The Terrorist’s Dilemma – Managing Security and Control Tradeoffs

Each year I have the time to read about one book on terrorism.  The past two years I have read two winners – J.M. Berger’s Jihad Joe in 2011 and Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge in 2012.  Both were excellent books so this year I was hoping to make it three years in a row – I’m positive I’m going to make it.

Last week, I acquired Dr. Jacob Shapiro’s excellent new book The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations. I’m only about 50-60 pages in and it is fantastic.  Years ago, Dr. Shapiro and I were co-authors and co-editors for Al Qaeda’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa which examined some of al Qaeda’s internal documents detailing their foray into Somalia during the early 1990’s.  Terrorists DilemmaDr. Shapiro carried the report by not only re-writing and shaping up my third grade writing, but also by illuminating discussion of agency problems found inside al Qaeda – all organizations have internal politics, al Qaeda is no exception.  Jake carries on this excellent work with a full book exploring agency problems across many different terrorist organizations over many different time periods.  This book clearly outlines many of the concepts I’ve argued at this blog and in posts as recently as last week. (See Internal Factors Influencing al Qaeda)

The book is filled with great quotes and I’ll put some in a larger review that I do after I finish reading.  For now, here’s one of my favorites from the introduction (p.11) regarding the assessment of counterterrorism policies:

“The number of attacks or nature of violence being conducted by a group is an ambiguous indicator on this score. Because success for terrorists is measured in terms of political impact, not in terms of numbers killed or attacks conducted, the vast majority of terrorist organizations try to achieve a politically optimal level of violence than what they could manage if they sought only to kill.  As such, an observed increase in the rate of attacks can mean the group has become more efficient, or it can mean leaders have been placed under so much pressure that they gave up control and operatives responded by ramping up the rate of attacks”

Based on the recent freaking out about a resurgent al Qaeda, I thought this quote was particularly useful.

I’ve been criticized by some for discounting jihadi ideology at times when evaluating al Qaeda.  While I do agree that ideology provides an important binding and guiding function for religious terrorist groups, my experience reading internal documents from al Qaeda always suggests that ideology is malleable to the internal dynamics of the organization.  When a new violent tactic needs to be justified or an internal dispute needs to be resolved, ideological justifications for al Qaeda leader actions often conveniently arise to support said leader’s position.  The trials and tribulations of Omar Hammami provide abundant material in this regard and the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “Sharia Problems” rebuttal of Ayman al-Zawahiri may be another recent example.

Ideological pronouncements provide what the al Qaeda leader says they want to do.  Meanwhile, al Qaeda’s internal documents outline what the group and its leaders actually do.  I believe Dr. Shapiro’s book is a must read for those trying to understand how terrorist group’s make decisions and I hope everyone gets a chance to read it.  It’s well written and uses a fantastic array of case studies from throughout history and around the globe.  And with that, I’m off to read some more.


Strongly Recommend Johnsen’s Book “The Last Refuge” on AQAP in Yemen

This week, Gregory Johnsen’s new book The Last Refuge arrives in bookstores detailing the rise, fall and reemergence of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen.  It is clearly the best book available on AQAP in Yemen.

Having spent the past decade in, out and around the U.S. government and academia in a variety of counterterrorism roles, I’ve read endless reams of paper on al Qaeda and their tribulations – so I consider myself a tough critic of al Qaeda works.  But, I was given an advance copy of Gregory’s book, The Last Refuge, and it is undoubtedly one of the best books on al Qaeda I’ve read.  I strongly encourage anyone interested in al Qaeda, terrorism and Yemen to give this text a read as the manuscript provides a much needed update to al Qaeda’s manifestations in the ten years since the attacks of September 11, 2001.  Also, for those lucky enough to be in the New York City area today, November 12, you can see Greg present his work at the Overseas Press Club of America at 6 p.m. at 40 West 45th Street, Club Quarters, NYC.

Regular readers of this blog might be surprised that I would provide such a strong endorsement of Greg’s book as he and I have been quite the rivals on the use of drones in Yemen. (See here, here, here and pretty much anywhere on Twitter.) However, I have relied on Greg’s research on Yemen for years as he provides me needed perspective on a country I’ve never visited and with regards to a language I don’t speak (Arabic).  His book continues in this vein instructing me further on the nuances of the Yemeni culture and the tribulations of America’s intermittent engagement with a country critical to its counterterrorism fight.  Where Greg and I usually diverge is on our interpretation of how al Qaeda has come to roost in Yemen and, even further, what the U.S. should do to uproot the most threatening al Qaeda affiliate to the U.S. homeland.  Here’s what I’ve learned from The Last Refuge.

  • Gregory Johnsen is a fantastic writer!The Last Refuge is the best-written book on al Qaeda I’ve read since Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower.  The vast majority of al Qaeda books I’ve read are academically written extensions of PhD dissertations where my eyes struggle to stay focused on highly linear theoretical writing.  Not so with The Last Refuge!  Gregory paints a fascinating picture of al Qaeda’s journey in Yemen intertwining an updated history of al Qaeda’s global battles since 9/11 with new details of U.S. involvement in what was a peripheral counterterrorism fight up until 2009.  I’m jealous that Gregory is so much better at writing than I am and I hope he continues to write books after this installment.
  •  Persistent commitment of young Yemeni’s to jihad – My favorite sections of the book were the initial chapters.  I’ve read many accounts of young foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia and even the U.S., but Gregory recounts the recruitment of young men from Yemen to the Afghan jihad which I truly value as a reference for my research on foreign fighters.
  • Centralized decision making, decentralized execution – Greg adequately notes an important distinction with regards to al Qaeda’s affiliates that seems to have been lost in recent discussions about the terror group.  When outlining al Qaeda’s early operations in Yemen, Greg notes (on Page 30), “Already bin Laden knew the dangers of micromanaging his men, preferring what he would later call a philosophy of ‘centralization of decision and decentralization of execution.’ Bin Laden ordered the attack, but the details were up to the operatives on the ground.”  For bin Laden, this approach worked well when he personally knew the operatives under his command.  Bin Laden’s close associates implicitly knew his intent having known the man.  Yet years later, we see this approach backfiring on al Qaeda.  As al Qaeda’s central leadership became more isolated in Pakistan and membership in al Qaeda became more fluid, centralized decision-making occurred, often delayed significantly at times, but execution post-decision routinely went awry.  This drift resulted in the likes of al–Zarqawi aggressively attacking Shia in Iraq and isolating his base of support, foolish self-recruits to al Qaeda around the globe executed bumbling attacks of dubious significance and new emerging militant groups like Ansar al-Sharia striking a U.S. Consulate before laying the needed ground work to secure popular support.  Greg’s narrative describes how Nasir al-Wihayshi, while still remaining loyal to bin Laden, helped regenerate AQAP by taking on a leadership role in decision-making and execution at a time when al Qaeda needed leaders to rejuvenate the force.  How did he take on this role?  Al-Wihayshi was previously bin Laden’s personal secretary, understood al Qaeda’s intent and could execute a strategy in line with al Qaeda’s objectives.  This is one reason why today AQAP remains the most serious organized threat to the U.S. homeland.
  • The First Drone Strike – With regards to drones, Greg and I routinely debate the merits of such a counterterrorism tactic in Yemen.  I’m relatively pro-drone (with caveats) and Greg relatively against (with caveats). But, I found Chapter 9 quite interesting as he notes the first openly reported drone strike (that I’m familiar with) occurred on November 3, 2002 in Yemen  – not Afghanistan or Pakistan – eliminating Abu Ali al-Harithi, head of AQAP as of 2002.  Greg notes this single drone strike truly decimated al Qaeda’s first installment in Yemen.  His subsequent discussion of U.S. Ambassador Hull’s actions to quell AQAP are instructive as Hull artfully used a blend of policy and counterterrorism options to eliminate AQAP’s safe haven.  Yet, when I arrive at the end of this section, I wonder how any of these solutions might be implemented to counter Yemen’s current wave of AQAP?  I’m not too optimistic, though the section is well worth reading for those seeking alternatives to drones and military occupation.
  • Rehab – Chapter 10 provided me some particularly valuable background on Yemen’s once touted al Qaeda rehabilitation program.  I’d heard for many years tales of reformed terrorists being deprogrammed in Yemen.  Greg’s account confirms my suspicions from years’ past.  Yemen’s rehab process was never likely to work on a large scale and was completely unviable for ensuring al Qaeda operatives would not revert.  Thus, as President Obama begins another term pledging to close Guantanamo Bay, what do we do with those remaining detainees?  Rehabilitation?
  • Prisons as incubators – I found the most value in Greg’s discussion of the galvanizing effect of Yemen’s PSO prisons.  For AQAP, these PSO prisons on the outskirts of Sana’a essentially assumed the place of Peshawar’s Services Bureau during the Afghan jihad.  Al-Wihayshi and Fawaz al-Rabi’i “recreated with scraps of paper and imagination what bin laden and Zawahiri had built with books and computers in Afghanistan.”  An excellent chapter 12 illustrates how prisons regenerated AQAP.

Greg’s new book provides the best available account of AQAP in Yemen.  However, recent years have been particularly tough for researching AQAP as access and continued conflict have made reporting tough.  For this, the book’s details prove thin in the final chapters detailing AQAP from 2009 on.  Some of the sections I looked most forward to reading, those discussing U.S. drone use and Anwar al-Awlaki, were more brief than I expected.  He does discuss AQAP’s decision to push for governance in Jaar – a particularly interesting move by AQAP.  Unfortunately for Greg’s first book, events in Yemen have unfolded rapidly in recent months and many of AQAP’s gains have been reduced.  I’m hoping for a second installment from Greg in the coming years that flushes out AQAP’s more recent trajectory.

My critiques of the book are more differences in opinion than debates over reporting.  I completely respect Greg’s presentation of the AQAP in Yemen story and have no doubt it is the most accurate account of the terror group available today. But as he and I have debated before, I arrive at very different conclusions based on his presentation of the evidence describing AQAP’s recent rise.  Here are a few points I’d add.

  • Yemen is not the center of al Qaeda’s universe – For those not particularly familiar with al Qaeda, Greg’s book might convince one that Yemen has always been the center of al Qaeda’s thinking.  Greg doesn’t portray it that way necessarily, but his excellent writing and consistent blending of AQAP’s tribulations with the gyrations of global al Qaeda may convince those just coming onto the topic that Yemen is the center of gravity for al Qaeda.  AQAP and Yemen are clearly an important affiliate, but they are not what Afghanistan and Pakistan have always been for al Qaeda – the epicenter for global jihad.
  • The Saudi influx, not drones, has brought about AQAP’s resurgence – Going into this book, I expected to be convinced that drones were more central to AQAP’s rise.  However, having read the manuscript, I actually am more confident in my assessment from this past summer that it is a combination of external and internal factors that have led to AQAP’s regeneration with the most important enabler being the Saudi purge of AQ members in 2006-2007.  Greg does discuss this Saudi purge in the book and I believe it is critical to understanding where and when AQ grows and ebbs.  Young Saudi foreign fighters have been the largest portions of recruits and leaders for years supplying one jihad after another.  With the decline of Iraq, Saudi foreign fighters flowed into Yemen and today I imagine AQAP in Yemen is now competing with Syria for the collection of fresh recruits.  Having read Greg’s book, I see the influx of Saudi foreign fighters, the failures of rehabilitation programs and repeated prison escapes as the driving factors in AQAP’s recent heights.  Drones didn’t generate AQAP’s growth, drones responded to AQAP’s growth.
  • Beyond al Qaeda, Yemen is not a national security interest for the U.S. – Greg’s book notes Ambassador Hull’s multi-layered development approach for combating AQAP and Yemen’s ills.  I once would have agreed that the U.S. should focus on development to undermine support for AQ.  However, time has shown this a costly and ineffective endeavor where the U.S. rewards countries for hosting people with bad behavior. Without AQAP, Yemen doesn’t really hold much strategic interest for the U.S. So how many resources should the U.S. devote to Yemen?  I’m not entirely sure, but I’m more inclined to support large-scale support and development to countries where the U.S. has a more enduring national interest beyond a regional terrorist group.

I thank Greg for writing an excellent book that has helped me learn more about Yemen than anything I had read to date.  I look forward to reading his next installment and hope he continues to write.

Favorite quote from the book – p.17  –

“Bin Laden talked less than others, but he planned more.  And he had something no one else had: money.”


Why do Jihadi Ideologues get so extreme?

Yesterday, a friend emailed me a really cool new piece of research that has come out at Harvard University School of Government. Rich Nielson of the Harvard School of Government has recently posted his research entitled Jihadi Radicalization of Muslim Clerics.

This paper explains why some Muslim clerics adopt the ideology of militant Jihad while others do not. I argue that clerics strategically adopt or reject Jihadi ideology because of career incentives generated by the structure of cleric educational networks. Well-connected clerics enjoy substantial success at pursuing comfortable careers within state-run religious institutions and they reject Jihadi ideology in exchange for continued material support from the state. Clerics with poor educational networks cannot rely on connections to advance through the state-run institutions, so many pursue careers outside of the system by appealing directly to lay audiences for support. These clerics are more likely to adopt Jihadi ideology because it helps them demonstrate to potential supporters that they have not been theologically coopted by political elites. I provide evidence of these dynamics by collecting and analyzing 29,430 fatwas, articles, and books written by 91 contemporary clerics. Using statistical natural language processing, I measure the extent to which each cleric adopts Jihadi ideology in their writing. I combine this with biographical and network information about each cleric to trace the process by which poorly-connected clerics become more likely to adopt Jihadi ideology.

I’m very excited about this article as I start to read it as it seems to reinforce my suspicions and theories put forth in a still unpublished working paper on labor economics application to terror group recruitment (Something I’ve posted portions of here, here, and here).  I’ve only read about half of the article so far but look forward to finishing it tonight and I imagine Nielson is onto an important new line of research.  Whether you are pastor in Florida or a cleric in North Africa, quite often, it pays to be extreme!

Shout Out – Understanding Gangs and Underground Economies

Following up on last week’s first expert recommendation in some time, I decided to stay on the criminal justice theme but shift perspectives to understanding the criminal side of crime. This week, I make a shout out to Dr. Sudhir Venkatesh from Columbia University for his fantastic research on gangs, crime and the urban poor.

A sociologist by trade, Dr. Venkatesh’s research consists of unparalleled ethnographies providing some needed insight into the life and challenges of those living in poor communities. I first encountered a bit of his work in the book Freakonomics in the chapter explaining why drug dealers live with their mothers. This chapter was a nice taste for what later became one of the best books I’ve read, “Gang Leader for a Day.” The book describes Sudhir’s years following a gang leader in one of Chicago’s most dangerous communities. The book details not only how gang life works but also illuminates how urban communities and their off-the-books economies operate. The book is a great work and I believe should be essential reading for anyone working in law enforcement. Dr. Venkatesh continues his research through several different projects and for a sample of his work see this interview below.

Shout Out – Top Gun on Smart Policing

I’ve been overly focused on terrorism posts the past few months and have completely neglected nominations to my “Expert List”.  After many months, I need to give a shout out or two to those I’ve overlooked thus far. Additionally, I’ve only delved into criminal justice and law enforcement discussions on rare occasions thus far on Selected Wisdom.  Seeing as how I spend quite a bit of time working on law enforcement issues, I’ve decided its time to also start blogging more about criminal justice and law enforcement issues and will catalog these posts on their own page in the coming months.

Today, I give my first shout out in the the law enforcement arena to Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe of Temple University.  Jerry is both an academic and practitioner of criminal justice.  As a former member of the Metropolitan Police in London, Jerry has spent time on the street resulting in his research being particularly effective at putting theory into practice.  Jerry was one of the first to explore the application of intelligence processes in law enforcement jurisdictions leading to his seminal book Intelligence-Led PolicingUnfortunately, revelations of the NYPD’s intelligence operations have ruined the term intelligence-led policing.  Jerry’s research does not advocate spying but instead provides a business management approach to increase the use of informants and surveillance empowering analysis that targets prolific offenders – an approach better described under the more current moniker of “smart policing”.  Jerry’s research successes with the Philadelphia Police department are noteworthy. Highly trained in Geographic Information Systems, Jerry’s work with mapping crime hotspots is outstanding.

I highly recommend Jerry’s website where he provides top notch, free resources.  Lastly, Jerry’s one of the best instructors around keeping the audience engaged and providing real world examples for all of his proposed techniques

So to kick off my law enforcement posts, I highly recommend Dr. Jerry Ratcliffe for those seeking the best in law enforcement education and research.

Al Qa’ida Influenced Radicalization – Yet Another Perspective

The past few weeks and months have shown a persistent “Surge” or “Spike” (pick your favorite term) in discussions related to ‘homegrown extremism’ and al Qa’ida radicalization.  Via Twitter, I stumbled on a new report from the UK Home Office authored by Dr. Noemie Bouhana and Professor Per-Olof H. Wikstrom.

Their report, entitled “al Qa’ida-influenced radicalisation: A rapid evidence assessment guided by Situational Action Theory, evaluates all of the available research in a professional and rigorous manner providing evidence to support their conclusions – a concept largely lost on the counterterrorism community.  Their framework evaluates the al Qa’ida Influenced Radicalization (AQIR) process by examining the vulnerability of recruits, the exposure of recruits to radicalizing agents and settings, and the settings in which radicalizing settings emerge.

I enjoyed Bouhana and Wikstrom’s analysis and found two quotes particularly interesting.  The first quote is their summary on radicalization research to date where they state:

“If this REA (study) has one overarching conclusion, it is that the evidence-base on the causes of AQIR is scientifically weak. Empirical research is still exploratory rather than explanatory. The problem is compounded by the absence of frameworks linking the levels of explanation (individual, ecological, systemic) by way of explicit mechanisms.  Without knowledge of mechanisms, there is no basis from which to design interventions. (p.viii)”

I could not agree more.  Even more interesting is this insight from their study where they discuss how recruits are exposed to al Qa’ida messaging.

“Membership of a social network containing one or more radicalized member, or containing a member connected in some way to one or more radicalizing settings, is one of the main factors linked to exposure to radicalizing influence. That the Internet does not appear to play a significant role in AQIR might be surprising, given that it is the social networking medium par excellence.  However, the fact that the technology presents obstacles to the formation of intimate bonds could explain the counter-intuitive finding.  Personal attachments to radicalizing agents, be they peers, recruiters, or moral authority figures, play a prominent role in AQIR. (p.x)”

Again, I concur with these findings and have argued at some length in the past that the best recruiter of a foreign fighter is a former foreign fighter – not the Internet.  In conclusion, another good resource for those studying al Qa’ida recruitment and radicalization.

More Data Debunking the Spike in Homegrown Extremism

Today, the Obama administration released their second strategy installment related to countering violent extremism (CVE).  CVE is quite the rage right now in the homeland security and law enforcement communities. Recently in the midst of some research, I came across another excellent study analyzing recent claims of a “Spike in Homegrown Extremism”.

Dr. Charles Kurzman recently released his book The Missing Martyrs which takes an empirical, data-driven approach to analyze the spike in homegrown extremism.  Kurzman, unlike many counterterrorism researchers, actually provides the data to support his analysis.  Kurzman, David Schanzer and Ebrahim Moosa host this data on their website – halfway down the page you can download a copy of all Muslim American related terrorism incidents and perpetrators from 2001 to 2010.  Like Dr. Risa Brooks article I mentioned last month, Kurzman concludes:

Muslim-American terrorism makes news. Out of the thousands of acts of violence that occur in the United States each year, an efficient system of government prosecution and media coverage brings Muslim-American terrorism suspects to national attention, creating the impression — perhaps unintentionally — that Muslim-American terrorism is more prevalent than it really is.

Upturns in the pace of Muslim-American terrorism are particularly newsworthy, and have driven much public debate over the past two years. This report documents a downturn in the pace of Muslim-American terrorism — it remains to be seen whether this is accorded a similar level of attention, and whether the level of public concern will ratchet downward along with the number of terrorism suspects.

Excellent data and analysis from Dr. Kurzman and I encourage those interested in CVE to check out his findings.

How Confident Are You? Markets, CT and Analysis, Part 1

Daniel Kahneman published a short article summarizing points of his new book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  As both a good writer and former winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Kahneman’s book will probably be a good read.

Kahneman’s NY Times article “Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence” explains how people evaluate things and assign confidence to their judgements.  I’ve spent the good part of this year looking at similar issues and will try in several posts to bridge Kahneman’s discussion and our polling here at Selected Wisdom.

Kahneman’s conclusion: future forecasts on the performance and patterns of humans and markets – really any complex system – on average will be no better than random chance.  In fact, Kahneman finds in many cases individual and collective predictions by experts produce results worse than random chance.

I’ll spend some of the next few posts discussing “confidence” as it relates to counterterrorism, economic markets and analysis in general.  Meanwhile, Kahneman provides some interesting commentary.

While assessing the future potential of soldiers, Kahneman learned that his team’s assessments were not particularly correct.  Kahneman noted:

We knew as a general fact that our predictions were little better than random guesses, but we continued to feel and act as if each particular prediction was valid.  I was reminded of visual illusions, which remain compelling even when you know that what you see is false…the illusion of validity.

Kahneman asserts his team incorrectly assessed the soldier’s ability based on a story they constructed from very little information.  He sums this up with a cool new acronym I’ll start abusing:

This was a perfect instance of a general rule that I call WYSIATI, “What you see is all there is.”

The rest of the article provides an interesting take on forecasters in a variety of roles. With regards to confidence, he notes:

The bias towards coherence favors overconfidence. An individual who expresses high confidence probably has a good story, which may or may not be true.

With regards to markets, Kahneman illustrates the research results of Odean and Barber on stock market traders noting:

the most active traders had the poorest results, while those who traded the least earned the highest returns…[and] men act on their useless ideas significantly more often than women do, and that as a result women achieve better investment results than men.

Kahneman also rightly notes:

Facts that challenge such basic assumptions – and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem – are simply not absorbed…the mind does not digest them.

Overall, a great read and I’ll contrast his findings here with the results of the confidence questions on the Post UBL and AQ Strategy polls from earlier this year during an upcoming post.



R.I.P. Christopher Boucek

Very sad news today. Christopher Boucek from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a top analyst on Yemen passed away this morning at the age of 38 leaving behind a wife and two children.  Like the other Yemen Yodas I’ve noted at this blog, I relied on Chris’s analysis to understand what was occurring in an extremely complex region of the world.  His insights were a constant help and I enjoyed our Twitter exchanges from time to time. I’ll miss his analysis, insights and challenges.  Gregory Johnsen and Brian O’Neill have written a nice tribute to Chris at Waq al Waq.  Rest in peace Christopher Boucek.

Shout-Outs: Doctors of COIN

I’m overdue for some recommendations to my Expert List.  I’ve talked infrequently about counterinsurgency but should absolutely deliver two shout-outs to top notch PHD’s I’ve worked with in the past.  This week I recommend two great COIN & Quant doctors from Stanford University: Jacob Shapiro and Joe Felter. Joe and Jake kicked off the Harmony program and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s research with their work, Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting Al Qaeda’s Organizational Vulnerabilities in March 2006.

Dr. Jacob Shapiro, a professor at Princeton University, currently delivers much of the top research on insurgency, counterinsurgency and Pakistan.  Jake and I co-edited al Qa’ida’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa and his qualitative and quantitative expertise helped guide me through the second installment of the Harmony program.

Dr. Joe Felter, a professor at Stanford University, has done it all.  A soldier-scholar-Special Forces operator extraordinaire, Joe has served and studied on most every continent.  Joe’s quantitative analysis of counterinsurgencies in the Philippines  combined with his practical knowledge from Iraq and Afghanistan give him a remarkable combination of insights.

I highly recommend both of these COIN superstars.