Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Why Terrorist Groups Are So Bureaucratic

By Sarah Green

I typed the words into the pristine white search field, hoping they didn’t land me on the NSA’s no-fly list: “How to manage a terrorist organization.”
There is a lot of academic work out there on what constitutes terrorism; the psychology of terrorists and terrorist acts; and the military precepts of asymmetric warfare. There’s not a lot on the basic management issues faced by your run-of-the-mill al Qaeda cell.
But that’s exactly what Princeton professor and former Naval officer Jacob Shapiro studies. The author of The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations and numerous academic papers on the topic, he examines terrorist groups like al Qaeda, Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and others through an organizational lens. I called him to pick his brain about it. What follows are edited excerpts of our conversation.
HBR: Why look at terrorist groups through a management lens?
Shapiro: One area where it’s very useful is in identifying the constraints terrorist groups face. For instance, one of the things you saw with Islamic State in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 was that most of the foreigners that are coming in to fight for them had very modest levels of education, at least as reported by the group itself, and very few useful skills. They had to invest a lot in training according to recently declassified HR documents.
So you think, “Wow, there were huge numbers of Iraqi men in 2007, 2008, 2009 that had to develop military skills, whether they had to develop them to fight for a particular side or for self-defense. Why do they even need all these unskilled foreigners?” It has to be they’ve had a tough time recruiting Iraqis. So looking at what their “talent pool” was back then can help reveal the constraints the current incarnation, the Islamic State or ISIS, is likely under now, and help you understand where you might clamp down on them.

But why use a business lens rather than, say, compare them to a traditional military structure?
Militaries are exempt from many of the concerns of other kinds of organizations. I think the critical thing that makes terrorist organizations seem more like businesses than militaries is that [in a terrorist group] you don’t have a cadre of people who live their lives within the organization. You don’t have well-defined career paths. What you do have in terrorist groups is a lot of turnover. So the groups that do sustain themselves over time and become a durable threat are the ones that put in place relatively low-cost business practices and coherent succession plans and all the things a business with high personnel turnover would need to sustain itself.
So what makes Islamic State so “successful”? 
Organizationally, one thing that is striking about Islamic State, looking at its lineage — from al Qaeda in Iraq to Islamic State in Iraq to ISIL to ISIS to Islamic State today — there is a fair amount of continuity in leadership and management. If you look at the documents that group produced in 2008, 2009, 2010, they were quite structured in how they did things (or at least it looks like they were). They were fairly systematic in tracking personnel, spending, income, all the things you need to track to realize economies of scale in a large organization. That’s something you need to do any time you want to organize large numbers of people to act collectively. Management without record-keeping is really hard. You can’t keep a thousand fighters in your head.
I’m sort of surprised terrorist groups are so bureaucratic.
They seem to use bureaucracy to make sure everyone is toeing the party line and to prevent splinter groups from breaking off. Terrorist groups have disgruntled and disobedient members just like any other organization, so the leaders try to rope people into a particular way of doing things by setting up standard operating procedures and making sure those are followed.
I do remember an example of one captured document in which Ayman al-Zawahiri castigates a Yemeni cell for essentially a sloppy expense report: “Will all due respect, this is not an accounting… you didn’t write any dates, and many of the items are vague.”

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