Last night, the UK Chief of General Staff Gen Sir David Richards gave a speech at the IISS describing his aspirations for British armed forces ahead of the forthcoming defence review. The basic gist was that our adversaries are fighting irregular wars and we should be prepared to engage them in flexible and agile manner. Upshot: ditch the Cold War mentality, and let’s get busy in these new theatres, not least of which is cyberspace.
Whether this will transfer into new cyber forces, we don’t know, but it seems likely, should the money be found for the required investment in this field. The current opposition is also very keen to develop offensive cyber capabilities, as set out last week in their national security green paper.
In his speech, Richards talks about the rationale for developing capabilities in cyberspace, which are actually quite understandable, but his comments at one point inevitably turned to al-Qaeda:
… Al Qaeda’s use of technology has created a global network of grievances that are often linked by a nihilist theology used to justify local violence. Dan Rather, the veteran US journalist, has commented that AQ’s physical location is virtual: “it’s a worldwide, internet-based movement.”
In all this time looking at the relationships between communications technologies and conflict, I have never once heard Dan Rather cited as an authoritative source on the subject. I tracked down the quote to an interview with Rather on HDNet’s World Focus in December 2009, in which he said, “al-Qaeda is not centred anywhere … it’s worldwide, it’s internet-based”, and then proceeds, without drawing breath, to say that AQ is actually based in Pakistan.
Rather looks like a spent force in the interview―permanent fallout from his ignominious departure from CBS Evening News in 2005 I guess―but the inconsistencies in his statement are obvious. It would be unfair to single him out for criticism in this respect though―it’s trendy now to say that AQ has a ‘virtual sanctuary’ and all that jazz, whilst at the same time declaring that we know them to be hiding out in Waziristan, or wherever.
Everyone who reads this blog knows that ‘AQ’ can be parsed in various ways. It’s a shame that Richards saw fit to quote Dan Rather out of all the people that could have been cited on this subject. Elsewhere in his speech, he quoted another venerable silverback of news broadcasting, the BBC’s Nik Gowing, on communications technologies and democracy. Richards could perhaps have turned to someone slightly more engaged with the subject, like Evgeny Morozov for example.
I very much doubt anyone at the IISS cared, and it’s really no big deal, I suppose. Speeches like this do make me concerned that those who draft and make them aren’t quite as clued up as they should be. Richards is a military man, and doubtless knows UK defence inside out, but if he’s moving into cyberspace he may need to update his sources. It just sounds tired to trot out these two just because they’re TV personalities.