Swarm Theory in Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 6 months ago

National Geographic gives us what John Robb calls a low impact introduction to swarm theory.  It is interesting not only for the potential application to an insurgency (as Robb claims) but also for counterinsurgency.

How do the simple actions of individuals add up to the complex behavior of a group? How do hundreds of honeybees make a critical decision about their hive if many of them disagree? What enables a school of herring to coordinate its movements so precisely it can change direction in a flash, like a single, silvery organism? The collective abilities of such animals—none of which grasps the big picture, but each of which contributes to the group’s success—seem miraculous even to the biologists who know them best. Yet during the past few decades, researchers have come up with intriguing insights.

One key to an ant colony, for example, is that no one’s in charge. No generals command ant warriors. No managers boss ant workers. The queen plays no role except to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no management at all—at least none that we would recognize. It relies instead upon countless interactions between individual ants, each of which is following simple rules of thumb. Scientists describe such a system as self-organizing.

Consider the problem of job allocation. In the Arizona desert where Deborah Gordon studies red harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus), a colony calculates each morning how many workers to send out foraging for food. The number can change, depending on conditions. Have foragers recently discovered a bonanza of tasty seeds? More ants may be needed to haul the bounty home. Was the nest damaged by a storm last night? Additional maintenance workers may be held back to make repairs. An ant might be a nest worker one day, a trash collector the next. But how does a colony make such adjustments if no one’s in charge? Gordon has a theory.

Ants communicate by touch and smell. When one ant bumps into another, it sniffs with its antennae to find out if the other belongs to the same nest and where it has been working. (Ants that work outside the nest smell different from those that stay inside.) Before they leave the nest each day, foragers normally wait for early morning patrollers to return. As patrollers enter the nest, they touch antennae briefly with foragers …

That’s how swarm intelligence works: simple creatures following simple rules, each one acting on local information. No ant sees the big picture. No ant tells any other ant what to do. Some ant species may go about this with more sophistication than others. (Temnothorax albipennis, for example, can rate the quality of a potential nest site using multiple criteria.) But the bottom line, says Iain Couzin, a biologist at Oxford and Princeton Universities, is that no leadership is required. “Even complex behavior may be coordinated by relatively simple interactions,” he says.

But breaking this down into Aristotelian categories, the fact that ants have no “leadership” may be an accidental feature of their behavior rather than an essential feature.  While ants may communicate with signals, smells and other things that only an ant would know about, these instincts and biological functions may be in fact the leadership which governs the colony.  Further, swarm theory may be applicable in societies which are governed by more strict individual leadership roles.

It is not readily apparent how this theory applies to insurgents who lack the biological features of ants, but given the rapid communication abilities of U.S. forces currently in Iraq, it is becoming apparent that they are swarming with respect to the insurgency.  Information flow is critical – it is the foundation for this swarming.  In Al Qaeda’s War on Iraq we discussed the killing of al Qaeda in Iraq leader al-Tunisi several days ago.

“Al-Tunisi was one of the most senior leaders … the emir of foreign terrorists in Iraq and part of the inner leadership circle,? Anderson told a Pentagon news conference … “They are very broken up, very unable to mass, and conducting very isolated operations,? he said.  Al-Tunisi’s presence was confirmed by a detainee who had just fled the area before the attack and was captured minutes later, Anderson said.

There was a subsequent raid in Sharqat that relied on intelligence.

Soldiers from the 2nd Iraqi Army Division, with U.S. Special Forces as advisers, detained 23 suspected al-Qaeda in Iraq terrorists during an intelligence-driven raid in Sharqat Sept. 29.

Acting on intelligence, Iraqi Soldiers raided targeted locations in Sharqat to disrupt a meeting between al-Qaeda in Iraq leadership.  The meeting was held to elect a new emir since their previous one, Sabah Abdul-Rahman Abosh, was killed by Iraqi and Coalition Forces in a firefight Sept. 28.

Frequently these engagements lead to other engagements due to information gleaned from the previous one.

Coalition forces killed one terrorist, captured two wanted individuals and detained eight suspects during operations Tuesday targeting al-Qaeda in Iraq associates in central and northern Iraq.

Coalition forces conducted a precision operation targeting associates of al-Qaeda in Iraq senior leaders in Kirkuk. When the ground force arrived at the target building, they called for the building’s occupants to come out and an armed man emerged. Perceiving hostile intent, Coalition forces engaged and killed the armed terrorist.

Additional intelligence from the operation led to a follow-on location where Coalition forces targeted an alleged emir of foreign terrorists in the At Tamim province. The targeted individual is also believed to be involved in the use of explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, against Coalition forces and was involved in recent car-bombing attacks in the area. The ground force detained one suspected terrorist on site without incident.  

In another operation, Coalition forces captured the alleged al-Qaeda in Iraq military emir of Muhmadiyah believed to be involved in weapons facilitation and attacks against Coalition forces. In addition to the targeted individual, the ground force detained two other suspected terrorists.

Intelligence gained during previous operations led Coalition forces to Tarmiyah, where they conducted two coordinated operations and captured three suspected terrorists, including an alleged associate of the al-Qaeda in Iraq emir of the northern belt.

East of Balad, Coalition forces targeted an associate of al-Qaeda in Iraq believed to be responsible for coordinating attacks against Coalition and Iraq security forces in the Salah ad Din province. One suspect was detained on site.

In another operation in Samarra, Coalition forces targeted an associate of an al-Qaeda in Iraq senior leader involved in foreign terrorist facilitation who was killed during an operation Sept. 10. The ground force detained two suspected terrorists during the operation.

U.S. troops, upon intelligence gathering operations before, during and after raids, continue to swarm against al Qaeda fighters to the point that al-Tunisi said that he is “surrounded, communications have been cut, and he is desperate for help.”

Just to be clear, al-Tunisi wasn’t surrounded before his death.  Iraqi informants and intelligence operations are yielding fruit that leads to kinetic operations that essentially become ”swarms.”  U.S. troops are swarming against the enemy in Iraq, resulting in a massive blow to the network of foreign fighters and insurgents in Iraq.




You are currently reading "Swarm Theory in Counterinsurgency", entry #637 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) al Qaeda,Iraq and was published October 3rd, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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