May 23, 2019

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Wasps and terrorists

When I was a teenager in the 1950s, I was a science fiction nut. I would load myself down with books and short story anthologies from the library and even spend actual money on pulp magazines. There were a few writers that I adored and others that I hated. I didn’t like anything that had philosophical pretensions or plot uncertainties. I liked science that could be believed with only minimal suspension of belief, action, and writing that offered insight into individual and social human behavior, even when it was attributed to aliens. And there was one SF novel that I read when it came out in 1957 that absolutely knocked my socks off: Eric Frank Russell’s Wasp. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that I’ve recalled and thought about its content ever since, although for a long time I’d forgotten the name of the book or the author.

Russell (1905-1978) was a British writer, who during the war was either a lowly RAF radio operator or a super-secret military intelligence operative, depending on whom you ask. One way or the other, he well understood the potential of the combination of psychological warfare and carefully calibrated and targeted violence, as a way to leverage a very small investment in resources to hamstring an enemy with a large and powerful military, to soften it up and facilitate its defeat by a less powerful opponent.

The wasp that inspired the title was the small creature who flies into a moving vehicle and by stinging the driver causes a wreck in which several much larger and more powerful creatures are killed. The novel is set during a war between interstellar civilizations, one based on Earth and another in the Sirian system. An earthling named James Mowry who had grown up on a planet in the Sirian Empire and knew its language and culture, was trained, equipped and disguised to function as a saboteur, and planted on an enemy planet.

Mowry acted with great ingenuity to create a phony anti-war organization (the Sirian Freedom Party) and to give the impression that it was large and widespread (today this is called “astroturfing”). He did things like placing stickers with subversive slogans on the windows of stores and public buildings; the stickers were made with a corrosive ink such that even when they were scraped off the slogan would be etched into the glass, which created suspicions that the owners of the windows might be sympathetic to the organization. He paid thugs to assassinate a member of the secret police and mailed threats to numerous other officers, causing the agency to devote a great deal of resources into trying to track down the “members” of this group. At the same time, some of the general public bought into the antiwar, anti-regime message, and as a result the society was racked by uncertainty and division (is this starting to sound familiar?)

The planet Mowry was on was mostly water, and a large fleet of merchant ships was essential to its economy. Mowry released a fleet of tiny drone submarines which had no offensive capability, but appeared on radar as the periscope of a larger sub. He then exploded a mine on a ship to give the impression that it had been attacked by a submarine, causing the Sirians to think there was a large force of armed subs threatening their fleets, and requiring them to devote much energy to searching for something that didn’t exist.

Through various simple, cheap, extremely clever and effective actions, Mowry caused the authorities to divert large forces from the war effort, ultimately making it possible for a much weaker invading force to prevail.

In a very interesting thesis submitted to the US Naval Postgraduate School this year, Andrew J. Fox cites Wasp as a “prescient” account of doctrine, strategy, and tactics for an insurgency. He compares Mowry’s tactics to those of the relatively small PLO in the 1960s and 70s, when Arafat gained influence and, paradoxically, legitimacy, for his cause by attacking an essential transport network (airline hijackings) and by a high-profile murder (the Israeli athletes in Munich).

Fox notes that the Internet makes the kind of operations launched by Mowry even easier and cheaper. After all, he had to mail his threats to secret police officers! Fox is primarily interested in the potential for new strategies of terrorism and asymmetric warfare to arise, utilizing modern technology in novel ways. But I am struck by the potential that exists for psychological warfare in Mowry’s techniques – or rather, by the clear evidence that we, Israel and the West, are being actively targeted by Wasp-like tactics today.

Think about the consternation provoked by the tiny – in active members – organizations Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now. They claim many supporters, but are there more than a few dozens of active members? I strongly doubt it. Think about the political damage done in Israel by the left-wing NGOs that are paid by European governments to stir up trouble in the territories, to flood our legal system with complaints from Palestinians, to impeach the IDF, to spread demonizing and delegitimizing propaganda – the list is endless. And what does it cost them? A few million Euros a year, far less than it would cost to attack us with tanks or planes.

But there is no reason that such techniques can only be used by weak states and non-state actors. I would not be surprised to find out that Israel had released several “wasps” of its own against Iran and Hezbollah.

All of the above is out in the open. But there is another kind of subversion that is more subtle. This is the use of automated technology to leverage social media in order to create dissatisfaction and social division in society, to exacerbate existing divisions, and to create new ones. Some Democrats in America claim that Russian “bots,” stolen emails, and other ways of manipulating opinion through social media, tilted the election in the direction of Donald Trump. I doubt this, but there is documented evidence that fake Russian social media accounts pushed extremist points of view, both on the right and the left, apparently in order to increase social conflict by aggravating existing racial, cultural and class tensions.

This kind of psychological assault is highly dangerous. Like Mowry’s stickers the object is to turn various subgroups of the population against each other and to make them suspicious of each other’s loyalty. Extremists on both the progressive and conservative side push messages of distrust, for the government, the police, the military, business, the media, the educational system, and of course racial and religious groups. The ultimate goal is to split the country into quarreling pieces that will be easier to defeat than a unified nation.

Wasp was a great read. Mowry’s resourcefulness and humor were entertaining, and Russell’s understanding of the weaknesses of bureaucracies was instructive. I enjoyed watching the unsympathetic Sirian Empire lose a planet thanks to one clever man. But today, in the age of rampant terrorism and asymmetric warfare, when the “good guys” are on the other side from the Mowrys, Wasp is more of a warning than entertainment.

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