John Robb is a globally-recognized author, technologist, and
entrepreneur specializing in the complex systems of insurgency and
asymmetrical warfare. His book, Brave
New War, is an Amazon best-seller and established his expertise as
a researcher & military consultant. He has been featured in the New
York Times, The Economist, and the Wall Street Journal. His daily
thoughts are collected on his blog, Global Guerrillas.
I asked him some questions about his work, our times, and the shifting
landscape of governance & power…
In your book Brave New War you explore the changing nature
of warfare. What are some recent examples of insurgency, resource
conflicts, or terrorism that you feel best illustrate this new
Here's an interesting story that may do the trick. Back in 2004, the
US military was getting trounced in guerrillas in Iraq. Worse, the US
military establishment didn't know why. Didn't have a clue. To correct
this, I began to write about how 21st Century warfare actually worked
on my blog, Global Guerrillas. Essentially, I concluded that guerrilla
groups could use open source organizational models (drawn from the
software industry), networked super-empowerment (freely available high
tech tools, network information access, connections to a globalized
economy), and systems disruption (the targeting of critical points on
infrastructure networks that cause cascading failures) to defeat even
the most powerful of opponents, even a global superpower.
The new theories of warfare I developed on the blog proved both
predictive and very popular. As a result, I spent a lot of time on the
speaking circuit in Washington DC (DoD, CIA, NSA, etc.). Of course,
since my work was on a blog everyone could read it, even the
So, it was a little surprising although not
unexpected when I got an e-mail in 2009 from Henry Okah, a leader of MEND (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta). He invited me to Nigeria and stated that he was an avid reader of my
It was a moment out of history, as if the UK's General Liddell Hart
(the originator of blitzkrieg armored warfare) got a note from
Germany's tank General Heinz Guderian in 1939, thanking him for his
work. Here's why: MEND's campaign against Shell (the oil company) and
the Nigerian government between 2006 and 2008 was a great example of
how I thought 21st Century warfare would be fought. The organization
structure was loose and organized along the lines of an open source
movement. Lots of small autonomous groups joined together to take down
the country's oil infrastructure by targeting vulnerable points in the
network (Nigeria is a major global oil exporter). During 2007, they
were able to take out one million barrels a day of oil production.
This shortfall was the reason oil prices rose to $147 a barrel. Those
high prices had a negative global economic impact: the start of a
global recession and a spike in default rates in US sub-prime
mortgages (due to higher driving and food costs). That spike in
sub-prime mortgage default rates radically accelerated the demise of
our grossly over leveraged global financial sector, which in turn led
to the financial panic of 2008.
In short, MEND's disruption campaign, yielded tens of trillions of
dollars in global economic damage for tens of thousands of dollars
spent on making the attacks. That's a return on investment (ROI) of
1,000,000,000%. How do nation-states survive when an unknown guerrilla
group in a remote corner of the world can generate returns on that
magnitude? They don't.
The United States is suffering both the economic decline of
its industry and the ongoing dismantling of the social welfare
apparatus supporting the citizenry. In your opinion, will this
inevitably lead to some form of armed insurgency in America?
Yes. The establishment of a predatory and deeply unstable global
economic system – beyond the control of any group of nations – is in
the process of gutting developed democracies. Think in terms of the
2008 crisis, over and over again. Most of what we consider normal in
the developed world, from the middle class lifestyle to government
social safety nets, will be nearly gone in less than a decade. Most
developed governments will be in and out of financial insolvency.
Democracy, as we knew it, will wither and the nation-state bureaucracy
will increasingly become an enforcer for the global bond market and
kleptocratic transnational corporations. Think Argentina, Greece,
Spain, Iceland, etc. As a result, the legitimacy of the developed
democracies will fade and the sense of betrayal will be pervasive
(think in terms of the collapse of the Soviet Union). People will
begin to shift their loyalties to any local group that can provide for
their daily needs. Many of these groups will be crime fueled local
insurgencies and militias. In short, the developed democracies will
How big of a domestic threat is there from the
narco-insurgency in Mexico and the growing power of Latin American
gangs in America?
Very big. A threat that dwarfs anything we face in Afghanistan (a
useless money pit of a war). It's not a threat that can be solved by
conventional military means, since the problem is that Mexico is a
hollow state. Unlike a failed state like Somalia (utter chaos), a
hollow state still retains the facade of a nation (borders,
bureaucracy, etc.). However, a hollow state doesn't exert any
meaningful control over the countryside. It's not only that the state
can't do it militarily, they don't have anything they can offer
people. So, instead, control is ceded to local groups that can provide
basic levels of opt-in security, minimal services, and jobs via new
connections to the global economy – think in terms of La Familia in
The real danger to the US is that not only will these groups expand
into the US (they already have), it is that these groups will
accelerate the development of similar homegrown groups in the US as
our middle class evaporates.
Do you see a diminishing role for the state in large-scale
governance? Does this compel communities to do it for
Yes, large scale governance is on the way out. Not only are nearly all
governments financially insolvent, they can't protect citizens from a
global system that is running amok. As services and security begin to
fade, local sources of order will emerge to fill the void. Hopefully,
most people will opt to take control of this process by joining
together with others to build resilient communities that can offer the
independence, security, and prosperity that isn't offered by the
nation-state anymore. However, this is something you will have to
build for yourself. Nobody is going to help you build it.
In what ways are the new methods of insurgency & terror
instructive towards building strategies for resiliency?
Here are a few of the parallels:
* Powerful technologies. Inexpensive tools that make it possible
to produce locally what it used to take a global economy to produce.
* Networks. The ability to draw on the ideas of hundreds of
thousands of people working on the same problems through open source
tinkering networks. The ability to create new economic networks that
You're currently writing a book about local resiliency.
What are the primary global drivers behind your interest in
Yes, I am. It's about building resilient communities. Communities that
offer energy independence, food security, economic prosperity, and
protection. What are the global drivers that make resiliency
important? Simply: stability, prosperity, and security is going away.
You will soon find you are on your own, if you haven't already. If you
do nothing, you will suffer the predations of gangs, militias, and
corrupt bureaucracies that will fill the void left by retreating
nation-states. If you want to avoid this fate, you can build resilient
communities that not only allow you and your family to survive intact,
but to thrive. My goal with my new book, is to provide people with a
road map on how to build resilient communities from scratch.
What is the core messages you have to communities about
preparing for the coming age?
Produce everything you can locally. Virtualize everything else. The
value of your home will be based on the ability of your community to
offer energy independence, food security, economic vitality, and
protection. Survivalist stockpiles and zero footprint frugality are
pathways to failure. Think in terms of vibrant local economic
ecosystems that are exceedingly efficient, productive, and bountiful.