Non-Physical Communities: Understanding the Expanded Frontier
Jonathan C. Nielsen
The Great Power Competition might be determined by a non-physical capability.
Traditionally, when nations and international organizations assess threats thoughts gravitate toward determining their physical size, composition, and capability. During the first engagements on the Western Front of World War II, Nazi Germany marched 41,000 vehicles, including panzer tanks, combined with the largest aerial attack in history to that point through the restricted terrain of the Ardennes forest and across the Meuse River in just 11 days in May 1940.1 The battle swiftly defeated the immobile French Maginot Line and sent shockwaves around the world as a faster and more mobile force defeated the paradigm military of the time.2
Other past conflicts would provide similar examples about the importance of understanding physical size, speed, and strength of an adversary. However, such an approach might be outdated for the Great Power Competition. Improvements in wireless networks and changes in social dynamics create a new environment that contributes to the size, speed, and strength of an adversary or near peer threat. Where should nations and militaries expand their aperture to assess the capabilities of current threats?
An understanding of non-physical communities is a good starting point to achieving that clarity. A non-physical community is a united group of obedient members that do not occupy any physical space. A non-physical community is not the same as a virtual community. A virtual community is “being on or simulated on a computer or computer network, occurring or existing primarily online.”2 A virtual community requires the internet, where as a non-physical community is not tangible or concrete and may exist without the internet. Non-physical communities assemble and operate under a similar construct of beliefs, interests, and ideas as those in physical communities, but exist in the information domain. The attributes that define non-physical communities are different too. The five attributes of non-physical communities are 1) ideological principles, 2) standardized distribution medium, 3) connectors, 4) obedient behavior, and 5) collective identity. A deeper look at how past and current communities demonstrate each attribute provides a foundational understanding of how non-physical communities currently exist in the Great Power Competition.
Ideological principles are the united purpose of a non-physical community. The aims of these principles can resemble several characteristics. However, these characteristics gravitate toward one or more defined principles. Those four principles are religious, social, political, or economic objectives or issues. A non-physical community may focus their objective on one or multiple ideological principles viewed as positive or negative rights. Positive rights are those subjected upon someone and permit or oblige action.3 Negative rights are those not subjected upon someone and permit or oblige inaction.4 Regardless of the right, the consistent component across all principles is the ability to attract, relate, inspire, and maintain members committed to a collective objective. Understanding the ideological principle is central to influencing a non-physical community.
ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) demonstrates an example of this principle. ISIL’s published documents reveal a predominant focus of social and religious ideological principles in the function of their non-physical community. ISIL defines these principles as each member’s duty to unite and serve subordinates to the long-term objectives of their defined state that are based in a historical, religious context. ISIL’s ideological principles are founded in the non-traditional ancient readings of Salafism. Salafism is a form of Sunni Islam that strives to emulate the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed and includes a broad range of beliefs from non-violent actions and devotion to extremist readings in a pre-modern theological tradition such as Salafi Jihadism.5 Salafi Jihadism’s extremist readings and beliefs do not apply to all Sunni Muslims nor represent the broader Muslim population. However, ISIL uses this historical connection from a positive rights perspective as a means to justify their religious and social ideologies to unite followers and pursue their objectives.
Standardized Distribution Medium (SDM)
A standardized distribution medium (SDM) is the second attribute of a non-physical community. An SDM is a consistent, available, and prevalent communication platform that facilitates a non-physical community. The SDM allows members of a non-physical community to connect, communicate, and expand the reach of the ideological principles of the group. The medium can be in many forms: notes, audio transmission, or open collaboration forms, but it must be consistent, so members can easily unite, communicate, and expand the community.
The SDM determines how far the community can reach while also indicating the diversity of the members it strives to attract. A printed SDM is likely guarded by the community and will potentially be limited to isolated locations, only available in one language, and shared solely with the most trusted members of the community. An example of a printed SDM is Al Qaeda’s hawala network. The hawala network consisted of trusted agents that moved money and messages for the terrorist organization while maintaining a low profile inside and outside the organization.6 An SDM that is transmitted over the internet - not in a closed group forum - will have no geographical limitations, can be easily and quickly transmitted in multiple languages, and shared with every member of the community.
The protest in Egypt in January 2011 demonstrated a powerful example of an open form internet SDM. Egyptian protestors used YouTube and Facebook to share messages and information as well as provide direction to members that created massive rallies all over the country and led to the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power.7 Identifying a group’s SDM is crucial to influencing their information cycle and assessing the size, speed, and reach of their community.
Connectors are the third attribute of a non-physical community. Connectors link geographically separated members through the SDM. A connecter is a universal symbol, mark, seal, or confirmation that members know and understand. A universally understood and distinguishable connector certifies the legitimacy of the content distributed via the SDM. A connector is in either audio or print form and depends on the form of the SDM. An audio connector can be a phone message, video recording, or universally understood tones. Each time an audio message is sent using the SDM, the universally understood and distinguishable connecter will accompany that message. A print connector functions in the same manner and can be in many forms such as a text message, hashtag, blog post, or paper document.
Nazi Germany demonstrated how connectors function. During WWII, the standard greeting in Nazi Germany in any formal and informal setting was Heil Hitler.8 The greeting also served as a connector for the Third Reich to show faith to Hitler and strengthen the overall Nazi community.9 Every message that came out of German High Command was approved by Adolf Hitler. To stamp his seal of approval, each audio or print message concluded with that same statement, Heil Hitler. This statement served as a universally understood and distinguishable connecter in the same means that it serves in a non-physical community today.
The Jasmine Revolution is a recent example of a connector in a non-physical community. The connector that facilitated their non-physical community and spread the Jasmine Revolution message around the country and the world was a hashtag in honor of Mohamed Bouazizi, #sidibouzid.10 The members of the Jasmine Revolution used #siibouzid in each message to share information, provide locations, give direction, and keep members updated.11 This connector was so powerful at uniting their collective effort that frustrated Tunisian citizens removed a president from power in just two months who had held the position for over 21 years.
Russia took note of this movement and used hashtags as connectors in a similar fashion to garner support for their movement in Ukraine. Russia turned the hashtag #UnitedforUkraine that was intended to challenge their actions in Ukraine into a vehicle to build support and contest the actions of the United States’ government.12 Understanding how an adversary uses connecters will be important to maintain a proactive advantage to identify, monitor, and disrupt communication of Great Power Competitors. Central to making a connector work is the obligated behavior of each member.
Obligated behavior is the fourth attribute of a non-physical community. Each member’s commitment to the group above themselves is critical to the function of a non-physical community. Individual obligation holds each member accountable to the accomplishment of the community’s objectives. This obligation creates a disciplined behavior that sustains activity and ensures a constant movement toward the community’s objectives. The discipline and commitment represent a mechanism characteristic in a social movement. A key mechanism of a social movement is a linked and dense informal community, where no single member can claim to represent the movement as a whole.13 This linked community of obligated members must exercise individual discipline to a united idea or the basis of the community’s existence (objective or purpose) will crumble.
Critical to a non-physical community’s continuous activity are four key tasks: monitoring, passing, promoting, and reinforcing. First, monitoring requires members to have access to the SDM, know the defined connectors, and stay current on information and direction of the community. Second, passing requires members to share information with committed followers, potential members, and the general public. Third, promoting requires members to use the designated connector of the non-physical community when sending messages to increase the volume of the message and activity of the group. Last, reinforcing requires an obligated behavior that takes aspects of the three aforementioned requirements. All of these requirements carried out by disciplined and committed members model the obligated behavior that is critical to the functioning of a non-physical community.
The recruitment of new members into ISIL’s non-physical community demonstrates the capability of this attribute. Zulfi Hoxha, the son of an Albanian-American from New Jersey turned leader of ISIL, reveals how a member’s obligated behavior can attract followers to join, serve, and lead ISIL’s global non-physical and physical community. First, Hoxha was actively monitoring ISIL’s messages posted on Twitter prior to leaving the United States. Second, Hoxha interacted with members via Twitter as they shared information with him including their instruction manual for Western supporters, “How to Survive in the West,” which included communication systems and methods of training such as video games.14 Third, ISIL members used connectors through multiple distribution mediums to provide legitimate information in a variety of means for Hoxha to monitor different activities and information. Additionally, the members that recruited Hoxha reinforced their messages with supplemented communication mediums such as Skype to further interact with Hoxha face to face, and build his interest and loyalty to the community, which eventually lead to him leaving the United States to serve as a senior leader for ISIL in Iraq.15 Hoxha’s recruitment is just one example of how the obligated behavior in a non-physical community can attract and guide followers to join and later contribute to their physical objectives.
The final attribute of a non-physical community is a collective identity. An identity is the distinguishing characteristic that defines an individual or group. An identity can be a myriad of things such as an image, act, product, or behavior. In a non-physical community, individual identities diminish the strength of the group, create selfish endeavors, and detract from the collective ideological focus.
Non-physical communities inculcate the ideological principles of the group’s identity upon its members in one of four ways: pride, necessity, requirement, or fear. These means are arranged in ascending order based on the amount of influence placed upon a member to join and support the community. In addition to influence, individual interest contributes to one’s desire to join a community. A member motivated by pride requires a very low degree of influence as their interest in the community and its objectives are already very high. Individuals called to join out of necessity also require a very low degree of influence to join. However, members that join based on necessity may not possess the same initial level of interest or commitment to the community’s objectives. Nazi Germany prior to and during WWII demonstrates the shift in this interest. Many of the initial Nazi supporters prior to the invasion of France in 1941 were likely influenced by pride in hopes for a better Germany that was restricted from the limitations imposed by the Paris Peace Conference after WWI.16 However, as Nazi Germany started to lose battles in the East against the Soviet Union in 1943 and the Americans in 1944, the new Nazi supporters of 1943-1944 likely joined out of necessity to survive rather than commitment to the ideological principles of the party.
Members that join by means of requirement represent a shift in influence applied. Members that feel required to join typically assume they have no other option and therefore require some degree of influence to succumb to and model the collective identity. Last, individuals that join based on fear are brought into the community with a significant amount of influence or force as these individuals likely possess little to no interest in serving the collective identity.
ISIL’s efforts to mold children to follow their ideological principles demonstrate an example of requirement and fear. In March 2016, the Quilliam Foundation, a British counter-extremism think tank, published a report by Noman Benotman and Nikita Malik that stated there were 31,000 pregnant women living under the control of ISIL.17 Given that the vast majority of these women resided in locations under ISIL’s physical control, such as the war-torn regions of Iraq and Syria, it is nearly impossible for these children to obtain a legal birth certificate, making it very difficult to prove nationality and immigrate away from ISIL’s sphere of control. Thus, ISIL will require these children and families to join their movement and support their non-physical community. Influenced by fear, these children and families will deem that they have no other choice.
The uprisings in Syria in 2011 against the Bashar al-Assad government demonstrates another example of how fear influences members to join a non-physical community. On 15March 2011 in the population center of Daraa a group of frustrated and starving citizens gathered to express their disfavor of the government’s torture of students and the lack of assistance to solve the food and water shortages.18 To subside the public quarrels and in an attempt to regain power, the al-Assad government responded with brutal force to remove citizens from the streets.19 These acts of violence began the significant social explosion that resulted in Syrians collectively bonding together via social media out of fear of a repressive government that turned a plea for food and water into a violent political, religious, and territorial battle between desperate citizens, rebel groups, and government supporters that wages on today.
It is time to address the influence and threat of non-physical communities. The aforementioned attributes reveal that physical size and composition alone does not account for overall capability. As any group, competitor, or threat continues to expand the size and reach of their non-physical communities, the criteria and means to engage the attributes mentioned above will create turbulent and challenging scenarios. The attributes defined within this article provide the introductory knowledge to expand one’s perspective into the non-physical realm and begin the discussion to address this influential environment. The time has not yet come to discard the historical lessons of assessing the physical size, speed, and strength of an adversary, but the parameters that define the new Great Power Competition has an expanded frontier – non-physical.
1. Karl-Heinz Frieser. “Panzer Group Kleist and the Breakthrough in France, 1940” in Historical Perspectives of the Operational Art. (Center of Military History, United State Army, 2005), 171.
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4. Berlin. Cuatro Ensayos Sobre la Libertad, 5.
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6. Kevin McGrath, Confronting Al-Qaeda: New Strategies to Combat Terrorism (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011), 77-78.
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10. The Jasmine Revolution started on 17 December 2010 in a market in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young fruit and vegetable vender, set himself on fire to protest his significant unemployment frustration after receiving multiple acts of harassment and humiliation from government authorities and security officials.
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16. The Paris Peace Conference reestablished an admittedly imperfect stability to Europe after World War I. The dominant aggressor of WWI, Germany, paid a heavy political, economic, and military price for the war. The Treaty of Versailles outlined in fifteen parts the restrictions, penalties, and mandates placed upon Germany to prevent a future war from occurring.
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Della Porta, Donatella and Mario Diani, Social Movements: An Introduction (Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
Frieser, Karl-Heinz. “Panzer Group Kleist and the Breakthrough in France, 1940” in
Historical Perspectives of the Operational Art. (Center of Military History, United State Army, 2005),
Groll, Elias. “A Record Year In Misery: The World Has Never Seen A Refugee Crisis This Bad.” Foreign Policy Magazine, 18 June 2015, accessed 18 June 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/06/18/a-record-year-in-misery-the-world-has-never-seen-a-refugee-crisis-this-bad/.
Holocaust Encyclopedia, “Making a Leader,” accessed 27 February 2018,
Hughes, Seamus, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, and Bennett Clifford. “A New
American Leader Rises in ISIS.” The Atlantic, 13 January 2018. Accessed 13 January 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/01/isis-america-hoxha/550508/.
Lay, Daniel. Radical Islam and the Revival of Medieval Theology (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Merriam Webster, “virtual,” accessed 6 April 2018, https://www.merriam-
Kevin McGrath, Confronting Al-Qaeda: New Strategies to Combat Terrorism. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011.
Polk, William. “Understanding the Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad” The
Atlantic, 10 December 2013, accessed 10 December 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/12/understanding-syria-from-pre-civil-war-to-post-assad/281989/.
Tharoor, Ishaan. “Russia Hijacks U.S. State Department’s Ukraine Hashtag.” The
Washington Post, 25 April 2014. Accessed 26 March 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/04/25/russia-hijacks-u-s-state-departments-ukraine-hashtag/?utm_term=.0f8b8d5dc35c.