Networks and counternetworks

Author Jonathan Liddell has been in Homs reporting on the Syrian regime's assult on the city. His dispatches - describing how medics and the wounded are being targeted - adds to the harrowing picture of events unfolding in Syria.

The printed edition of the Guardian has a side bar by Liddell titled: "How I made it into Syria undercover". Londonstani is unable to find this smaller piece in the online edition, so it's worth copying out a small portion of it for a little closer attention:

"The Ba'ath part and the mukhabarats (security agencies) - a grid that has dominated the life of the country for decades. Society had in these past few months put in place a counter-grid, almost as effective, made up of civilian activists, notables, religious figures, and, more and more armed forces... This counter-grid resists the other one, circumvents it and is even starting to absorb it in part."

For those interested in political activism or social change, the idea of identifying and connecting networks (or grids) is something that comes up time and again. Politicians running for office and writers rely on endorsements as much as underground urban music promoters in the UK rely on informal networks to get the word out and sell tickets.

There is often reference to networks of some sort or another in the thinking of activists from Martin Luther King to Gandhi to Omar al Mukhtar. While thinkers like Saul Alinsky have focused specific thought on identifying and connecting networks.

While a range of actors, activists and agitators seek to multiply effects by utilising networks, there are, in Londonstani's experience, two notable exceptions; al-Qaeda inspired extremism and Western public diplomacy.

At first glance, AQ seems to be all about networks and alliances; AQ in the Islamic Meghreb, al Shabab, utilising "lone wolves" etc. But all of those examples are tactical alliances with like-minded organisations. And, without a doubt, harnessing networks for tactical benefit has served AQ well. However, AQ is limited in utilising networks to accomplish its ultimate aim of world wide conflict by the rigid nature of its ideology. AQ is fantastic example of the "strength through unquestioning unity" school of thought, which means there is a very definite limit to how much it will allow its ideology to adapt or be influenced by the ideas or needs of potential allies, collaborators and the general public.

Londonstani, although not an expert in AQ ideology (you need to look to people like Will McCants or Thomas Hegghammer for that), sees the group's "Vanguard" ideology as rooted in the idea that effective action can only be accomplished by elite groups who drag the masses along with them.

Public diplomacy by the likes of the US and UK largely seems to avoid engaging with networks of civil society, media and business actors in places where they want to have an impact. (Arriving with an army to talk to rebels about how to help remove a dictator is not quite the same thing). However, one possible model to look at is the way international aid organisations like Oxfam, Amnesty and the ICRC spend much time and resource identifying those with similar aims to them and working them.

Either way, identifying, assessing and engaging with networks in order to make things happen is not the easy way of getting things done. But it is the most effective. If you don't think so, just look at AQ's (lack of) mass popularity across the Muslim world.