Small Wars Journal

A Question of Super-Empowerment

Wed, 09/29/2010 - 8:01am
WikiLeaks, Media, and Policy:

A Question of Super-Empowerment

by Adam Elkus and Captain Crispin Burke

Download the Full Article: A Question of Super-Empowerment

Military operations have always been subjected to the effects of disruptive powers far beyond the control of the field commander. From the court intrigues of the past to today's domestic catfights, politics has definitely never stopped at the water's edge. Events such as the recent series of WikiLeaks scandals and Rolling Stone's expose on General Stanley McChrystal are evolutionary, rather than revolutionary in nature.

Nevertheless, analysts and pundits have pointed out that modern information technology and media have allowed elements beyond the military's direct control—so-called "super-empowered" individuals—greater opportunities to alter state policy through disruptive actions. However, neither WikiLeaks nor the McChrystal scandal significantly altered war policy. Momentary disruption, no matter how severe, does not matter if the basic policy remains unchanged. Both cases suggest that we ought to have a more tempered view of technology, individual influence, and change.

Download the Full Article: A Question of Super-Empowerment

Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing on foreign policy and security. He has published on defense issues in Small Wars Journal, West Point Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, Defense Concepts, and other publications. He is currently the Associate Editor of Red Team Journal. He is currently pursuing graduate study at Georgetown in security studies.

Captain Crispin Burke is a UH-60 helicopter pilot with assignments in the 82nd Airborne Division during Hurricane Katrina, Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras, and the 10th Mountain Division in Iraq. He is currently an observer/controller at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany. He writes for Small Wars Journal and under the name "Starbuck at his blog, Wings Over Iraq.

About the Author(s)


The saying "If the truth is our enemy, then we are fighting the wrong war" comes immediately to mind.

I would like to suggest to the authors that the reason certain individuals become so "disruptive" at times is directly proportional to the lack of "Truthiness" accompanying the marketing (AKA Spin) of the conflict concerned.

To put it another way, it is perfectly obvious that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been marketed to the American people in the exact business related sense of the term "Marketing", and that the unique selling propositions embodied in the message (freedom from WMD's, Islamofascism, terrorism, etc.) are exactly as illusory as the promise that I can lose Ten pounds of fat a week by buying some DVD.

I therefore fail to see why Assange or any other whistle blower purveying time insensitive information is doing anything more than providing evidence on which we, the poor trusting public, can make our own evaluation of the bona fides of our leaders.

I looked in vain in your article for an acknowledgement, perhaps even a discussion, of exactly how far the military should permit itself to be involved in the marketing of any conflict. In particular, the issue of suppressing bad news is dangerous for the military to engage in (Col. Pat Lang's "Drinking The Kool Aid") because over time the variance between truth on the ground and what is published becomes unsupportable.....and then along comes a Michael Yon, Assange, etc. with predictable results.

I would also like to remind you of the quintessential Super Empowered Individual; Kieth Murdoch, Rupert's father, who was an Australian war correspondent at the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. He saw first hand the ineptitude of the Generals and the concomitant slaughter and waste of lives. His criticism was equally disruptive, thank goodness.

A counter argument could be made to the super empowered individual hypothesis, and the argument is that the technologies that allegedly enable the rise of the super empowered individual are available on a wide scale, so the dispersion of these enabling technologies has actually reduced the power of single individual, much as globalism has reduced the power of the nation-state. It would be hard to imagine a truly superempowered individual today that would have the influence of say Martin Luther King or Thomas Paine. There are simply too many complementary and competing voices out there using the same technology.

Eugnid (not verified)

Sun, 10/03/2010 - 2:40pm


Be careful not to rely on a reductum ad absurdum causal 1:1 relationship. Someone in the Pentagon that McChrystal trusts had to present Hastings to him. McChrystal liked to take pot shots at Obama to cut him down at the ankles and keep him off balance for the long hall. And McChrystal tends to think simple. But still, the tight box opened and the rest is history.

I tend to see history not so much in terms, not of SEI but in terms of a Browninan motion that gets skewed in a thermodynamic fashion. Anything one guy succeeded in doing as the most proximate obvious factor may well have been on its way through biasing factors. Had McChrystal been a more mathematical man he might well have seen that he's throwing in the last stone that collapsed a dying war.

The internal fight against COIN warfare and everything it does to our defense structure may well have brought down McChrystal as it will Petraeus, just as, helped by out of Government forces, Petraeus brought down his predecessors in Iraq.


As the author of the Rolling Stone article was a US citizen, and his words took out the US Commander. I consider it an act of fratricide. Having a commander removed from a position of command is equivilient to killing him interms of they role they play in a conflict.


Mon, 04/07/2014 - 8:00pm

In reply to by YNSN


This SEI issue has been making the rounds for over a decade (Osama bin Laden was pointed to as an SEI). The general assumption is that someone identified as an SEI is automatically, by default and definition, engaged with his or other governments in an adversarial manner. An FBI agent has a potential to abuse his or her authority and training, to act in a corrupt manner, and many do. But we don't make the mistake of judging every FBI agent as corrupt merely because a handful are… And this, I think, is the real fear behind the SEI handwringing: that these types of individual are often outside established institutional or organizational entities, and therefore are seen as threats by others who are members of 'traditional' and established parts of our Government and world.

The sad truth is that there is no modern version of Bell Labs, which used to take in our Countries 'Wild Ducks', and find something productive for them to do. I'd disagree with you about there being no individuals with the ability to cause wide spread, wholesale destruction and chaos… (as there've been Blue v Red scenarios undertaken where the Red Team was essentially an SEI and an assortment of off-the-grid associates; and there was a basis for the parameters ascribed to those SEI's). So, suspending your skepticism for a moment and assuming there are SEI's in the US with the potential to do great harm to our Country, and accepting your point that there doesn't seem to have been any SEI 'evil genius' wrecking havoc on the free world, consider this: That the assumption that American SEI's are enemies of the State by default is misguided and wrong.

When this SEI debate last reared it's nasty little head, there were all sorts of people who agreed that the US government should identify potential or existing SEI's and lock them up, or strip them of their legal rights as citizens. And in some fields, this policy was more or less adopted, with very predictable results… namely, the individuals that were targeted left America, and became citizens elsewhere. Does this seem like a happy solution to you? Not to me, because whereas previously those individuals were only semi-outsiders, and were only hostile to certain elements of our government (like the agencies that were harassing them), but not irredeemable. Yet once they leave, they are implacably hostile to US interests, institutions, and policies.

It's my personal opinion, that those who obsess over US SEI's, are people who imagine themselves with the same talents or abilities, and know that if THEY had the skills the SEI's have, THEY'D use them in inappropriate ways. It never occurs to the fear monger that a particular SEI might only be an 'outsider' because he was following orders from someone INSIDE, or because a clerical error had left him in an impossible situation.

It's at least something to think on, no?


A. Scott Crawford

Any individual throughout history who has been sufficiently motivated and blessed with above par skill sets has been a SEI. Noah built an Ark and saved humanity from the Flood. What about Moses, what would Ramses say about the affect an SEI can have on a government?!
As I said earlier, because history is replete with individuals like this, the notion of the SEI is not a new dynamic in the pantheon of conflict.

This type of individual will use all the tools society provides to affect the change they wish to see. The tools available to them will determine the methods they employ. The fact that an individual voice can gain national and international notice means that conceivably, kinetic methods will not be the preeminent tactic.

The article is well written, and I understand the direction the authors are pointing us in. An SEI instigated situation has not yet caused a major perturbation for the global system. But, the potential is growing every year (though, on a side note I do not consider this making the individual a strategic actor rather than a tactical actor). Currently the US Government and society are able to handle such perturbations to resolution relatively quickly. However, we'd be wrong if we didn't take the potential of SEI seriously. An information campaign by an SEI, or hostage taking incident doesn't amount to much. But, an information campaign along with hostage taking and malicious cyber activity could cause a much greater challenge to the system. However, the chance of multiple tactics being employed successfully across multiple domains by an individual is low, as even in terms of an SEI this ability of a single individual would be remarkable, and possibly even demand that they be called a super-super empowered individual.

Eugnid (not verified)

Thu, 09/30/2010 - 2:40am

YNSN, where is the fratricide? Is it in the way so many Reservists and National Guard were sent in poorly equipped and poorly trained into repeated battle missions under "stop loss" as, to paraphrase Rummy: the troops you've got, not the troops you want?

Exceptional SEI cannot be found in our commanders as they way they speak OF each other after they replace each other makes one deem old hat Weakileaks and Woodward. So far all we've got is an endless supply of people willing to die killing us while we hit at everything that walks kill zone in order to keep our casualties down. So, like ants, the more you kill the more come out ready to die trying to kill you. Have we such "soldier ants"? We sure didn't have them as the last guy crawled up the ladder onto the last Hewey leaving the embassy roof in Saigon. For our troops its a job to do. For the even larger number of corporate killers its all money to be made. Where are we going while Al Qaeda soldiers on replacing every ant we kill with ten looking to be heroic in death?

We're losing our allies as they leave in disgust while the Taliban's "Arabs" and "Paks" keep coming to their aid!

An Israeli commentator said that our abandonment of Iraq and obsession with Taliban proves we're anti-Israeli. So on one seems to think us SEIs!

I view the difficulty so many have with pinning down the exact definition of 'super-empowered individual' (SEI) to the fact that there are so many examples of such individuals in history. As the authors themselves listed Princip. Martin Luther could even be cited as an example.

Because of this I do not view an SEI as any new sort of dynamic in conflict. Rather, and again as quoted by the authors, the current state of information technology allows what was once a "slower-burning flame" erupt into a near real conflagration. This effect I think is distorting the perception of an individuals ability. As well with our perception is the fact that the fidelity with which we view such instances is of much greater detail than ever before. Observers can clearly trace the lines between various data points.

Lastly, in terms of information war, I actually find something that I consider new. Not novel, but new. The information domain, through the networks we have established, has solidified. This domain is both a combat zone and not, as well. Fratricide is not much frowned upon either, in a society with the 1st amendment.

Eugnid (not verified)

Wed, 09/29/2010 - 4:11pm

RCJones, AQ became super-AQ in the eyes of friends&foes because our airlines violated regulations established in 1970s during a spade of airliner skyjackings: to make the pilot's cabin impenetrable in flight.

Much of the war on terror existed as a goose that lays golden eggs for some institutional folks, many friends of Bush&Co. AQ was judged by the world based on how much effort it created in America and how little results these efforts produced....Then there's the Bush pretension that we're dealing with a cunning monster in order to cover-up airlines' criminal negligence. All in all, $2tillion later we perpetuate the myth that Bin Laden is alive, hiding and laughing. He's dead but we paint him as indestructible to Jihadis ready to commit suicide as the miracle man. Fooling our people into thinking we need biiiiiiiig military effort we fooled our potential enemies into thinking that the more we do the less it matters because we're draining our own blood. And so the AQ myth rises like hot air.

Eugnid (not verified)

Wed, 09/29/2010 - 3:57pm

It's rather inevitable that when an agency's solutions lost the confidence of the nation its agents will try their best fluff to obfuscate the obvious which an awful lot of leaks have made comon knowledge. It's over boys, after a decade of deeming the military the hottest profession Americans realized that their money is needed in other real survival priorities. Let's not forget that low tech true-believers have defeated the shoot-em-up people who think that bigger bang is better. The next phase is the families of our soldiers and the survivors of the dead seeking command accountability. That will really be something.

Nevertheless the green revolutionaries are coming closer and closer to the pink slips no matter what media gimmicks they ply. Too many insiders have leaked too much for the obvious to be fog.

A.E. (not verified)

Wed, 09/29/2010 - 3:37pm

To move the discussion back to the topic, the core question for evaluating the respective influence and/or non-influence of super-empowered individuals and/or groups is the question of policy results.

Many of the claims made about super-empowerment link power with capacity for disruption, hence the example used in comments of the Discovery Channel hostage-taker. Recent evidence does show a greater capacity for disruption granted by globalization, information technologies, and the media.

However, the jury is still out about policy results. This isn't helped by the fact that a good deal of the literature on super-empowerment is tactically and operationally--rather than strategically--oriented.

By no means is it impossible that one man may be able to take on the a nation-state and win. I think we've all read enough William Gibson novels to see the potential. The question, however, lies in what is possible today and the near future.

That is what I find very interesting about the literature on super-empowerment, which has mostly fallen off since the mid-00's. It goes beyond the issue of terrorism or insurgency per se and looks more in the realm of world politics and change. It also makes usage of technical knowledge from the nonlinear sciences.

Hence, as technology and society evolves we ought to keep a close look on this issue.

A.E. (not verified)

Wed, 09/29/2010 - 3:21pm

I am confused by the idea that we somehow compare al-Qaeda and Michael Hastings. Nowhere in the article or the followup comments is either an implicit or explicit qualitative or quantitative comparison made between the effects of the Rolling Stone article and/or 9/11 made.

For what it's worth, we also pointed out that we viewed the Rolling Stone mess as being somewhat overinflated--for all of the hustle and bustle it did not lead to any noticeable changes in war policy. If anyone is interested in cross-comparison, that would be a wholly different article.

The picture painted of an al-Qaeda that possess the strategic advantage, has US policymakers dancing to its tune like stage puppets, and is satisfied with merely carving out a piece of a state is highly debatable. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda's effectiveness is simply not the subject of our article.

As mentioned earlier, if one is interested in debating about it, they should consult some of the reams of literature that have come out over the last nine years.


Wed, 09/29/2010 - 3:09pm

hey Robert,

<b>"Well, one might want to ask "why." Why is there an AQ, why now and why do they have their current focus of:
-Taking out the Saudi Royals
-Reducing US (and the West in general) influence in the Middle East
-Taking out "apostate" (translation, do not draw their legitimacy from their own populace) governments across the Middle East, and
- Creation of a Caliphate (transation, some sort of political structure that allows primarily Muslim countries to compete with others on the global forum)...."</b>

This is all fine, I agree with some of it and would make the subject of a worthy article, but your central objection here seems to be that Burke and Elkus didn't write it, which is not very logical. Or if it is, we could easily apply that logic to the great majority of what appears at SWJ.

Maybe you should write it as you already have a strong thesis about what you believe needs to be articulated on AQ and insurgency. Not being sarcastic here, I'm interested in seeing how you would support your argument.

Bob's World

Wed, 09/29/2010 - 2:30pm

So a reporter writes an article and a General gets reasigned is more effective than an organization launching a coordinated attack involving 4 civilian airliners the deaths of thousands and prompting the U.S to launch into a 9 year war, dragging its allies behind them, invading two countries and incurring thousands more casualites; meanwhile completely reorganizing the military and adopting first a policy of preemption, then a policy of nation building?

Just trying to track...

AQ is able to run a global, networked UW campaign that has the US chasing its tail all over the globe and acting in ways that are costing us influence with friends and foes alike. We react to AQ, AQ does not react to us. The U.S. dances to AQ's tune, with the Intel community calling the numbers. This was never possible prior to the current info age.

Also, What makes one think that the US response and subsequent consequences were not the primary goal of the 9/11 attacks? I suspect this has exceeded bin Laden's wildest fantasy in terms of success.

We need to appreciate that bin Laden does not want a state, the day he makes a state his own is the day he loses his primary source of sanctuary: his non-state status. We need to also appreciate that these guys do PSYOP too. I suspect the whole Caliphate threat is largely to motivate his target audiance to join up; and also to create a fearful over-reaction on the part of the west.

A.E. (not verified)

Wed, 09/29/2010 - 1:40pm

I see an interesting discussion has already developed regarding our article. Three points:

First, I do not see what is incoherent about our article. Our thesis, stated in the first two paragraphs, is that while it is undeniably true that technology/globalization/etc enables some individuals to have outsized effects these effects are primarily disruptive and do not lead to desired changes in policy.

This distinction is not just abstract. If war is a challenge to force another to do our will, then whether or not that will is forced is an important metric of success. If, say, a domestic radical takes a hostage in a newsroom and demands a policy change, he has undoubtedly caused a disruption but he (like the Discovery Channel hostage taker a few weeks ago here in DC) is probably unlikely to see his goals realized.

We used WikiLeaks and the Rolling Stone article as case studies because they provided contrasts of individuals--neither of whom were violent actors--who used the media to heavily disrupt US military policy. This, in a sense, is a test of the widespread idea (propagated in articles like "The Three Block War") that one individual in a globalized media environment can have strategic effects. The results of the inquiry showed a more complex picture. As such, it is a legitimate topic for analysis.

In regards to al-Qaeda, it was not the focus of our article and it was simply an offhand comment in our opening review of some of the literature surrounding super-empowerment. If anyone is interested in looking at the debate surrounding al-Qaeda and empowerment I suggest they consult works like Dima Adamsky's "Jihadi Operational Art" in last January's Studies in Conflict and Terrorism or the latest West Point CTC Sentinel.

However, our point on this minor issue is eminently defensible. Al-Qaeda simply did not succeed in achieving its goals, and it is difficult to see how it can do so in its present state. While it is at times difficult to examine whether it has what we might identify as a strategic calculus, its enemies in the Arab world still enjoy sufficient US support and al-Qaeda poses no serious threat to actually creating its desired Caliphate, much less overthrowing a single Arab government.

Our point about causation is also important. Do we credit al-Qaeda for "causing" what amounted to changes in defense policy ultimately attributable to US domestic politics? It is easy to conceive of much different responses to al-Qaeda had different political forces prevailed. If we credit Bin Laden alone for the post-9/11 grand strategy, we might also say he waved a magic wand over our heads and sprinkled fairy dust.

While Robert C. Jones' point about it being merely a symptom of overall issues may be valid, it does not invalidate arguments about the actual success record of al-Qaeda the organization.

Bob's World

Wed, 09/29/2010 - 1:07pm

Well, one might want to ask "why." Why is there an AQ, why now and why do they have their current focus of:
-Taking out the Saudi Royals
-Reducing US (and the West in general) influence in the Middle East
-Taking out "apostate" (translation, do not draw their legitimacy from their own populace) governments across the Middle East, and
- Creation of a Caliphate (transation, some sort of political structure that allows primarily Muslim countries to compete with others on the global forum).

Recognizing that AQ is a UW organization, with no populace of its own, it is reliant on the insurgent populaces of other states. Why do so many predominantly Muslim states currently have such high conditions of insurgency (though often well suppressed through aggresive police oppression)? What role have Western governments had in enabling these same governments to act with impunity toward their own populaces? Is there some approach to foreign policy by Western States that could be perceived as putting the interests of those Western states in a higher position with those governments than the intersts of their own populaces?

This is Supply and Demand, AQ is the Supply stepping up to meet a Demand at the regional level. Similarly there are nationalist insurgent movements stepping up to profide the supply where all these distinct and separate cases on nationalist Demand exist.

To target the insurgent at the state level is to target supply. It is to target the symptom.

To target AQ at the regional level is also to target supply. It is also to target the symptom.

Demand comes from Governments. Insurgency is political. It is the actions of government that create the conditions of insurgency within a populace. This is the problem. This is the Demand. Who comes along to fill the supply will depend on who steps up. Some are individuals and organizations that actually have the good of the populace at heart, at least initially. Many do not. They are those who just see an opportunity to become the next poor governance and to grab power and wealth.

All of this is rooted in perception rather than fact, and yes, the information tools of the day do indeed help build these perceptions and organize efforts to form insurgent responses.

If we wipe out AQ to the man tomorrow, the demand will still be there. The question to ask is who will step up to fill that demand? It may well be someone a lot more sophisticated that bin Laden who actually builds a Caliphate such as is described, and how actually does develop the capacity to really hurt us. Or, we can shift our focus from targeting the supply/symptoms to addressing the demand/problem.

Bottom line is that insurgents don't cause insurgency, they just step up to take advantage of the conditions of insurgency where they exist. Governments create the conditions of insurgency. Fix the governments and fix the problem. Protect the governments while attacking the insurgent and not only do you perpetuate the problem, you shift the focus onto yourself. AQ plays on this very well.

Or we can muse about wikileaks and Rolling Stones articles....that does seem more important.

Bob's World

Wed, 09/29/2010 - 9:00am

I have to confess, I found this article to be largely an incoherent jumble that struggled to make a point, and then when I think I grasped what their point was, I had to wonder what bubble these guys were writing this from.

Wiki-leaks and McChrysatal getting fired after a Rolling Stones article are examples of info age impowerment; but the greatest nation in the world spinning like a top, expending influence and cash around the world in pursuit of a club of guys waging a global UW campaign without the benefit of a state is not? Really?

This quote is particularly bizarre:

"Similarly, can we say that al Qaeda has significantly furthered its agenda? The processes set in motion by al-Qaedas 9/11 attacks led to a set of blows that have nearly destroyed the organization, and relatively few Muslims have heeded al-Qaedas call to rise up against Middle Eastern rulers. For all of his rhetoric, Bin Ladens harried and bloodied organization hardly appears to be super-empowered"

When one considers the impact this has had on the US influence around the world, the indirect effect it has had on the Western Economy, the fact that it has the entire US defense structure taking a 180 persepctive from what it held 9 years ago it is hard to see how one can hold up AQ as example of how empowerment does not exist. Particularly when one gets past AQ's rhetoric and grasps that the major point of 9/11 was to take the US down a couple notches and to reduce our influence in the Middle East. Look around, and then look up a couple notches. That's where we used to be.

I think this goes as much to their misunderstanding of AQ as anything. AQ is a symptom after all, and not the problem. We chase the symptom, and yes, we have kept the symptom from gaining much headway. But the problem itself, the problem that allowed AQ to emerge to begin with; the problem that will also feed and sustain whatever group it is that rises to surpass and replace AQ; THAT is what empowerment is about.

I would recommend that these authors step out of their bubble and look beyond the symptoms of AQ, or the current headlines of wiki leaks and the career bumps of generals and look at what is actually going on behind those superficial events and organizations.