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War, Web 2.0 and the Fail Loop

From Hezbollah to Twitter

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Subverting the feedback loop

The Westerner currently most trusted by Hezbollah is a former British diplomat and spy called Alastair Crooke. Crooke, who worked as an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) before being seconded by Tony Blair to be the European Union’s envoy to the Middle East between 1997 and 2003, now lives in Lebanon and spends his time encouraging discussions between Islamist movements and Western governments. After the 2006 war, he was taken to South Lebanon by Hezbollah officials and allowed rare access to its battlefield commanders.

In October 2008 I visited him in Beirut and asked him what he had seen and heard. At the beginning of the 2006 war, Crooke told me, Hezbollah fighters were given general orders and were then broken down into tiny cells, each of which operated quite independently of any central command. A specialist team was given high-tech listening devices and managed, according to Crooke, to intercept electronic communications flying to and fro between IDF personnel.

The bulk of Hezbollah’s military units, however, were encouraged to avoid unnecessary electronic chatter; when unit commanders did need to pass on messages they relied on relatively primitive means such as motorcycle couriers. At the beginning of the 2006 war Hezbollah fighters seem to have been given general orders and were then broken down into tiny cells each of which operated independently of any central command, and that they performed very well without either high-tech communications or complicated military manoeuvres to help them get around the battlefield.

Despite the fact that their information loop was not speeded up by new communications technology, it seems, Hezbollah's fighters were much better equipped to swarm around their enemy with great agility. "Rather than have to react faster than the IDF's decision-cycle", one early analysis of the war from Washington's Centre for Strategic and International Studies concluded, "they could largely ignore it, waiting out Israeli attacks, staying in positions, re-infiltrating or re-emerging from cover, and choosing the time to attack or ambush."

Quality not quantity

Hezbollah's commanders found that giving their fighters clear and prior battle instructions was vastly more important than allowing them to liaise with each other electronically during the conflict itself. Faced with a technologically superior enemy, they seemed to understand, it was still possible to knock your enemy off-balance and confuse him. But only if those under your command had a very clear idea of what was expected of them, only if they ignored that enemy's electronic information loop – and only if they switched off their mobile phones and fell back on their own initiative.

A post-script to all this emerged in December of last year, when the Israelis came to mount their invasion of Gaza. This time the Israelis didn't rely wholly on its air-force or its drones, and was relatively quick to put boots on the ground. It drew up clear and achievable plans and didn't rely on "smart" battlefield units communicating with each other and making it up as they went along. Last but not least, it was reported in The New York Times, this time the IDF's military commanders meticulously confiscated all its soldiers mobile phones.

Web 2.0, with its requirement that we participate in a continuous flow of electronic information, is being pushed as the saviour of government and organisations. But it doesn't always work. ®

James Harkin is the author of Cyburbia: The Dangerous Idea that's Changing How We Live and Who We Are. Catch our interview with James tomorrow. See cyburbia.tv for more details of the book.

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