The vicious attacks by Islamist terrorist in Brussels this week firmly places Brussels, and the rest of western Europe, in the middle of the crescent of chaos that arcs from Tunisia to Sweden.
The arrest of Paris terror suspect Salah Abdeslam last Friday in Brussels took down one person and unwittingly unleashed a network of other terrorists who took over thirty lives in an orgy of terror and shut down an entire country if not all of Europe.
Belgium authorities touted Abdelslam’s arrest last weekend much the same way the Obama administration telegraphs the latest drone or Special Operations strike in Syria/Iraq/Libya with the ubiquitous headline “Number Two ISIS Commander Eliminated.” There have been so many “number two” ISIS commanders reportedly killed there is no mystery why we never hear of a “number three” in ISIS.
In 2008 Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom wrote a study of leaderless organizations, “The Starfish and the Spider” which was little read until recently. In this study Brafman and Beckstrom look at the fruitless strategy of targeting individuals in decentralized organizations such as ISIS. They do this by comparing a spider and a starfish, which look similar from a distance but up close are fundamentally different systems.
Killing a starfish is significantly different from killing a spider. A spider can be stopped by crushing its head because it is a centralized system. If one tries to cut off a leg of a starfish not only does that leg grow back, but a new starfish emerges from that severed leg because its decentralized system.
In combatting a decentralized terror network like ISIS, going after a known individual is like cutting off a starfish leg. The immediate threat is neutralized but the system lives on to metastasize into an even larger threat.
Belgium authorities saw what they thought was a spider in arresting one person only to be confronted with a starfish in the form of an ISIS network which struck with such force because authorities simply were not ready.
The Obama administration would be wise to peer through its policy binoculars and evaluate whether ISIS is the spider they assume it is…or is it a starfish?