The term, “asymmetric warfare” has always been used to describe a kind of warfare where opposing groups or nations have unequal military resources, and the weaker opponent uses unconventional weapons and tactics to exploit the vulnerabilities of their enemy. The term could also be applied to other kinds of “warfare” like, terrorism, counterinsurgency and guerrilla warfare, but in our digital age, asymmetric warfare has taken a chilling turn.
War, in a pre-digital era, was relatively straight forward and guided by the Geneva Conventions: the international law with regards protocol and rules of battle. War, as we understood it then, was generally fought by two opposing sides or countries, and the battlefield was physical. The Geneva Conventions established basic humanitarian rights for prisoners of war, protection for the wounded, and also for civilians in a war-zone.
Today, with the rise of terrorist groups like Boko Haram and IS (aka The Islamic State), another term – non-state combatants – is being used more frequently and has a direct correlation to asymmetric warfare. These terrorist groups are now being recognised, and dealt with, on the same level as governments, hence the term, non-state combatants.
The severity of their terrorist activities and the threat to international peace makes it understandable why governments are willing to regard them as global (or national) entities, but these rebel groups do not adhere to international rules and flout the Geneva Conventions’ guidelines with regard to war. Not only do these non-state combatants operate in undefined geographical areas, but their recruitment tactics play out within the countries they are targeting, so not only is the enemy a non-recognised state, but the enemy is now also within. The two men – Michael Olumide Adebolajo and Michael Oluwatobi Adebowale – who hacked British soldier, Lee Rigby, to death in 2013 were both British, as were the three British teenage girls who traveled to Syria to join ISIS.
Much of the recruitment process of the three British teenagers played out on social media, which takes the term asymmetric warfare to another level: not only is the enemy within, but now the enemy is also virtual.
Non-state combatants are using social media in a variety of ways, and not just for recruitment purposes. Ominous threats and warnings of attacks are filmed and posted onto YouTube, as are beheadings. In the Elizabethan era, the heads of the beheaded were placed on spikes for the public to see. A writer for the Financial Times made a chilling observation that social media today is the digital era’s version of that gruesome spike.
However, social media is not just limited to Jihad recruitment or documenting and broadcasting of beheadings, as hacking becomes a new form of warfare in a digital era. When the United States’ Central Command (CENTCOM) was hacked earlier this year, a group calling themselves the Cyber Caliphate, accepted responsibility and proclaimed that the attack was in the name of a “cyber jihad”. In cyberspace, the concept of asymmetric warfare is becoming more real, and more challenging.
Outside of the political arena the term asymmetric warfare can also be applied to business. Cyber attacks in America alone are costing companies $575 billion a year and the main targets are banks, technology firms and retailers. But hacking is a relatively new threat. The current war zone in retail is the battle between traditional bricks & mortar stores and ecommerce. Add to that, the impact of social media and store owners and brands find themselves scrabbling to figure out where, when and how their customers are engaging with them: is it deep in cyberspace, on multiple social media platforms (that need to be constantly monitored) or in the physical store? Marketers will know this problem as the elusive “Omni channel”. Just as in asymmetric warfare you no longer know in which direction your customer is coming at you. It is a different kind of war zone, but a war zone nevertheless.
Even for parents, the notion of applies. The digital era has brought about new challenges in parenting. It’s not so much the fear of your child becoming digitally addicted (although that is a huge concern), but new threats like cyber-bullying, which is hard to monitor and control.
I recently met with the founder of a new company called SaveTNet: a platform that promotes responsible digital engagement, and specifically assisting parents with problems related to cyber-bullying. We chatted through the minefield of cyberspace problems and the conversation led to additional problems like sexual predators that groom young children via social media. That was on the radar, but when I asked if – in the light of the British teenage girls who were lured to join IS in Syria – she had also considered the threat of cyber Jihad recruitment of “caliphate cubs”, the expression in her eyes said it all.
The cyber threat she had been so focused on had just been expanded and the scale of the possible loopholes exposed. There is a new kind of war raging out there, and it’s coming at us from all angles.
By Dion Chang
Image credit: Charls Tsevls