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Andreas Whittam Smith: The age of information has changed terrorism forever

If the group of computer hackers who call themselves Anonymous have a system at all, it could be called 'organised chaos'

The similarities between the way the computer hackers who have been defending WikiLeaks organise themselves and al-Qa'ida are striking. I don't mean to imply that the former have the same sort of murderous intent as the latter. They don't. And there are other differences.

The setting in which each pursues its subversive aims is well described by Philip Bobbitt in his prescient book Terror and Consent, published in 2008. The author saw the industrial nation state, such as we knew it in the 20th century, being succeeded by what he called the "informational market state". This country has become an informational market state. Leave aside what Mr Bobbitt meant by "informational" for the moment; by "market state" he thought of the state as a minimal provider, and he argued that it existed to maximise the opportunities of citizens rather than, as the nation state did, to act as an instrument to serve the welfare of the people.

This is a pretty fair description of Coalition policy. Notions of the Big Society exactly fit into it. But informational? Mr Bobbitt didn't feel the need to explain "informational", but the WikiLeaks publications of US State Department cables and the subsequent so-called cyber war show what he had in mind. Who controls information is now a central issue.

Mr Bobbitt's larger point is that the terrorism of the age always closely reflects the existing constitutional arrangements. For instance, the outbreak of anarchist assassinations in the final decades of the 19th century, with the murder of a czar in 1881, a president of Spain in 1897, an Austrian empress in 1898, an Italian king in 1900, a Serbian king in 1903 and a king of Greece in 1913, reflected the autocratic nature of the governments of the period. When more democratic nation states arrived on the scene following the First World War, terrorism also changed.

The method of choice was no longer assassinating leaders but terrorising the general population, of which recent examples would be the actions of the Basque separatist group, Eta, the Tamil Tigers and the IRA (official or unofficial). The peaceful protest movements of the age also closely reflect the structure of the government machines they oppose. Nowadays the police have radios, the protesters have mobile phones. The police take photographs, so do the students.

So what are the characteristics of terrorism in the age of informational market states? It is global, it is networked and it is decentralised. It is devolved and it does not depend on state sponsorship. Market state terrorists will be clandestine allies rather than mere agents. Al-Qa'ida ticks all these tests. Now turn to Anonymous, as the group of computer hackers carrying out revenge attacks on behalf of WikiLeaks calls itself. Its original object was to stop publishers preventing people from accessing music and films by sharing files and so avoiding payment. But now, like al-Qa'ida, it is attacking the American government and its proxies. Anonymous is also global, networked and decentralised. And it carries informality very far indeed.

Anonymous seems to lack a command structure (al-Qa'ida "central", as it is known, undoubtedly does have one). There are Anonymous organisers but these seem to change at any time. While the al-Qa'ida leaders lodge in weak states such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the equivalent places for Anonymous members are secure internet chatrooms, the location of which is constantly moved to escape detection. If Anonymous has a system, it could be called "organised chaos". Members post ideas about which computers might deserve to be attacked and then they wait to see if others agree.

There is a further similarity. Or at least there is at first glance. Al-Qa'ida is commonly described as engaging in a terror war. Anonymous is popularly supposed to be involved in a cyber war. I emphasise the word "war" because when it is used, it changes attitudes to the combat it is describing. The distinguished military historian Sir Michael Howard argues, for instance, that using the word to characterise a struggle against terrorism has significant costs. It gives the terrorist enemy combatants a legitimacy they would not otherwise have. Referring to al-Qa'ida, he has argued: "We are not at war, simply as a definitional matter, and should be careful not to pretend otherwise, lest we bring into play the many negative dimensions that inevitably accompany war." The crucial test is that only states can conduct wars. On this I side with Mr Bobbitt, who shows that al-Qa'ida is a virtual state, having all the attributes of statehood except contiguous territory, and which is therefore at war with the West.

But cyber wars? On the analysis above, of course not. There is nothing state-like about Anonymous, however far you stretch the meaning of "virtual". What people describe as a cyber war doesn't even even merit the descriptions "insurrection" or "rebellion". On the other hand Anonymous's ability to crash the computer sites of companies that have withdrawn their services from WikiLeaks is a stronger action than the demonstrations by tuition fee protesters outside Parliament last week, even if one of them did swing on a Cenotaph flag. I would call it an uprising.

What demonstrations, uprisings and, to some extent, terrorist groups have in common is their often spontaneous nature. It may well be that the Swedish terrorist bomber who blew himself up in Stockholm last week acted largely on his own. The tuition fee protests had hundreds of separate organisers, rather as Anonymous has. When one million people marched in London to protest against the decision to invade Iraq in February 2003, it was the largest demonstration that this country has ever seen. Somebody must have organised it but at the time I had no idea who it was and I don't know now. It was as near to spontaneous as makes no difference.

So between al-Qa'ida and a student protest in, say, Leicester, there stretches a range of protest movements, a few with lethal plans, some which are violent and many that are peaceful. But they all have at least this in common. They are networked and they are decentralised. Hardly any of them are directed by charismatic leaders. They are expressions of people power. They develop spontaneously. Many have short lives. But al-Qa'ida is here to stay and so, at least for some time to come, may be Anonymous.