Understanding the Developmental Dynamics of Terrorist Organizations

For those interested in the quantitative study of terrorism, I recently stumbled onto the work of Aaron Clauset and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch entitled “The Developmental Dynamics of Terrorist Organizations.”  I guess the goal was to make sure very few people working in terrorism/counterterrorism studies read this article as it was published under “Physics and Society” at the Cornell University Library.  Both the first and second versions of this article are excellent.  I personally like the first version as it is shorter and written more as an executive summary making the conclusions easier to comprehend.  I’m sure academics like the latter version as it is long and exhausting which fits their style.

Here are the key points I noted and I encourage all those interested in terrorism and counterterrorism research to look at Clauset and Gleditsch’s research methodology and the construction of their data.  Their empirical efforts are excellent and terrorism research could stand to use more interdisciplinary approaches like this. Here’s a summary from page 1 of their 2009 version.

“Contrary to common assumptions, young and old groups are equally likely to produce extremely severe events.  Older groups, however, remain signifcantly more lethal overall because they attack much more frequently than small groups, not because their individual attacks are more deadly.”

This is an important point for those analyzing a declining al Qaeda.  If al Qaeda were to conduct a large attack on the West tomorrow, it would not necessarily mean that al Qaeda is stronger.  Instead, to assess the size, strength, support and following of al Qaeda, one should examine the pace of al Qaeda and its affiliates’ attacks, not the severity.  Here’s an additional research result:

“The strong dependence of attack frequency on experience suggests that the timing of events is governed by organizationally internal factors, like growth and learning, related to group development, e.g. recruitment, personnel, turnover and internal coordination….furthermore, we note that curtailing the frequency of a group’s attacks, perhaps by limiting growth, would reduce the cumulative risk of very severe attacks.”

and this quote is also important:

“Severity is inherently random, governed by contingent details associated with the particular attack, the particular group, etc.”

Overall, I think this research appears highly instructive to understanding the rise and decline of al Qaeda.  I recently noted al Qaeda’s “Put Up or Shut Up Problem.”  While they are just as likely today as much as in the past to execute a mass casualty attack, evidence suggests their pace of attack has slowed dramatically and thus their organization is likely shrinking in size exponentially with each delay in attacks.  For al Qaeda to inspire new recruits and rejuvenate their movement, they need to execute a successful attack.  Likewise, executing successful attacks requires persistent recruitment and talent development through training – two constrained inputs to al Qaeda’s operations in 2012.  Al Qaeda, not dead, but without a successful attack – dying.  So remain vigilant and don’t overestimate al Qaeda’s strength even if they do pull off a successful attack.

Gladwell’s Story of Military Innovation & Drone Reference

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest TED Talk tells the story of the Norden bomb sight.   Gladwell paints a fascinating portrait of military technology innovation and acquisition before and through World War II.  This same story could easily describe any of a number of military acquisitions in U.S. history. He masterfully transitions this story into parallel discussions on SCUD hunting in Iraq and drone operations in today’s counterterrorism campaigns.

Gladwell’s ability to turn a boring topic into an intriguing story endures. Likewise, his ability to string concepts together and simplify complex dynamics results in overstated conclusions.  Five things came to mind as I listened to his presentation:

  1. The most expensive acquisitions rarely turn out to be the most useful – Gladwell notes that the $1.5 billion Norden bomb sight (cost in 1940 $) failed to achieve its promise.  The rapid development and issuing of the MRAP vehicle in Iraq shows how sometimes a lower cost, more simple technology solution trumps the expensive, ‘advanced’ system constructed over decades.  As a commander in the Army’s first Stryker brigade in 2000, I recall being mandated to go watch the first drone aircraft assigned to an infantry brigade slowly fly in a circle around the airfield.  Turns out the big, slow and noisy remote control airplane quickly became the most valuable weapon platform in the miltiary.
  2. Intelligence remains the key for successful drone operations – Gladwell accurately points out that drones are incredibly accurate at hitting their target, but the real challenge is identifying the right target.  Intelligence operations remain the key to successful implementation of drones in warfare.  U.S. intelligence continues to improve but will never be perfect.  No matter how accurate a weapon system might be the risk of collateral damage will never be fully mitigated.
  3. Gladwell strongly overstates/oversimplifies his “drones lead to increased violence” correlation – Gladwell concludes that more drone strikes have brought more violence against the U.S.  This is horribly simplified in my opinion.  In less than five seconds I could name five other reasons there has been a spike in suicide bombings, IEDs and overall attacks on Americans in Afghanistan.  I could probably identify many more reasons.  Unfortunately, Gladwell’s leap to link his excellent story into a relevant point misleads the audience.  He undermines his drone narrative by taking it just one step too far.
  4. Gladwell may have taken a slight jab at his critics – In his discussion of gadgets (at minute 10:12), Gladwell references people “making websites that will allow people to be free”.  I’m guessing this is a reference to his critics who hammered him during the Arab Spring for his “Small Change” article and criticism of twitter revolts.  I love it!  Nice subtle jab embedded in a story – “Blink” and you’ll miss it, or will you?
  5. Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” – This guy sure has an audience.  I watched the video at lunch and there were 358 views of this video.  By the time I write this, it’s over 58,000!  Incredible bounce for Gladwell videos and I wonder when he hit his “Tipping Point” as an author and speaker.

Despite the overstatement on drones and not addressing that the Atom bomb may have saved more lives in the long run than it took in the short run, Gladwell provides another excellent presentation and I’m sure I’ll buy his next book.

Here’s the video.