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.

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