the way it operates suggests a much more decentralised approach to International operations. This helps to explain the reduced ability and limited capacity of law enforcement agencies to stop ISIS doctrinally inspired attacks. C4ISTAR led operations securing a domain (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Information/Intelligence, Surveillance, Targeting Acquisition and Reconnaissance) become dull thuds when the ability to see the target and respond has to jump the hurdle of knowing exactly who the target is. This is made more complex when the target is part of the population and rendered invisible. When nothing appears outwardly unusual it is difficult to spot the anomaly unless you were present when the ordinary began its journey to morph into a threat. That requires HUMINT capacity. HUMINT capacity is expensive and the west has an unhealthy addiction to technology. Fighting an assailant means understanding the assailant’s weapons, doctrine and conceptualisation of the target. Technology is less effective with this form of threat and we have come to rely on it too heavily.

ISIS has recruits from over 100 countries. This is a major issue to be dealt with for two reasons:

ISIS operates in nodes.[1]

ISIS is a violent transnational social movement.

ISIS operators might be thought of as a series of nodes which appear to act in a co-ordinated fashion but instead are a group of agents who are attached by a common cause but operate individually in groups as local nodes. Nodes are standalone operators. They swarm attack vectors but as individual nodes. Their role is to execute the ISIS idea and not to create terrorist cells and hubs which are noisy (chatter) and can be tracked. There is an increasing number of familial groups involved in these operations. This gives the ultimate protection to the node because of the loyalty and silence which this ensures. Another important factor with nodes, is the emphasis on the local nature of the agents as they can shift and blend into their environment easily.

This is one of the key factors to consider with ISIS. They are bringing a globalised idea of jihad to the countries they wish to operate in, but execute this doctrinal objective using trained combat hardened locals, blended together with trained combat experts who may accompany each node. Each of these are still independent and separate nodes which require nothing from ISIS HQ except ‘the doctrinal cause’ and initial training. Intelligence agencies looking for chatter have nothing to find since these nodes have no need to communicate and no reason to raise attention as they are local and blend into the terrain. This lack of requirement for direction makes it particularly hard to seek out and tag node operators.


The second key consideration is the fact that ISIS is a social movement and as such it is a social construct. Its actions and behaviours are bound in an agreed code and belief system which all its participants adhere to. This coded system creates practices and rituals which bind the participants together. This process creates community and identity. When combined with territory it creates a civil ethnicity. This makes ISIS particularly lethal in the long term and in many ways its present activities today are just preparatory for its long term vision.

Ethnicity – a way of behaving and viewing the world- a central core of shared beliefs that engender belonging- is not the same as having an idea and acting on it. Tied into the belief system is the concept that individuals are not isolated or misunderstood or disenfranchised or marginalised any longer but part of a community in which the role they play is vital. This sense of belonging can be intoxicating. It engenders a sense of purpose and the opportunity to believe that they are a part of something much bigger than themselves. Given the power of ISIS’s social construct and its common bonds which hold its disparate membership together, it becomes apparent ‘returning home’ is unlikely as home is where an individual feels they belong- not the country they initially escaped from due to the sense of not belonging. Returning home takes on a new dimension- a purpose which will involve delivering the objectives and mission of the group. Nationals returning home with an ISIS identity and ethnicity are soldiers whose role is to complete a mission. This mission is further imbued with religious teaching. It becomes God’s purpose and not just the individual’s desire.

ISIS is therefore a clear and present threat to Trinidad because those unidentified returners and those who support ISIS Salafist jihadism do not need to be members of a group to be effective in executing their objectives. They function in isolation with only the broad attack vector and time having been agreed. The disparate and distinct nature of each node practically renders them invisible to intelligence and law enforcement with the exception of those agencies who have a high human intelligence capacity and a handle on grey area activity ( illegal extra state activity such as gun runners and organised crime gangs)

ISIS marks a watershed in the evolving nature of transnational threats to states. It is an army which acts as individuals and asymmetric operators focused on the same attack vector, acting as an army, without the need to communicate. Such an entity marks a new era in TERRORIST HYBRIDITY and renders ISIS distinct from all other groups who seek to change the structure of the system they operate within. Terrorists seek political change in a state. Hybrid terrorists seek change in the structure of the International system and in destabilising International order. They are borderless, boundary-less and seek to spread fear, confusion and distrust in the ability of the state to protect populations. The ultimate objective is to turn populations against themselves and promote an erosion of state structure. This process is far advanced in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

Part or dealing with this reality is to change the way security operates. In a hybrid enemy paradigm conventional warfare does not work. Hybrid enemies are trans-national and non-state in nature. They are borderless in design, intention and action. States are still configured to deal with state enemies, rather than non-state enemies. They are equipped with standing armies instead of cyber armies. The operational posture remains national border patrol using state assets for state security instead of global cooperation and coordination of assets. National interest still takes precedent over global interest and the preservation of the Westphalian state system.

There are counter terrorist military units which should be working alongside anti-terrorist population centric action plans. Plans which do not marginalise and single out ‘problem ‘ groups like PREVENT but instead focus on inclusion programs for all as a community. Trans-national non state actors fight with ideas and recruit through the concept of persecution. When states use military means to address population centric social movements then the military is seen as acting against elements of the very society it was created to defend.

The state centric approach is dated and globalisation and the emergence of transnational threats means a real attempt is needed at security sector reform. Global security is the new national interest and that inevitably means a focus on Human security rather than the state centric paradigm.

The nature of the message which the security services deliver is just as important as how it is delivered. It is not just counter terrorism that is needed to deal with this emerging threat. Counter terrorism is reactionary and conducted after the terrorist event. Anti- terrorism initiatives, on the other hand, provide a counter dialogue which can be employed in social media, on television and in mosques. Pro-actionary response is what is needed to ensure those with intent to harm us, are saved from themselves. In saving them – we save ourselves and our civilisation.

[1] See A White “Out of Iraq and Levant: ISIS is an idea not a group

Candyce Kelshall

About Candyce Kelshall

Doctoral candidate and BUCSIS Research Fellow. Independent advisor to British Transport police and Metropolitan Police. Candyce is the author of two books on Civil /military relations. "Armed Forces and Government" and "Mutiny and Revolution: Military pressure Groups"
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