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Not to be confused with NetWars.

Netwar is a form of low intensity conflict, crime, and activism waged by networked actors. Typical netwar actors might include transnational terrorists, criminal organizations, activist groups, and social movements that employ decentralized, flexible network structures. The term netwar was developed by RAND researchers John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt.[1]


The term is proposed in order to focus specifically on the spread of network based organizational structures throughout the low intensity spectrum of societal conflict. It is argued that other terms applied to information age conflict, such as ‘information warfare’, are inadequate, focusing too narrowly on technological issues while missing the broader social transformation enabled by technological advances.

Cyberwar’ is a corresponding term which Arquilla and Ronfeldt propose to describe high-intensity information age conflicts.[2][3]

Network structures[edit]

Arquilla and Ronfeldt point to three basic types of networks that may be used by netwar actors:

Chain network.jpg Chain network – typified by smuggling networks, where end-to-end exchanges (information, contraband, etc.) must travel back and forth between intermediary nodes.
Star network.jpg Hub or star network – disparate actors are tied to a central (though not necessarily hierarchical) node, and all communication travels through that central node.
Allchannel network.jpg
All-channel network – every individual actor is able to communicate fully with all other nodes in the network.

Netwar actors may also take on hybrid forms as well, blending different types of networks and hierarchies. For instance, a node in the network may be hierarchical, an organization may shift between hierarchy and networked autonomy depending on operational demands, or various members of the same group may be networked to each other through different types of network structures.

All-channel networks[edit]

Arquilla and Ronfeldt argue that it is the all-channel model that is becoming increasingly significant as a source of organizational collaborative power. The all-channel network has no central leadership and no key node whose removal might disrupt the entire organization. Instead, the network is completely decentralized, “allowing for local initiative and autonomy” in an organization that may at times appear “acephalous (headless), and at other times polycephalous (hydra-headed).”[2]

The all-channel network is one of the most difficult to maintain because it requires a strong communications capacity to maintain ties between nodes. Moreover, nodal autonomy results in a distributed, consensus style of decision making which is necessarily dependent on back-and-forth communication. As such, this form of organization has only recently become feasible on a greater scale with the dawn of the information age.

Historical context[edit]

The theory of netwar rests on the prediction[by whom?] that networks, enabled by information technology, will become the dominant form of organization following past eras of tribal, institutional/hierarchical, and market-based societies.

Proponents[which?] of netwar argue that globalization has set the stage for the rise of networks. National borders in the 21st century have become more permeable to flows of people, capital, and information;[citation needed] non-state actors have gained power vis-à-vis states; and the information revolution has empowered both individuals and dispersed groups. States have begun experimenting with networking and cooperation to tackle transnational issues, non-governmental organizations have formed transnational advocacy networks around shared goals, multinational corporations have distributed and networked their operations around the globe, and criminal and terrorist organizations have shifted to more agile and resilient network forms.

Advances in communications technologies have played a large part in enabling globalization, and likewise play a crucial role in enabling netwar. Networks, especially global or transnational networks, require "rapid, dense, multidirectional communications to function well and endure".[3] This level of communication has only become easily attainable and affordable with the spread of the Internet, satellite communications, cellular phones, digitization, wireless communications, fax, email, etc., all of which allow "diverse, dispersed, autonomous actors […] to consult, coordinate, and act jointly across great distances on the basis of more, better, and faster information than ever before".[3]

Netwar and network dynamics[edit]

The high flexibility and reconfigurability inherent in the network structure creates a challenge in maintaining its effectiveness. Arquilla and Ronfeldt identify four areas that affect the strength of a network:

  • Organization – what type of network is employed, and to what extent are the actors networked?
  • Doctrine – what motivates the use of the network form, what keeps it from falling apart, and how does the organization operate without central leadership?
  • Technology – what communication technology is being used, and how?
  • Social ties – how much interpersonal trust exists within the network?

With this rubric, the strength of a netwar actor corresponds to how highly networked it is, whether its doctrine sustains the network and guides its members, how effectively technology is used to maintain the network, and how much interpersonal trust there is between nodes in the network.

Networks with many leaders, or no leader, may maintain coordination through a combination of powerful doctrine, ideology, shared beliefs, and/or common interests. This allows all the members of the network to maintain a common objective despite great personal or group autonomy. In other words, this provides an “ideational, strategic, and operational centrality that allows for tactical decentralization.”[3]


The following are several examples used to support the argument that there is in fact an emergent netwar.


Terrorist groups, in the Middle East especially, seem to be adopting flexible, decentralized network structures as part of a shift away from “formally organized, state-sponsored groups to privately financed, loose networks of individuals and subgroups that may have strategic guidance but that, nonetheless, enjoy tactical independence”.[2]

Past terrorist groups did incorporate autonomous cells, but they were largely coordinated in a non-networked manner. Newer terrorist movements, such as al-Qaeda, employ less hierarchical, loosely interlinked organizational models. Rather than the rigid bureaucratic structures and nationalist agendas of old terror groups, these new operatives are networked, relying on decentralized decision making with flexible ties between other individuals and radical groups sharing common values.


The Zapatista movement began as a seemingly traditional, hierarchical insurgency, but was transformed into an information-age conflict. It has benefited from a diverse network of actors, made up of indigenous communities, non-indigenous middle-class guerilla leaders, and a range of local and transnational NGOs sympathetic to the Zapatista cause. Numerous transnational NGOs networked with local Mexican NGOs that were involved with the marginalized indigenous community and the Zapatista guerillas.[4]

Following setbacks in battle, the guerillas switched tactics and began to exploit the network form, taking advantage of the NGOs connections to mobilize global awareness and support for their reform movement, while putting pressure on the Mexican government. These diverse groups of activists and issue organizations were united by common values and shared goals. The internet, which was in its infancy at the time, also became a key space for networking various groups from around the globe with the Zapatista movement.[4]

Transnational Criminal Organizations[edit]

Transnational Criminal organizations (TCOs), such as Extremist and Terrorist Groups, Italian, Russian, and Jewish Mafias, Mexican and Colombian Drug Cartels, Japanese Yakuza and Chinese Triad Crime syndicates or some Street Gangs, Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs and Cyber-criminals are empowered by the network form in the sense that it heightens their mobility, adaptability, and their ability to operate transnationally. These transnational networks pose a problem for states operating in a conventional, inwardly focused manner. For instance, cartels in Colombia draw power from their extended transnational network resources, making it difficult for the Colombian government to fight the cartels within the confines of its national boundaries. Thus, networking allows TCOs to easily operate across jurisdictions, evading national law enforcement agencies. Networks also make it more difficult to dismantle a criminal operation, given that there is less emphasis on rigid, central leadership.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ David Ronfeldt > RAND Corporation » About » Research Staff Profiles » R » David Ronfeldt
  2. ^ a b c RAND Reports The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt ISBN/EAN: 0-8330-3030-2
  3. ^ a b c d RAND Reports The Advent Of Netwar John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt ISBN/EAN: 0-8330-2414-0
  4. ^ a b David Ronfeldt, John Arquilla, Graham E. Fuller, and Melissa Fuller, The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico Rand Corporation (1998) sponsored by the United States Army under Contract No. DASW01-96-C-0004 ISBN 0-8330-2656-9


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