America’s cities are vulnerable and unprepared. We are now entering the second week into discovering that nefarious forces are on the attack. At this point, authorities are coping. They have not quite figured out how to deal with the threat. So far, we continue to look at this as a law enforcement incident-by-incident response problem combined with nightly curfews, only to be followed by another round of permitted demonstrations, that starts the cycle anew. It isn’t working. In fact, its playing right into the hands of these self-identified revolutionaries. Quite honestly, we are being naïve to the reality that what we are facing is an asymmetric warfare strategy problem.
Using nearly identical tactics across multiple cities coast-to-coast, they have taken advantage of a catalyst event to launch their plan; one they have likely been working on since events on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. The catalysts were similar, a controversial incident sure to trigger a divided emotional response by Americans. This time, their technique is both aggressive and effective. The question for America is how do we neutralize it? How do we get things back to the point that ordinary life can get return to normal?
Anarchy in the Information Age
If you have been a student of the rise of Antifa, you’ll know that the origins of the imported paid hooligan approach to executing mayhem on the periphery of a cover protest first came on the scene in Ferguson, Missouri. It was a more clumsy and transparent operation then. Imagery from the time, much of it carefully scrubbed from the internet since then, was revealing. I remember they even had printed posters with those QR codes you point a cell phone camera at the automatically opens a website. The QR codes at Ferguson opened the website of the Revolutionary Communist Party of the United States (RCP US). They even had selfies of white organizers posing with black people they’d put Russian commissar hats with the red hammer and sickle for the photo ops.
This will sound eerily familiar. It was discovered then that a significant number of protesters were from outside the community, brought in on tour buses paid for by a shadowy financial network. Eventually, local residents came to resent these outsiders.
Ferguson was ultimately a dead end. Despite efforts to expand it nationally, it faded from the scene instead of becoming the revolution its organizers hoped for, much like the way the Occupy Wall Street movement fizzled. But it laid the seeds for starting up a learning curve that we are living through now. The organizers went back to the drawing board and started two initiatives.
First, build sleeper cells of cadres around the country using a disaggregated organization model that, despite being characterized by the government and media as having no titular leadership, built the a very real, central committee command, control and intelligence structure using the powerful tools of internet social media and the dark net. Much like the amorphous efforts of Al Qaeda and ISIS, the organizers used many of the same techniques to draw in layers of operatives and supporters into a web awaiting their call to action.
At the same time, Antifa experimented with what techniques worked, and what did not, in testbed locations such as Portland, Oregon. Additional experiments were also conducted in other cities. The occasional blocking of roads to test the tenacity of police response were tried on the one hand and mayhem at the periphery techniques were experimented with at convenient political confrontation points repeatedly.
A Vulnerable America
In terms of susceptibility and vulnerability, American cities were wide open for exploitation. They discovered that liberal governments were the most easily manipulated into lackluster responsiveness to maintaining public order. They perfected the orbiting of otherwise peaceful protests with peripheral mayhem done in just enough amount to boost media attention to the national news cycle; but not trigger local authorities to clamp down hard.
It is a brilliant work up of a force element design. The take advantage of social wedges ploy is kind of the IED of the American landscape if you think about it from a weaponization standpoint. IED’s were the brainchild of now deceased Iranian mastermind Qasem Soleimani, major general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and commander of the extraterritorial Quds Force who’s actions cost hundreds of thousands of lives in the Middle East over the better part of two decades.
The timing of the attack is both strategic and desperate. The United States was coming out of a self-imposed shutdown owing to the novel coronavirus and poised to re-open with the possibility of a very real summer bounce to the economy as pent up demand to get back on the curve the US was on immediately prior to initiating quarantine began to assert itself.
If you were a revolutionary theorist with dreams of changing or even cratering the American nation, the calculus was clear. If you miss this chance, the next opportunity to try it again probably won’t come for a very long time. Therefore, target your forces and signal “launch commit”. We are living through that decision.
Asymmetric Warfare Does Work
Anyone who has been watching events unfold has clearly seen that there are highly organized groups operating at the periphery of planned and announced demonstration locations.
Television news helicopters have shown the logistics of groups approaching like mobile strike teams to destroy and loot retail commercial establishments often panning their cameras to show police a block or two away guarding a peaceful demonstration.
In military parlance, this is a classic variation of fire and maneuver. You use one element of your force to fix the enemy in position so that the other element can skirmish at will with little resistance. And then, just like special forces, you pull out prior to superior forces being able to muster and engage you.
You do this again and again degrading what you must believe is a brittle and corrupt system that will break down before you run out for money to pay your troops. That is a hell of an assumption to make about a $16 trillion GDP economic engine that is also presently the home of the oldest continuous standing form of government on planet Earth. If you are wrong, your adversary recognized the threat, adapts, renders your strategy too costly to continue, and starts to hunt you down like a pack of dogs. Game on.
It does help if your battle element forces have no relationship to the community that they are destroying. Paid mercenaries are the tool of choice for such jobs. That indeed appears to be the case in the early stages of this latest episode of destruction in our cities. The busing in of troops is now standard fare.
A number of mayors of American cities have gone on the air announcing that a significant percentage, if not the majorities, of people arrested for looting are not from the local area. I keep asking the same question I did in 2014. Who’s paying for these buses and why haven’t we frozen those bank accounts?
Note that all that needs to be done is start a chain reaction. One thing about looting, once it starts, mob mentality takes over and there are plenty of people who will get drawn into the melee. Human nature is sadly very predictable.
This is not just about attacking affluent areas. Perpetrators seeking to breakdown social order just as willingly target working class areas. A quick search of the internet will reveal many areas being bravely and desperately defended by residents against outsiders, often with no help from the police.
The core ethos of this weaponized protest design is to ensure that peripheral mayhem accompanies peaceful activity just out of reach of the police. It makes them law enforcement look incompetent and makes the public feel vulnerable. There is a word for this, terrorism. The pattern so clear that it prompted US President Donald J trump to declare Antifa an official terrorist organization.
What we lack at the present time is a solid means to create what strategists call “credible deterrence” to dissuade antifa from bringing destruction into what should be a peaceful freedom of expression process.
We ordinary Americans, regardless of our political views, want a free society able to constructively discuss and debate our issues without having to worry about shadowy forces seeking to exploit our political debate to undermine the stability of our country.
It is critical and legitimate for the United States, as a country and as a society, to dissuade such persons from acting against the interests of our constructive expression.
Predators, which is what they are, are guided by the most core principle of predation, which is that they will not do anything that will cause them irreparable harm. What we must do is create the conditions where their actions will result in irreparable harm to their cause. And I do not mean to individuals, I mean to their agenda.
In this case, they hope to spark a popular revolution that will result in the downfall of the American system of government. They depend on having a cadre of activists who can operate in the shadows with little risk that they will be found or exposed to the scrutiny of the government, and by the People.
The bottom line is that they need masks to hide behind to feel safe enough to do what they do. Therefore, the national mission is to deny them the opacity upon which they depend.
A threat that depends on anonymity has an asymmetric vulnerability that is wide open to counterattack.
It is up to us to attack that weak link. It will not happen by following their playbook. We must change the rules of the game.
Exploit Antifa’s Design Weaknesses
All weapon designs have flaws. Antifa’s carefully curated design to take advantage of the slow inertia that is the nature of American response to emergencies. But this advantage degrades rapidly, once contact with a clear-thinking adversary is initiated. The risk calculus question really is if, or when, the defender will learn to adapt.
In this case there are certain things that form boundaries to the Antifa strategy.
- Location is not a secret. The demonstrations are being organized on the open internet and within networks of activist cells. It is necessary to assemble the masses of people to draw the police in, fix their location, deployment, and focus. Some of what they spread is deliberate false information. But to hold legal demonstrations to initiate the strategy, cities must issue permits for assemblies filed by organizations for the locations, time and date of planned events. And then there are illegal events such as blocking roadways that are designed to draw law enforcement resources to a fixing point.
- The Order of Battle is known. We have observed during this episode that mayhem forces do exist and do attempt to exploit these events. Their patterns of operation are diffuse, a characteristic of Antifa, but do include both organized flash mobs as well as smaller meandering cells of hooligans. Both techniques are well established tactics. What is also observed is that these persons tend to not be local to the area, which means they must travel to and from these locations through some form of transportation.
- Command and Control does incorporate Risk Management. They play guessing games. Mayhem situations do not appear at all demonstration events. This implies that there is some sort of command and control process at work that selects when and where to deploy the full complement of Antifa’s methods.
It is up to use to learn to use these characteristics to exploit the fissures in their strategy to disrupt this pattern of attack.
Deny Opacity, Increase Preparedness
It is vital to recognize making at-risk locations known well ahead of events is critical to the deterrence process. Whether it is from permits to hold demonstrations or active cyber intel gathering of data from the internet, it is a disservice for cities and news organizations not to publish the known locations where these events will occur so that people and business can prepare. Alerts should particularly go to business and communities a danger zone within the “just out of police response” band around an identified demonstration location. The objective is to give people maximum time to prepare.
This is kind of warning is ideally 24 to 48 hours in advance, but it is doable even in near real-time. There is no reason why cities shouldn’t repurpose the very same systems they’ve been using for daily COVID-19 updates to disseminate this type of community information.
Cities also have public access TV channels, reverse dialing alert systems, and other forms to alert people. That is what they are there for. They can easily be more proactive with actionable information. That would be more useful than an endless series of general announcements. Consider that cities were announcing decisions park by park and down to what you can and cannot do on a beach for COVID-19. No need to be tongue tied.
This does not dissuade legitimate demonstrations. It makes the community a harder target for mayhem. It maximizes situation awareness. This creates a passive and credible change in the calculus of deterrence to the mayhem contingent. They will back off, which is what deterrence is all about. In the end, it is important for America’s communities, rich and poor, to say it’s ok to guard what’s precious to our way of life from being destroyed.
Explore Innovative Response Contingencies
But what if they don’t back off? It has been clearly demonstrated in press conference after press conference by police officials that conventional law enforcement’s ability to respond in force to organized flash looting events is marginal to ineffective. By the time they get there, they are cleaning up the mess left behind by people who have long since departed. No one should be satisfied that this is the only way we can respond. Here’s a different way to look at the problem.
Don’t escalate the use of ground forces. That is playing into Antifa’s hands. This is revolution 101. They know they are too few in numbers to take over the country. That means they need to cause the US to kill itself. And the best way to do that is to turn America into a massive police state. Then all they need do is keep ramping up the pressure to cause government forces to keep squeezing the populace until it switches sides. It is a classic playbook. We were already on the verge of doing so in many parts of the country to break COVID-19 quarantine. Same plan, different purpose.
I do agree with U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper that invoking the Insurrection Act in this instance is a bad idea. Far better to promote public teamwork and participation in the ground game. It is much better to earn the buy in of the people. Far larger numbers at much lower cost to keep an eye on things. There’s no better defense for a community than the people that live there.
For a tangible ground game disruptor, President Trump could consider taking advantage of the leverage of air forces. The US could task the emergency use of surveillance assets temporarily detached in a support role to augment overstretched police air support. These additional air resources can be tasked to maneuver into position rapidly enough to observe and identify the persons and cars of the looting flash mobs. No bureaucratic excuses please. If the news helicopters can do it and we don’t take advantage of the leverage the public has seen every day on the news, shame on us.
These air observation resources can be tasked to capture and document vehicles, persons, license plates, record evidence and, working with the full power of satellite uplink/downlinks to information fusion networks. Then the race is on to see who’s better at the game, the mob or the system. Once identified, US surveillance systems have the capability to track vehicles in real time for extended periods of time. That buys time to begin to deliver assistive information to police response task forces.
I mean its not like we do not know how to do this. Point of fact, the United States can find a single cell phone in a country in the middle of nowhere on the other side of the planet. We perfected the technology to use against similar amorphous threats in other parts of the world. I see no reason not to start a conversation about using these tools we already have, to counter, what in the end is a clumsy domestic field expedient on a shoestring budget, easily defeated by such a technology rich nation.
The deterrent value of discussing we are looking at doing such a thing would be significant. The target to disrupt is the lower and middle level operatives relying on anonymity as cover to participate in the movement. This would be ice water being poured on their parade. It would create a tangible cloud of risk; a behavior pattern changing category of risk. Who is going to want to risk the car they drive to work in their daytime disguise being tagged and coded? To those owners, I suggest the “shock and awe” that they will be unmasked, and subjected to anti-terrorism investigation, has great deterrent value.
Furthermore, the US has invested in a world class cyberwar data fusion capability. This system can be used to further deny cover to these perpetrators. I would aggregate the data from every data source and load the plates of the suspect cars into the databases of every license plate reader camera nationwide so there will be no place to hide. And when the vehicle is stopped, don’t tell them whether it was high tech or good old gumshoe detective work that caught them, just tell them the contact tracing has started and won’t end until contract tracing unravels the amorphous network that is the loosely knit Antifa.
Then again, they can always turn themselves in to the local police station along with everything they have stolen, admit to whatever they may have destroyed, offer to make amends, and throw themselves at the mercy of the court. Ideally, before the FBI comes knocking on the door and FINCEN freezes their bank accounts.
And no, I do not have any pity for the people who’s lives will be unmasked and subjected to the full force of US anti-terror law in this process. Unlike the peaceful protesters, they are culpable for the damage they have done. They have destroyed the lives of too many good people already. The reports are out there.
The documentation of their organization is beginning to be revealed, “George Floyd unrest: How riot groups come together to loot, destroy”.
The pain of their damage is emerging, ““‘It was a war zone’: Small-business owners who lost everything in riots speak out.”
The desperate fight by good people to save their communities rages on, “Guardian Angels rumble with looters at East Village sneaker store during George Floyd protest”.
This is just one approach. I’m targeting the weakest link in the enemy’s force structure wit the objective of collapsing their network; the people that have something to lose from being exposed. There are undoubtedly other interdiction paths. But this article is about highlighting that we have a lot more we can bring to bear here than accepting an endless cycle of nightly curfews and daily riots.
Not My First Rodeo
Sadly, this is not my first time thinking about this. I was in Los Angeles in 1992. I saw neighborhoods in the middle of no man’s land mobilize and set up armed barricades to defend themselves from mayhem until order could be restored. I went to work for Rebuild LA for awhile and tried to help put the pieces back together. Then I helped LAPD start this effort at getting beyond the causes of the destruction working on this kernel of an idea at the time called community policing. For those of you who remember that time, those were old computers I donated to the cause, installed in police and sheriff’s stations running pre-internet bulletin board software to connect area lead officers to block captains. Those were desperate times. We are experiencing desperate times again. I do not like seeing so much effort invested by so many good people over so many years being burned to the ground by a bunch of misguided zealots.
The point I am making with this op-ed is that you fight an asymmetric attack with an equally creative asymmetric response. That is how we can turn a tsunami onto a ripple. Once that is done, it goes back to the question of do we grab the phone records and bank accounts of the people caught and let our tools to fight terrorism go to work? Will we even need to when it becomes apparent that this bold strategy has begun to collapse and is no longer a credible threat?
As for me, if these people wise up, call off the attack, go back into their safe spaces, and leave the rest of us alone so we can get on with our lives, that works for me too.
And with that, let the discussion ensue.