The growing weakness of nation-states as adequate protectors of their citizens is recently being demonstrated by other bodies varying between large businesses such as Google and private groups such as Anonymous or even individuals.
This subject can be approached from different directions but the one I’ll chose here is the same as Emerson Brooking, a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, the large American think-tank which specialises in American defence policy. In a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine he led off with a description of Anonymous. This is an organisation of unknown hackers which, on its website, has declared war on Isis, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
And, indeed it has. And it has done so because the collective has obviously decided that the American government is proving itself to be incapable of the task so far. The American government or its ciizens are not paying much of a price for this ineptness so far, but our government and those of other European countries certainly are. Our leaders are now becoming increasingly obsessed with the phenomenon that some of their own citizens in significant numbers are now deciding to go to Syria to help Isis terrorise all the surrounding regions in order to build what amounts to a new nation-state (in just the same way, it must be said, as all European nation-states were formed in the last 300 or 400 years).
Some leaders, such as David Cameron and Theresa May, the Home Secretary, who are given to sounding off so easily, went so far at one stage to characterise these volunteers as “traitors”, which, of course, they were not because Isis had not yet declared war on Great Britain. The volunteers merely wished to assist a foreign political group just as many volunteers went to Spain in 1939 to fight either for the Republicans or for General Franco’s troops. Our government, along with France and America, is making war on Isis without declaring war (because, formally, that would legitimise Isis).
More recently, however, Al-Bagdhadi has been encouraging Muslims here at home to become jihadists so this can be regarded legitimately as a declaration of war. So far, MI5 has been able to catch a few clumsy potential jihadists when they bought suspiciously large quantities of hydrogen peroxide or nitrogenous fertilisers for use as explosives but these individuals, as far as we can judge, are not intelligent enough to be given the privilege of arraignment on a full charge of treason. That charge will have to be reserved for the time, if it ever happens, when Isis starts bringing semtex into the country. Fortunately Isis are nowhere near so organised as, say, Chinese smugglers who bring in large quantities of psychedelic drugs into the country no doubt in freight containers.
Until very recently, many British and European jihadist volunteers were returning after a spell, presumably disillusioned with what they saw of the Isis regime in Syria or Iraq Any future returnees are now being prevented by strict one-way Isis border guards on the Syria-Turkey boundary. Volunteers can still enter Isis terriitory using smugglers to confuse guards on the Turkish side of the border but they cannot return from inside. What’s also making Cameron and other leaders so very piquey is that, lately, girls of marriageable age have been migrating to Isis land, presumably to marry and bear children to the heroic jihadists fighting there. More lately still, we now hear of mothers and their children migrating there which is even more poignant.
But still, America, Britain and France, for some reason not wishing to bomb Isis’s oil wells and thus deprive them of a considerable part of their income, look on helplessly as Isis seems to be able to mount offensives in Syria and Iraq as they will. In contrast, Anonymous have already declared war on Isis. On its website it has declared: “We are hackers, crackers, hacktivists, agents, spies or just the guy from next door . . . ISIS, we will hunt you,take down your sites, accounts, emails, and expose you . . . You will be treated like a virus and we are the cure. We own the Internet.”
M’mm . . . strong language indeed. I would sooner describe Isis as a new religious organisation which is adopting an old-fashioned dysfunctional form of Caliphate government because Muslim people in the Middle East are not yet allowed to become educated in scientific subjects so as to be able to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps in order to enjoy — if that is the right word — our consumer goodies. But — let’s give some credit to Anonymous — they’ve backed up their words so far with deeds.
In February, it exposed more than 6,600 Isis-linked Twitter accounts, along with 2,000 e-mail addresses and about “100 IP/IVN channels” (whatever they are). Several of the Isis’s major recruitment sites were also knocked offline. This is something that the British and American governmsnt have been unable to do.
As far as I can judge, however, what Anonymous have not been able to do so far — nor ever will — is to penetrate Isis’s encrypted e-mails and secret block-chain transfers of money that allows its secret agents in this country to organise with superb efficiency the travelling arrangements of those who are volunteering to go to Syria. This must be terribly frustrating to those otherwise brilliant hackers at Anonymous, as it is indeed to our own MI5 which only seems to be able to catch the more clumsy self-help domestic jihadists who are caught when they buy suspiciously large amounts of hydrogen peroxide or nitrogenous fertiliser.
So although Emerson Brooking glosses over this big deficiency of Anonymous, his article shows only too well that governments haven’t the faintest clue either of how to stop recruitment. New Isis websites keep popping up, word of mouth goes on between Muslim teenagers undetected by parents and teachers, dissatisfaction with what this country has to offer by way of jobs or the lack of salubrious moral environments expose what we have to offer and motivate enough of them to go abroad for their Islamic Shangri-La.
Actually, Brooking becomes ridiculous later in his article — or perhaps simply very naive — when he suggests that governments ought to start hiring brilliant hackers such as Anonymous or at least pay them some sort of bonus or ex gratia payments (via Bitcoin he even more naively suggests!). What he entirely overlooks is that sort of brilliant individuals who join Deep Internet-research groups of Anonymous’s sort are as much against their own nation-state governments in principle as Isis. Not to anywhere the same degree of course, considering the horrific activities of Isis but hackers of high calibre would no more join with governments as fly in the sky. Some have, of course — those who’ve been caught out hacking into banks’ funds — but the sort of hackers that governments need are either loners who will grow up later or have already, if they are of more than usual deferential disposition, joined the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) in this country or the National Security Agency (NSA) in America.
Which now brings me neatly to the big deficiency of governments. No more than Anonymous, they cannot penetrate encrypted communications, if they ever will until super-computers as big as the planet or quantum computers come along. Instead, naively, not content with reasonably expecting Google, Apple, Facebook and Co to inform them voluntarily when they think something really nasty is going on, they are putting pressure on Google, Apple, Yahoo and other sizeable communications firms to reveal, ‘on request’, customers’ encrypted e-mail and financial transfers. “No way”, say Google and the others. “If we did that we would lose our biggest customers such as large multinational corporations or banks which expect total secrecy. ”
Furthermore, Google and Apple (at least) have made sure that their mobile phones use encryption that they themselves can’t hack into. Thus governments have forced Google into giving as much protection to potential terrorists as to financial systems on which the economy of the word depends. How ham-fisted can government get?
Thus, nation-state governments are defenceless against what is now the most powerful offensive weapon that’s ever been invented — hacking into a nation’s electricity grid and bringing a country to a complete halt. No doubt all governments are endeavouring to make their electricity grids hacker-proof — and they may have done so already — but governments run so many apparently vital operations and regulatory regimes, and are devising new ones all the time, that they can never protect themselves fully from serious attacks of all sorts.
It’s unlikely that Isis will ever try to do so in a major way — if it ever develops the expertise — because other major governments, frightened of what may happen to them next, would attack them instantly with nuclear weapons in order to destroy their infrastrucutre. Whatever infrastructure Isis may have developed would be just as vulnerable as nation-states’.
So it’s a stand-off, just as major warfare between the Great Powers has been for the last 70 years. The fact remains, however, that nation-states, as presently conceived and constituted, are now penetrable, if not in practice to one another or to Johnny-come-lately Caliphates by voluntary decision, are still vulnerable to rogue groups or mentally disturbed individual hackers. The only possible way of proceeding from now onwards — when the message finally sinks into politicians’ heads — is that nation-state governments have got to gradually dissolve or devolve themselves into smaller, much more numerous, lateralised types of governance (and energy technologies) or, more realistically, to allow themselves to become so when requested.
The Internet and its necessary encryption for those who want it means that, sooner or later, nation-state government must dissolve themselves because they can no longer look after their citizens. If governments think they can hang on long enough until quantum computing comes along and they can penetrate encryption, then they might have to wait a very long time indeed — much longer than empires or nation-states have ever existed so far.