Destabilizing Terrorist Networks: Disrupting and Manipulating Information Flows in the Global War on Terrorism

Posted: 14 Apr 2005

See all articles by K. A. Taipale

K. A. Taipale

Center for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology Policy

Date Written: March 18, 2005


It is said that information is power. But information in the abstract is not power. Rather, the power attributed to information arises from its usefulness (or uselessness) for decision-making in the context of action and relationships in the physical world - that is, actionable information is an instrument of power. Understood in this way, information warfare is the protection, monitoring, disruption, or manipulation of information and information flows to improve one's own decision-making process or to degrade that of the enemy. This paper examines issues relating to the disruption and manipulation of information flows in order to preempt or otherwise constrain terrorist acts in the context of the war on terrorism. It is beyond the scope of this paper to address protection or monitoring of information flows.

This paper explores the need for a comprehensive understanding of information warfare doctrine and policy in the broader context of the war on terrorism - that is, the need for an overarching analytic framework to inform the public debate; one that encompasses not just military operations but includes foreign and domestic intelligence and law enforcement information operations in a cohesive and consistent manner. In particular, this paper examines the policy and legal challenges in the use of offensive information operations (including legal sanctions) to disrupt or manipulate information flows short of armed conflict, especially those actions that may impact US domestic information flows or US citizens, either directly or indirectly, or that may conflict with generally recognized democratic norms. This paper is specifically interested in identifying and understanding policy issues arising at the intersection or overlap of the converging military, intelligence, and law enforcement missions intended to prevent terrorist acts by denying, limiting, or degrading the use or usefulness of information or infrastructure for recruiting, planning, financing, inciting, or implementing such acts.

It is a fundamental premise of this paper that the traditional domains and missions of national security and law enforcement organs are converging because of challenges posed by non-state transnational security threats, in particular that of international terrorism aimed at undermining US and global economic, social, and political institutions and power structures through violent asymmetric attacks against US and allied interests and citizens both within the US and abroad. This convergence of mission - evidenced in the reactive shift in focus of the military paradigm from destruction to disruption, and that of law enforcement from prosecution to preemption - challenges existing international and national governing structures both for authorizing and constraining the use of sovereign power (particularly coercive force) because national security power and law enforcement power have traditionally been governed by and managed under disparate - and potentially irreconcilable - doctrines and laws that may not be adequate to fill interstitial gaps in which these new threats operate and where information warfare based counter-measures may need to be considered. Further, this paper argues that non-state groups - especially fundamentalist groups like al-Qa'ida organized along net-centric segmented tribal lines - are benefiting from and taking advantage of opportunities provided by advanced information technologies to recruit, organize, plan, direct, finance, and execute criminal or terrorist acts, as well as to elicit overt and covert support from various population groups in furtherance of their activities, and that these terrorist groups may not be susceptible to conventional military or law enforcement strategies. This paper adheres to the view that modern information technologies are themselves among the primary enabling mechanisms for the emergence and amplification of certain sub-state organized threats to global security and suggests, therefore, that counter-strategies based on advanced information, organizational, and network theory aimed at disrupting or manipulating the usefulness of information and information resources to these hostile networks needs to be considered. Physical, regulatory, and social disruption and targeting mechanisms aimed at information, channels, and actors are discussed, including actions to disrupt links, target nodes, and introduce misinformation in order to deceive, misdirect, or undermine opposed organizational activity or cohesion. This paper examines both covert and overt tactics potentially available to military, intelligence, and law enforcement forces, the existing legal and policy regimes governing the use of such methods in each context, and the potential conflict or gaps in law or policy from employing these strategies across jurisdictional and organizational divides. In addition, this paper examines the potential clash between the use of these methods and traditional or current notions of free expression, free association, and due process. This paper reviews various specific legal and technical mechanisms that are currently employed or being considered (for example, material support statutes, control orders, identity nullification, etc.) and suggests some principles that might be applied in order to mitigate the potential harms from misuse or abuse of these techniques as well as to conform their use to circumstances compatible with liberal democratic governance. In sum, this paper aims to inform and engender public debate about the potential use of disruption and manipulation techniques on information and information flows in order to control non-state actors that threaten global or national security.

Keywords: counterterrorism, information warfare, information operations, information flow, national security, domestic security, law enforcement

JEL Classification: K42

Suggested Citation

Taipale, K. A., Destabilizing Terrorist Networks: Disrupting and Manipulating Information Flows in the Global War on Terrorism (March 18, 2005). Available at SSRN:

K. A. Taipale (Contact Author)

Center for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology Policy ( email )

100 Hudson Street
10th Floor E
New York, NY 10013-2882
United States

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