The Grid: A Primer in Network Warfare

By: John Arquilla

"Our cell against their cell. I like it." So says FBI agent Max Canary early on in The Grid, a limited television series that was co-produced by Fox and the BBC. Canary's comment is in response to a National Security Council staffer, Maren Jackson, who is seeking to recruit him as she builds her own network to fight the network of a rising new terrorist leader, "Muhammad." What unfolds over the six episodes of the series, which aired in the summer of 2004, is a race in which Muhammad and his operatives get their terrorist campaign under way—largely by means of hitting at oil and oil industry–related targets—while being hunted by the Anglo-American network that Maren cobbles together in pursuit of them.

The story is told in something close to documentary style, yet the characters are very well delineated, on both sides. Ragib, a medical doctor who once patched up Muhammad during the war against the Russians in Afghanistan, is a particularly sympathetic figure. Conflicted about the very idea of committing acts of terror, his attempt to lead a normal life back in Egypt is completely upended by Hosni Mubarak's secret police. On the counterterrorist side, Max Canary's motivations clearly come from the loss of one of his closest friends in the 9/11 attacks. He struggles, not always successfully, to maintain his professionalism.

Among the more fascinating elements of the story—for me, at least—is the bitter bureaucratic feuding among the Americans that makes it so hard to operate in networked fashion. The CIA, FBI, and the National Security Council struggle to sort out just who's in charge, and what exactly they're in charge of. Eventually, the network is allowed to emerge, and things really start humming when the British representatives of MI5 and MI6 begin to demonstrate their formidable capabilities. They are portrayed as being more willing to share information and to trust their American allies. Together, the Brits and Americans begin to put the pieces together and start tracking Muhammad's cells.

But they aren't fast enough, and the terrorists get in a number of attacks—sometimes mounted against the very people who are hunting them, giving the series an interesting sense of turnabout. It seems quite prescient of the producers to have come up with a major set of terrorist cells operating and intending to strike at targets within the United Kingdom, given that the attacks on the London transportation system occurred just a year after the series aired.

The climax of the series comes, predictably, as Muhammad's cells prepare a series of strikes even as the counterterrorist forces are closing in on them. Without giving away too much, let me just say that the resolution is much closer to reality than the usual thriller of this sort: not all of the attacks are thwarted, and not all of the terrorists are caught or killed. It is clear that the struggle will go on, and the side that prevails will be the one with the more effective network.

Shot on location in the United States, Britain, and Morocco—the last substituting for a number of sites in the Middle East and Africa—the series has a good cinematic feel. It is exceptionally well cast, particularly with its strong female roles on the terrorist-hunting side. Indeed, the Maren Jackson character from The Grid seems clearly to foreshadow Maya, the heroine of the counterterror film of the moment, Zero Dark Thirty.

If there is one significant criticism I have of The Grid, it is that the producers took a very limited view of networking. The Anglo-American intelligence alliance is seen as sufficient, and no doubt kept the writers from having to develop too many characters. But they should have figured out a way to bring more international elements into the fight against Muhammad and his cells. A few years after the series aired, I was approached by the producers and asked about what a sequel should look like, and the one big point I tried to get across was that they needed to highlight the transnational nature of the fight against terrorist networks.

The sequel has never been made. But the original holds up quite well, and is certainly worth making the effort to find online, via Amazon, or by other means. The Grid was the first, and to this day remains the best, effort to portray a conflict between two networks in which the fundamental dynamic is that of hider/finder, and the critical need is to gain greater knowledge as swiftly as possible. That the writers and producers at Fox and the BBC captured these themes so well, in a series so entertaining, is a tribute to their skill and perspicacity.

About the Author(s): John Arquilla is professor of Defense Analysis at NPS, and current chairman of the DA Department.


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