Commentary

The Rise of Networks

in Program

By Rita Grossman-Vermaas – Illicit networks, whether they are terrorist organizations, armed groups, traffickers in narcotics, weapons, fissile materials, counterfeit products or people, or some combination thereof, all undermine legitimate institutions or attempts to build them. At the same time, they are highly connected to and often dependent on legitimate structures to survive. Such groups appear to play an increasingly prominent role in international affairs. But insufficient attention is being paid to understanding how they work. What are the conditions that allow them to thrive, and how can we better understand them in order diminish their impact?

Organizational theorists, development specialists, biologists and economists argue either in words or by action that we are seeing the development of a new societal form: collaborative networks.[1] This type of organization is enabled by information technology and open markets–two phenomena of the 1990s–and is fluid in its associations and communications.[2] While the network form can undoubtedly strengthen civil society, it can also empower “uncivil society” by enabling a terrorist group to have impact further away from its base; or by enabling quicker, undetected access to illicit goods by an armed group to finance its conflict.[3]

For decades governments have been battling against illicit groups. Forefront examples in most people’s minds are probably drug traffickers, motivated by profit, and terrorists motivated by political power and profit. These groups still exist in full force, allowing one to conclude that there is room for governments and civil society to improve their strategies to combat them. Part of the reason that states are forever behind is that they are, in fact, states: they operate as rigid bureaucracies with which illicit networks are familiar and have become expert at exploiting. A component of many current networks is their fluidity and decentralized associations. Part of this fluidity is the ability for people to drop out, or “de-link,” which makes tracing network associations and motivations that much more challenging.

Of particular concern are the linkages and associations through which nuclear, chemical or biological material smuggling might occur, and the links between proliferation and criminal organizations. Surprisingly, the literature in the field of WMD proliferation shows how little systematic study of these links exists. There has been a trickle of articles about links between “rogue states,” criminal networks and nuclear smuggling, as well as articles that are treaty-centric. But, we need to delve beyond the “rogue state” frame of mind, and look inward to links in presumably upstanding states, as well as failed or failing states. Ultimately we need to move beyond thinking in a state-centric framework.

Most of the data on WMD trafficking focuses on fissile materials. But it is incomplete and subject to different methodologies. The statistics show that official sources (e.g. IAEA, national governments, World Customs Organization, Interpol) generally report lower levels of trafficking incidents compared to independent sources. Furthermore, there is a huge gap in data on who constitutes the demand for nuclear material. As for patterns of smuggling, what we know is that trafficking routes since the early 1990s have shifted from Europe to other regions including Central Asia, the Caucasus, Turkey, Africa, and South Asia. We also know that modern organized crime groups–which can play the role of middleman in brokering nuclear deals–tend to be more reliant on networks instead of conventional corporate structures. According to a recent study by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), about 10% of nuclear trafficking cases between 2001 and 2005 appear to have involved organized crime groups, including both traditional hierarchies and loose networks. But the level of their true involvement is believed to be greater.

Strategies to deal with the rise of networks could begin with two basic, long and seemingly insurmountable tasks. The first is to make our own interagency efforts more fluid. The second is to make a sustained and disciplined effort to understand networks. This line of research could be used to foster beneficial structures and develop effective strategies to combat those that are subversive, violent and harmful. Tools are being developed by both the military and social scientists to model the effects of social behavior, political events, and types of networks. Some modeling tools are available for public use on the internet. More emphasis should be placed on these developments by the nonproliferation community. A better understanding of various network structures, their worldviews, motivations, and means by which they achieve objectives[4] could begin to make illicit networks less threatening to us, and facilitate better ways to address them.



[1] See David Ronfeldt, “In search of how societies work: Tribes–the first and forever form,” prepared for the RAND Pardee Center, December 2006.

[2] For an overview of how illicit groups are connected to, and undermine, political systems and the global economy, see Moises Naim, “Iliicit: How smugglers, traffickers, and copycats are hijacking the global economy,” October 2006.

[3] Ronfeldt, p 20.

[4] New research in the US government is examining the concept of ‘illicit power structures’ and their impact on peace or institution building in failing and failed states through these four categories.

For more information, see Stimson’s Next 100 Project aimed at constructing a global toolkit to strengthen the international nonproliferation regime.


Rita Grossman-Vermaas is a Research Associate with the Cooperative Nonproliferation Program at the Stimson Center.

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