Managing a Terrorist Organization: An Interview with Dr. Jacob Shapiro

Jacob N. ShapiroPrinceton University Professor Jacob Shapiro sat down with the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs to discuss his recent book, The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations. GJIA: Which factors, either practical or philosophical, do you think shape the decisions made by the leaders of terrorist groups?

JS: I think in most cases, terrorist group leaders ask themselves: How do I advance my political goals? What actions can I take, or what things can I ask my people to do, that will push towards whatever it is I’m trying to achieve? A second consideration then becomes: Which of those can I do while still maintaining cohesion in my organization? Sometimes these two are in tension.

One of the things that Donatella Della Porta [an expert on European terrorist groups] talks about, which she realized years ago while studying the Red Brigades and the Red Army Faction terrorist groups from the 1970s and 1980s, was that oftentimes groups, particularly small groups, will undertake activities that are intended at cementing group cohesion and not at actually sending a political message or achieving something politically. There are disagreements among people who study terrorism about whether group cohesion trumps political success or the other way around.

GJIA: Or whether there is even a causal relationship between those two things?

JS: Well, no, in the sense that in most cases if the group falls apart and everyone kind of goes their own way, you are not going to achieve the political goal. For example, I am fairly certain that, at the point in time when Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness had decided that the best they were going to do for their political goals was through the negotiating process, they probably could have taken steps that would have led to the dissolution of the Provisional IRA. Presumably, they placed some value on maintaining it because having the organization there in a nascent way, as the peace process moved on through the 1990s, actually created some impetus to continue moving. Absent the threat of what the Provisional IRA could do, motivations for the British to make concessions would have been smaller.

GJIA: Where do you situate the Islamist groups that the United States is grappling with so much today, in terms of the relationship between cohesion and the pursuit of their underlying goals?

JS:  They are all over the map. If you think about the Taliban, for example, their cohesion is very important because there is a not-very-well-defined political goal, which has to do with representation for a particular set of views in Afghan politics and potentially some ethnic prioritization for Pashtuns, as well. If you look at al Qaeda in Iraq or now the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, for that group there is a set of political goals that are pretty unrealistic and that they are unlikely to achieve, but that is a group that has maintained a tremendous amount of cohesion, or at least stayed cohesive, despite intense pressure against it for many years. If you think about some of the Islamist organizations operating in Southeast Asia, there it seems like group cohesion has become the priority. There is no sense in which the political goals of a separate, independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines are going to happen. Presumably the people running militant organizations there recognize that, but cohesion is still important. I suspect group cohesion has become kind of an end unto itself for North African groups, as well.

GJIA: Why should people outside the government understand or care about the management systems of terrorist organizations?

JS: There are two reasons. First, we have to decide how hard we want our elected representatives to work on this issue: understanding and being able to make considered judgments about how serious a problem this could be is a necessary condition for us to be informed citizens, and deciding in a thoughtful way what we think about our leader's actions. Second, it really helps to put the threat, at least for me, in perspective: the realization that all of the groups that have done a lot historically, in terms of killing a lot of people or having a big influence on politics, have a big organizational infrastructure that throws off a big intelligence signal. That means that they are inherently limited. That dynamic comes out of the organizational requirements that they cannot escape, and that is kind of comforting in a sense. You are never going manage a large group of human beings to do anything without undertaking these activities that let people know what you're doing. If we have that in the back of our heads when we think about terrorism, the threat of it becomes less scary.

GJIA: What kinds of policies could governments implement to exploit the weaknesses in these terrorist operations?

JS: There are several things being done already, such as aggressively tracking down various leads, following the signals that are created, and giving them relatively higher priority. It is not the case that the threat prior to 9/11 went undetected, because it was detected. What happened is the signals were not treated with sufficient gravity, and that has been rectified. What I think could be done, or what is not being done in a particularly aggressive way, at least as far as I know, is sowing more seeds of discord within organizations: getting on the chat-rooms and black websites that various militant organizations use and stoking ideological disagreements. Stoking disagreements about what's tactically acceptable. Providing misinformation about technical matters. All kinds of things that increase the need for communications within organizations are going to lower the production possibilities frontier that organizations can get to, given their levels of activity.

I think the other thing that is not being done enough is working to publicize the externalities that groups cause. We know that people in many countries get angry at the consequences militant groups cause for civilians, and it lowers support for them. We know that in most cases, these guys are tremendously vulnerable to information shared by noncombatants, by civilian and by nonparticipants who happen to notice something going on. And that suggests that there is a lever that can be used by policymakers, which is really aggressively getting the word out about just how bad the activities of many of these groups are. And it happens to some extent, but not as much as I think would be valuable. If the Voice of America says it, in many populations, it doesn't have the credibility of a local press outlet saying it. But there are lots of ways you can subsidize NGOs and other organizations that make it easier for local press outlets in lots of countries to report on what groups are doing. I think a lot of our public diplomacy is very centrally focused and coordinated on getting out the message of the U.S. government, as opposed to making it easier for the people to get basic facts about what the groups that we find problematic are doing.

GJIA: What are the most useful sources of information about the structure and practice of terrorist organizations? Does this information ever emerge before a major attack has transpired?

JS: The sources of information that I have found most useful are groups’ own documents that are written with the expectation that they won’t be found and are then found. Documents from al-Qaeda in the 1990s. Documents from al-Qaeda in Iraq or other groups in Iraq during the war there. Similar documents for Afghanistan. At various points in time, other governments have found such documents. The French found ETA’s books, basically, on a raid on a chair factory in 1979, just across the border from Spain. Those things are tremendously valuable because the information that’s shared in them is—putting on my agency theory hat—incentive compatible: you are not producing it because you’re trying to sell a line about how you are as an organization, you are producing it because it is true. And you’re putting in little notes. For example, in the spreadsheets from al-Qaeda in Iraq, you’re putting in little notes about what you think about the guys running your cells in different towns. And it’s tremendously informative to see that.

How much information comes out before an attack I think really depends on how high a group is up on the radar screen, and depends on the extent to which operations that have been done against them have been able to target their headquarters areas. Before 2002, it was surely the case that the Israelis had lots of suppositions and ideas about how militant operations supported by Fatah were being run, but it was only when they actually seized Arafat’s headquarters that they actually got the books and could see for sure what was happening. If we think about the set of threat organizations that are out there now, there are probably very few for whom there is not some government that has a bunch of their internal docs and can be exploiting them. The level of attention has gone way up and the number of safe havens that exist, where people can operate without any risk of government interference, is vanishingly small.

GJIA: Does your research address the issue of terrorist organizations or their partners gaining control over territory? Do groups with control over territory function differently, either to their advantage or to their disadvantage?

JS: I think there is a useful distinction between permanent control over territory and the temporary passing control over territory that groups have had in some places. In general, if you have a territory from which you can exclude enemy agents and intelligence collection and operations, then you have a place where you can set up your organizational infrastructure and manage things, and that’s very valuable. What makes that really valuable in the long run is if it is protected by some set of international boundaries that are respected, such as what al-Qaeda had in Afghanistan in the 1990s or the provisional IRA had in the Republic of Ireland also in the 1990s and first part of the twenty-first century. You had international borders that states wouldn’t cross to go after you. The Taliban in Afghanistan, to some extent, have that in Pakistan—not everywhere, but there are some places where they can set up hierarchy that their enemies won’t reach out and do operations against them. The territory that was controlled in Mali or Libya does not meet those criteria. And we saw from al-Qaeda’s experience in the Horn of Africa in the 1990s that being in an ungoverned space is really bad for these guys. It is every bit as much of a pain for them as it is for any other business trying to operate there. We know, in that case, that they complained about being ripped off by the locals, having to pay bribes, that the logistics were terrible: that it was hard to travel in and out, and that they got suspicious looks when they went through the airport in Nairobi. That’s the same thing that an NGO setting up a medical clinic in southern Somalia would experience. We have this idea that ungoverned is good for these guys, but I think that is wrong. What is good for them is badly governed: governed by someone who supports them. Ungoverned means you can buy information on people, and you can run spies, and you can fly drones, and you can do surveillance. And that is a problem for transnational terrorist groups.

Dr. Jacob Shapiro is Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, where he co-directs the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project.

Dr. Shapiro was interviewed by Ian Philbrick and Henry Shepherd on 10 October 2013 in Washington, D.C.