IRA could swap its bombs for bytes

January 16, 1998

Huw Richards reports on the British International Studies Association.

The information revolution is a rare example of technical change that will tip the terms of civil conflict away from the state and towards rebel groups.

So argued Hull University postgraduate Adam Baddeley, delivering a paper to the "Information Age Warfare" session at the British International Studies Association conference.

Mr Baddeley said that technological advance has generally worked against rebel forces. "Take the example of T. E. Lawrence in the Arabian desert. In the absence of airpower he could disappear into the trackless wastes of the desert. But if his opponents had had airpower he simply could not have succeeded."

Governments could afford the technology in the past, insurgent groups could not. But computers, email, the internet and cellular telephones were not so expensive. "The technology is largely civil rather than military in origin, and non-state purchasers can obtain it relatively cheaply," he said.

This assists rebel groups to build up support. Groups like the Zapatistas in Chiapas state, Mexico, have used the internet to spread information and intelligence. They can also ensure secure communications. Somali groups opposed to the US intervention communicated via a network of cellphones, which the Americans were unable to break up.

Counter-insurgency forces can also get intelligence more rapidly. But that information still has to be processed by human beings.

Mr Baddeley said: "You get huge bottlenecks in analysis. Counter-insurgency is heavily dependent on the analysis of information and the sheer cost and scale, for example, of trying to locate three or four terrorists in a jungle may be prohibitive. Getting that information is still reliant on having people who speak local languages and have other specialist knowledge."

* The same session heard of the likelihood that the IRA and other terrorist groups would substitute "bytes for bombs" in campaigns of infrastructural sabotage.

Andrew Rathmell of King's College, London, said that this would fit with an apparent IRA move towards hitting infrastructural rather than human targets, such as the bomb threats which led to massive motorway traffic jams during last year's general election.

But a move towards information warfare would take time. "The IRA is traditionally good at gathering conventional intelligence, but this will need different skills."

In the interests of internal security, the IRA is unlikely to want to recruit outsiders to provide them with the necessary expertise.

He suspects that the IRA's culture may be resistant. He said: "It is difficult enough for any regimented bureaucratic organisation to deal with information warfare. It will be even harder for a closed, rather hierarchical organisation like the IRA."

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