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[Published in Wired, March, 2002]

The Broadband Terror Effect
By Robert Wright

If you wonder why radical Islam appeals to some Muslims, check out al Qaeda's recruiting video at CIAO ( or other Web venues. There are images of Iraqi children starving under American-led sanctions, of Israeli soldiers manhandling Palestinian women, and of Osama bin Laden, looking messianic in his flowing robes, exhorting his brothers to rise up and end Islam's humiliation once and for all.

What's scary isn't the impact the Web-based version of this tape has had, but rather the impact it hasn't yet had. At the moment, most Muslim men susceptible to bin Laden's message don't have computers, much less modems. But the direction of technological evolution is clear: As the cost of processing and transmitting data drops, mobilizing interest groups - including radical ones - will get easier. This fact complicates the war on terrorism in ways few people in Washington have reckoned with.

For a spooky precedent, consider an earlier IT revolution that helped fuel a religious uprising, transform the geopolitical landscape, and turn a superpower into a former superpower: the coming of movable-type printing to Europe. In 1517, Martin Luther penned his grievances against the church in longhand, but within weeks high tech entrepreneurs in various German cities were selling typeset versions. To Luther's astonishment, his legions were self-organizing. What started as dissent became disaster - the "wars of religion" that wracked Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. By the time the smoke cleared, the Hapsburg empire had lost ground and was destined to lose more. With Gutenberg's meme-replication technology empowering oppressed groups and helping to crystallize nationalist sentiment, the days of the European multinational empire were numbered.

What printing did to imperial governments, electronics could do to some national ones. The Ayatollah Khomeini revved up Iranian dissidents by audiocassette. But video is more compelling than audio, the Internet more efficient than the postal service. And desktop editing now lets amateurs manipulate emotions with a power once reserved for Hollywood potentates. A bin Laden recruiting video - which 10 years ago would have required $50,000 in editing equipment - can now be produced with hardware from Kmart.

All of this will reshape our view of the war on terrorism. Some emerging precepts:

Define the enemy with care. President Bush has called this a war between civilized states everywhere and terrorists everywhere. But what's the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter? (Which are the Muslim separatists in western China? The Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran? The Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka?) The cynical answer is that freedom fighters are the ones who finally win and get to write the history books. And the current IT revolution may mean that more separatist groups are destined for victory - just as the printing press swung the odds in favor of Italian, German, and Serb nationalists, all of whom finally carved nation-states out of an empire. Does America want a no-holds-barred war against oppressed people who will only get stronger with time - and who have some legitimate gripes to begin with?

This isn't war. At least, it isn't your father's kind of war. As terrorists recruit, brainwash, and organize in cyberspace, they'll depend less on physical training camps of the sort that American bombs excised from the Afghan landscape. So the cost-benefit ratio for Afghan-type wars will grow. American bombs - the evidence of their destruction beamed around the world via Web site and satellite - will enrage at least as many future terrorists as ever, while disabling fewer terrorists than before.

Much of the Bush game plan could have been written 50 years ago: Find the enemy's home base, destroy it, and kill your foes. The long-run success of this strategy is unclear. (Does it foment a hatred of America that will fester in virtual space and come home to roost?) What does seem clear is that such strategies will be less effective five years from now, to say nothing of 50. Killing Osama bin Laden and his kind is one thing. Killing his memes is getting trickier all the time.

Robert Wright, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of The Moral Animal and Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.