“This is what we look like,” I said, as I drew a line-and-block chart on a whiteboard inside our Balad, Iraq headquarters. It laid out a neat, geometric hierarchy. “So”—I pointed to the same diagram—“this what we’re looking for.”
I was referring to the overarching strategy of my Special Operations Task Force and the individual inclinations of the operators that comprised it: We desperately wanted Al Qaeda in Iraq to be organized like we were, so that we could understand it, analyze it, pick it apart, and, ultimately, defeat it. Remove the leadership, some believed, and the organization would crumble.
“But I think we’re in agreement that what we’re actually facing looks more like this,” I said, taking the marker and drawing a new structure: my pen jumped around the board, scattering blue circles randomly across the white surface. Between them, I added seemingly arbitrary connections. One circle linked to five others, one of those five connected to three more, and so on. Unlike the comforting, symmetric right angles of the hierarchy, the lines between these nodes were erratic, varying in length, direction, and logic. I had drawn a network, and the randomness of my sketch implied the complex social, familial, tribal, and marital ties that connected our enemy, Al Qaeda. On that day, the actual arrangement of those links remained opaque to us—the dots and lines on the board simply represented an abstraction of what we believed we were facing.