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.


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.

Two Promising New Blogs: Rocky Shoals & AlleyesOnJihad

This week brought the introduction of two promising new blogs in the areas of security studies, terrorism and counterterrorism.

First, @robertcaruso jumped into the analytical game beyond Twitter a couple weeks back with an article he co-authored with @stcolumbia on “Defense Intelligence Reform“. A nice bit of work by two members of the #STRATPACK. Next, @robertcaruso stepped it up another notch by launching his own blog this week (Rock Shoals), which discusses the bureaucratic processes and politics of the U.S. intelligence, military and counterterrorism communities.  In his first post, he helps navigate the defense and intelligence bureaucracy:

 Unsurprisingly, in the last 96 hours, many tears have been spilled over the Defense Clandestine Service. Let’s address some of these half-truths and outright falsehoods.

I’m looking forward to the Caruso-style enhancing the debate on how the U.S. government architecture works.

Second, I’m excited to see Kevin Jackson (@alleyesonjihad) jumping into the blogosphere.  He’s been dropping some serious knowledge about al Qaeda the past year on Twitter and now he’s opened up his new blog at AlleyesOnJihad.  He starts off revealing a mystery player in the original AQ propaganda video. In doing so, he cites a document that’s been needing analysis for a long time – the biography of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, which he cites here:

This confusion made me want to share an anecdotical, but quite interesting story I read in Harun’s autobiography involving the other Abu’l Husayn, the Egyptian one. He was an al Qa’ida member who having been part of a small team of operatives whose mission was to explore and find alternative hiding places for the organization leadership. To be more precise, Harun recounts that during the course of the year 2000, as the preparation for the 9/11 attacks was on its way, he was chosen by the leader of the mission, Sayf al Adl, a Shura council member and head of the security committee, to accompany him for a « very secret trip » to Jalalabad, to the point that the Comorian operative was not informed of the purpose of the mission. He then learned that it was meant to find new suitable safe havens into which the high command could hide if « things go wrong » (in expectation of the forthcoming big attack and the troubles it might get al Qa’ida into). Those who joined were Shaykh Abu’l Husayn al Misri, « a specialist in the relations with the tribes » and a fluent Farsi speaker, according to Harun, as well as an unnamed « Algerian brother », married to a woman of Waziristan. In Jalalabad, the crew payed a visit to Yunus Khalis, a well-known and powerful Afghan mujahid commander, who assured his foreign guests of his unfailing support (the Khalis’ protection granted to al Qa’ida would turn out to be critical during the organization’s escape in eastern Afghanistan following the US invasion).

I’m already looking forward to the second post.  Nice work on the first!

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.

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.

Important article on al Qa’ida, Zawahiri & the Arab Spring

Foreign Affairs led off its 10th anniversary of 9/11 edition with an excellent article by Dr. Will McCants entitiled, “Al Qaeda’s Challenge: The Jihadists’ War with Islamist Democrats.”  He provides an important update on al Qa’ida’s new leadership and potential direction in light of the remarkable set of events this past spring.  The death of Bin Laden, Kashmiri, Fazul, and now maybe Atiyah combined with more than a half dozen Arab uprisings presents AQ serious challenges moving forward.  AQ Central in particular has been remarkably absent from the Arab Revolutions.  Dr. McCants articulates the environment AQ faces operationally and politically and corrects several misconceptions about AQ and Zawahiri’s participation in political processes. I strongly recommend taking the time to read.  It’s a great article and quite timely.  Foreign Affairs chose wisely!

Shout-Outs: Terrorism in the U.S.

Recent news reports repeatedly tout the rise in “homegrown extremism”.  While I’m not convinced that current levels of extremism are any higher than normal (a separate post for a later date), I’ve seen few resources of much quality examining terrorism cases in the United States.  Media accounts of American terrorism usually examine each of these attacks in isolation via individual case studies.  As far as al Qaeda (AQ) related terrorism in the U.S., small fish routinely get blown far out of proportion by media pundits, while significant domestic AQ players (big fish) often slip under the radar for not being flashy enough to garner sufficient mass media interest. Luckily, a new book published on AQ related terrorism in the U.S. just came out expanding my research on a recent Major Nidal Hasan article.

This week’s shout-out goes to J.M. Berger; editor of Intelwire and author of the new book Jihad Joe.  J.M.’s collection of open source research on AQ inspired terrorism provides the best available summary of U.S. extremism post-9/11.  In a strange “Social Network” coincidence, I met J.M. in Boston after some exchanges on Twitter and quickly realized he had researched terrorism in the U.S. of all types.  He gave me a great snapshot of AQ in the U.S. and globally, right-wing extremism in the U.S. and all sorts of things on Bosnia.  Additionally, his blog always provides a host of good articles and analysis.  I recommend both the book and his work in general.  Today, J.M. Berger gets added to the ‘Expert List’.


Shout-Outs: Yemen Yodas

The Post UBL news distracted me from my bi-weekly shout-outs to those I rely on for insightful analysis on critical terrorism/counterterrorism topics.  This week, I give shout-outs to three ‘knowledge ninjas‘ that continually provide me interesting perspectives on a poorly understood topic: Yemen.

When it comes to Yemen, I look to those with in-country experience, language skills and thorough monitoring of internal Yemeni dynamics.

I met Gregory Johnsen a few years back at a conference in DC where he proved to be the only person in the room that spoke about Yemen and had actually been to Yemen.  Gregory’s perspectives then were helpful to me and his posts on Waq-al-Waq continue to keep me abreast of the happenings in Yemen and what the West should be considering in their policies.

Brian O’Neill and I met last fall after an FPRI panel on foreign fighters and I’ve used his coverage of Yemen to track the day-to-day dynamics in the country.  I hope he finds the time someday soon to return to his blog and give his perspective.

Finally, Chris Heffelfinger has long been my go to guy on Yemen and many other AQ terrorism issues.  Chris and I worked together for many years and his on the ground understanding of how AQ operates in Yemen opened my eyes to this hotspot long before others in the CT field really paid it much attention.

So a big shout-out and thank you to Gregory, Brian and Chris for their perspectives on Yemen; helping me analyze what may be the number one counterterrorism priority over the next five years. (A hint on what question I’m coding next from the AQ Strategy and Post UBL Polls)

One quick parting note to a previously recognized ‘Knowledge Ninja’Vahid Brown crafted an unmatched analysis of Sayf al-Adel at Jihadica.  Vahid started his research on Adel many years ago and introduced me to this key AQ figure when we were working together.  Thanks to Vahid for bringing everyone up to speed on one of AQ’s key men behind the scenes.