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.

 

4 comments

  1. Thanks.

    A small point no doubt, but bin Laden’s comments on Faisal Shahzad (internal doc, Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined p 36, quoted as tr Lahoud) would seem to restrict ops in cases where citizenship oaths had been taken, for religious reasons that appear at least in his mind to rule out ops that would (in the absence of such an oath) be considered appropriate, no? Is that because bin Laden is more of a purist, less opportunistic than other leaders — or are there gradations, perhaps, such as that it wld be more important to obey clear Qur’anic injunction, say, that disputed hadith?

  2. I have no idea but a good point, I’ll look for it in the book as I’m reading it. Overall my estimate was that Zawahiri was more uncomfortable with wannabes take on the brand name and then attempting botched attacks. While we in the U.S. were worried about the homegrown folks executing attacks, I believe Zawahiri was worried about the botched attacks of homegrown folks making AQ overall look bad. Or that the attacks would kill civilians needlessly which happened to Zawahiri in Egypt.

    If I see more in the book specifically referring to your point I’ll make sure to post it here.

  3. Quick clarification request: When you refer to Al Qaeda, do you mean the evil Al Qaeda that allegedly was behind the 9/11 attacks or the good Al Qaeda that overthrew Ghaddafi (with NATO air support) in Libya and is trying to overthrow the government in Syria?

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