ISIS, Knife attacks and Nodes: Powering the Edge

With JR Kelshall

Is it possible that ISIS is using the whole world as their ‘edge’?

Has western civilization been experiencing sustained attacks utilizing netcentric warfare concepts without our even being aware this was happening? If we have been unable to connect the dots because we have not known where to look, or what we were looking for, then it might be easy to miss the fact that our very own command and control concepts have been used against us, so skillfully; we could not disseminate the true nature of the attacks.

As western military and police forces, we are trained to be consumed with immediate action drills for tactical physical responses, for each separate individual occurrence, oblivious to the fact that each isolated incident is actually a force multiplier in a larger scheme of strategic warfare being levied against us.

The model of ISIS/ identity warfare is sophisticated in its unsophistication. It is infinitely complex to unravel, because of the nature of its simplicity. Allow individuals to pull what they need to conduct operations, per unit doctrine when and as required, without the necessity for any input, command, initiation or tasking instructions. The larger aim is known to all and self-activation is as effective as large scale, multiple resource plots. They are in fact better, because they stretch resources and confuse the analysts. The only common thing about recent terror attacks is that they are all different. That in itself is an indication that something much larger is at stake.

It is possible we are the recipients of a lethal type of net-centric warfare which our existing intelligence infrastructure has been incapable of spotting precisely because defense and law enforcement is trained to fight an enemy it can see. Unconnected things confuse agencies and are dismissed by law enforcement. Connectivity is the very thing which this enemy uses to its advantage because its connected nature and lack of individual physical connection is both its greatest strength and our biggest weakness. We are not configured to deal with unconnected things. Our defense and law enforcement posture is tactical and defensive and applied against a known physical enemy. What if we did not realize that we were on the receiving end of the ultimate hybrid, net-centric enemy?

Welcome to the world of nodes and self-synchronization. Welcome to terrorism that we did not realize was terrorism because we did not know what to look for. ISIS’ inspired attacks have been buried under assumptions of terrorist organizational structure, connections, relationships and autonomous action. When we look for terrorists we see what we expect to see and label the attacks’ lone wolf’, ‘domestic terrorism ‘or ‘unconnected,’ if and when they do not fit the definitions and expectations of an International terrorist agenda. Such expectations include the existence of ‘masterminds’ and coordinators who cross the globe, slipping in and out of countries on the direction of a terrorist ‘central command’.

What if we were under sustained attack by an entity with ultimate organizational agility- an enemy whose edge was the globalized, connected world and net-centric warfare was literally using ‘the net’ not to direct but to share enough information that absolutely anyone with an ax to grind could self-activate, in the name of the cause. In the world of law enforcement the name for this is chaos.

The concept of’ Power to the edge’ in net-centric warfare is “the ability of the total force to dynamically synchronize their actions in order to achieve Command and Control (C2)” (Phister and Plonisch 2010) The objective is to shift the center of gravity as far as possible in the network, in order to achieve effective military power when engaging an enemy. The aim is to allow maximum participation and engagement by all forces available to a cause, in order to achieve an objective without having to individually detail and task the resources available. The ability of a military force to utilize adaptability and agility is to ensure domination of a theatre of operation, in a conflict.

Intelligence agencies have to consider that the recent form of terrorist attacks have not been recognized for what they are. They are actually a form of unsynchronized, ( it has no coordination) non-synchronized, ( it does not need coordination), self-synchronized ( it synchronizes only with itself) action which benefits from ‘pulling’ information for attack vectors from locally based nodes. Its efforts are generated by ‘communities of interest’ or individual nodes who are radicalized. They share data publicly using glossy websites and publications and therefore have no secret communications which need to be uncovered. Interoperability is not a consideration as each of these nodes is self-synchronized. In every respect these terrorist nodes demonstrate the key criteria of net centric dominance. They are robust, resilient, responsive, flexible, adaptable and innovative (Alberts 2006)

Terrorist plots are International and use guns and bombs, right? They can’t be unconnected.

The knife attack in Leytonstone underground station and that of Lee Rigby’s killers as well as the stabbing of Steven Timms by a jihadi have all slipped by, having been considered as individual incidents which, at face value are unrelated and unconnected. This is the nature of state policing. Their role is to resolve crime. Their funding is dependent on this. There is no category in policing objectives and targets for open unconnected terrorist acts. Achieving policing targets requires investigation of an incident, arresting the perpetrator and dealing with the next acute or tactical issue. Each closed issue is classed as resolved.

The relationship between these incidents and the mere fact that these are not isolated cannot be factored into investigations where there are no leads to connect unconnected individuals. These incidents therefore have slipped, un-noticed, under the radar of terrorist ’experts’. Terrorist experts are by definition, experts in what has occurred in the past. They have gained expertise in spotting and identifying examples of terrorist behavior based on a set of assumptions about terrorism which are no longer valid.

Terrorism is no longer the province of hierarchical well structured, organisations, with international arms and advocacy networks spanning the globe. It does not need to be. This is one of the fall outs of the combined efforts of Snowden and Manning.

Intelligence agencies which are working using pre-Snowden and Manning methods are effectively marching on the spot. This has happened before at the end of the cold war when agencies were configured to fight a bi polar enemy and were ill equipped to fight enemies in an unstable multi-polar world. It was at this juncture that Al Qaeda was born and nurtured, using a rationale which assumed the old world order remained intact.

In this evolution of global conflict, Snowden and Manning were game changers in the arena of national security. The big brother of the security services allowed a leviathan like negative freedom to prevail allowing western society the freedom to pursue life and livelihood under a watchful eye which kept western liberal society secure. It was not perfect and often was not right or fair to those outside the system, in some cases- but it worked, more or less. By dismantling the process and allowing all who would do us harm access to the secrets of keeping society secure, they have effectively changed the world as we know it, unleashing more harm than can possibly be calculated.

Consider the case of removing Libya’s Gadaffi, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the ongoing attempts to remove Assad. When the deed had been done the chaos which ensued, engulfed the world. The shape of civil society changed, the borders of states changed, open conflict between competing identities became uncontainable. The relative, imperfect stability exploded into a profusion of groups, ideas, interests and ideologies. The demise of the state structure led to the rise of the warlord and ideologue- who often became intertwined. The chaos and anarchy of the loss of state power swept state based concepts such as sovereignty and self-help into the sphere of the individual. Within this Hobbesian reality, the concept of the individual as a self-contained fighter- a node- within a conflict, which may or may not link with other nodes in the accomplishment of a shared aim was created.

Within the world of Intelligence and security, Snowden and Manning have effectively done the same, with the same results. By dismantling the methods by which the security services kept chaos at bay in western states, they have actively enabled all who wish to do us harm, by allowing them to skirt the methods designed to keep states safe. State power has been rendered less effective in dealing with threats and only effective, if it can see the threat or knows it. Knowledge of how and what intelligence agencies look for, means that terrorists are now able to design new methods and operational modes which avoid attention.

Meanwhile, like the sovereign state system the UN functions within, Intelligence agencies and the state security apparatus have not been able to keep pace with change. They still think like states. They still are configured to defend the state- a single state, from state threats. Restructuring strategy to re-focus a legal and ethical posture which allows state security to become population -centric, is a hurdle which may be insurmountable. The bickering over privacy and rights, regarding the new operational postures needed in a post-snowden environment will have a high toll. Reconfiguration takes time, money, training and research. Security agencies will catch up but this interim period while security operations master the new threat environment, will be bloody.

In each instance throughout November and December 2015 both prior to attacks and immediately after, announcements have stated that there was no intelligence to suggest that attacks were imminent. They were deemed likely to occur and probable, however, no specific threats were on the radar. This confidence was misplaced and these announcements when we hear them again should not be a reassurance because the new threat picture is completely unrelated to this perception that Intelligence agencies are aware of threats to the state.

It is suggested that Intelligence agencies are unable to see precursors for attacks because they maintain this state based external threat stance- looking for evidence of communication and co-operation between those associated with terrorism, outside borders. The obsession with International relationships and borders is time consuming and time wasting. The ‘enemy’ is not only already within the borders, but has always been.

The net allows this type of terrorism to thrive- non coordinated, self-synchronized attacks in the name of a vague association to an affiliation. It is net-centric- edge driven warfare being waged upon the west. Un-monitored, unseen- this is literally the edge from both a net-centric warfare perspective and the edge of the world, as law enforcement knows it. This type of node activity has clear characteristics which make it stand out as something different. Attacks in the recent past have had key classifiers which have gone unnoticed-They are game changers.

1. Attacks are increasingly carried out by family members
2. Attacks are increasingly carried out by women as part of these family groups
3. Very often it is the woman who is the radicalization influence
4. The fact that family groups are involved ( brothers, husbands and wives, cousins) means that there will be no warning indicators in traditionally surveilled arenas
5. No communication is needed between these actors
6. No communication is needed between International terrorist groups
7. The transnational nature of the threat suggests that the radicalization factor is access to the net and not necessarily to be trained by combat veterans or to travel overseas.
8. New weapons are by any means necessary – not just firearms and explosives- cars, knives, poison can be used
9. These new actors are self-replicating nodes.
10. They are not part of franchise terrorism( AQ)
11. They are not purely religious ideology based (ISIS)
12. They are individual and independent nodes which operate in isolation and ascribe actions to a greater cause to give marginalized lives meaning and attachment to something greater.
13. They are effectively invisible to security services.


25 June, 2013, Muslim teen stabbed 2 police officers before being overpowered and detained

Denmark, Copenhagen,
November 2013, Jihadi knife attack on a train passenger

Kunming railway station, March 2014, 27 dead 109 injured by jihadists

China, Guangdong province,
May, 2014, 5 people injured with knives by ‘terrorist’ from Xinjiang

USA, Ohio Airport,
January 8 2015, armed with knives jihadi attacked the police. Was shot dead

UK, Birmingham,
May 7, 2015. Medical office worker attacked with knife,

USA, New York,
June 2015, Jihadi attempted to stab FBI during the execution of a ISIS related search warrant with a kitchen knife

August 11, 2015. Two knifemen arrested on suspicion of murder: stabbed to death two shoppers

Germany, Berlin,
Sept 17, 2015 ’’Jihadi Islamist’’ shot dead in Berlin after knife attack on policewoman

5 October 2015, three men attacked Bangladeshi Pastor with a knife.

4 November, 2015, knife attack on tourists

California, USA,
5 November, 2015,stabbing of 4 people at California College.

Candyce Kelshall is Doctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, University of Buckingham. She is an Independent advisor to British Transport Police and Metropolitan Police. She is a former UK Royal Navy Reserve Officer and SCC Officer. She is the author of two books on Civil /Military relations. “Armed Forces and Government” and “Mutiny and Revolution: Military pressure Groups”

Jason Kelshall is a Naval Commander in the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard and a graduate of Britannia Royal Naval College and the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey California. He is presently Commander of Operations in Trinidad and Tobago Defense Force.

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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