Accounting for terrorism

by Henry Farrell on February 11, 2008

in International Relations

Dan Drezner today

Kevin Whitelaw wrote a fascinating piece in U.S. News and World Report suggesting that Al Qaeda is confronting a more powerful foe than the United States government: organizational pathology:

More than 600 captured personnel files of foreigners who joined the terrorist group known as Al Qaeda in Iraq tell the individual stories of Muslim extremists who made the difficult journey to Iraq—and most likely died or were captured there….
But the records, which were analyzed and released by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, also point out a trait that has been unique to al Qaeda and many of its offshoots: They are surprisingly bureaucratic.

This is something that has already received some attention in the literature. Jacob N. Shapiro, and David A. Siegel (who gave an interesting talk at GWU a couple of years ago) have a piece in International Studies Quarterly that looks at principal-agent problems in terrorist organizations, and concludes that one of the big problems that terrorist masterminds face is in ensuring that their underlings behave honestly. This may have unfortunate results for their organization’s effectiveness.

The puzzle for traditional perspectives on terrorist financial and logistical systems is that groups, which are purportedly organized to carry out attacks often provide inadequate funds to their operatives. … suppose that the members of a terrorist support network, middlemen, were not uniformly driven by mission accomplishment, but that some were driven by monetary rewards. Because the network is covert, informational asymmetries abound, exacerbating the principal–agent dilemmas found in any hierarchical organization, creating numerous opportunities for middlemen to appropriate resources for personal use. In this scenario a greedy middleman need only pass on as much money to operatives as is required to achieve an acceptable number of successful attacks. This rough sketch, which our model formalizes, can explain underfunding in hierarchical terrorist groups.

This article is unfortunately behind a paywall, but a piece by Shapiro describing its implications for anti-terrorist policy can be found here. Interestingly, Shapiro’s analysis suggests that some of the claims of the article that Dan links to are out of date.

From the mid-1990s through late-2001, al-Qa’ida made every effort to become a fully bureaucratized organization, complete with employment contracts specifying vacation policies, explicitly documented roles and responsibilities for different jobs including detailed descriptions of the experiences required for senior leadership roles, security memos written by a specialized security committee,14 and standardized questionnares for those arriving at training camps. Al-Qa’ida did not decide to decentralize until 2002, following the ouster of the Taliban from Afghanistan and the arrest of a number of key al-Qa’ida leaders … In response these and other key losses, al-Qa’ida allegedly convened a strategic summit in northern Iran in November 2002, at which the group’s consultative council decided that it could no longer operate as a hierarchy, but instead would have to decentralize. Essentially, al-Qa’ida traded operational control and financial efficiencies for security and organizational survival.

Which is to say that al-Qaeda (worldwide) has had to forego the pleasures of bureaucratic command-and-control for the even more exciting world of outsourcing and subcontracting without anything much at all in the way of checks-and-balances. This may offer some clues, however, to a rather perplexing puzzle. Over the last few years, US forces have killed lots and lots of men, each of whom has been described as al-Qaeda’s third-ranked leader. Skeptics, ditch-hurlers and finger-pointers have suggested that the US may have slightly exaggerated the importance of these kills, going so far as to draw rather unkind comparisons between the life prospects (a) of someone appointed to the position of third-in-command in al-Qaeda, and (b) of someone appointed as drummer in Spinal Tap. But a less cynical take is possible. Perhaps, given the problems outlined above, Al-Qaeda (new model) needs lots and lots of executive vice-presidents for financial control and auditing to try to keep track of what their various subcontractors are up to.

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