How Smart are Islamic Terrorists?
Organizational Learning and Islamic Militancy contains significant findings for counter-terrorism research and policy. Unlike existing studies, this report suggests that the relevant distinction in knowledge learned by terrorists is not between tacit and explicit knowledge, but metis and techne. Focusing on the latter sheds new insight into how terrorists acquire the experiential “know how” they need to perform their activities as opposed to abstract “know what” contained in technical bomb-making preparations. Drawing on interviews with bomb-making experts and government intelligence officials, the PI illustrates the critical difference between learning terrorism skills such as bomb-making and weapons firing by abstraction rather than by doing. Only the latter provides militants with the experiential, intuitive knowledge, in other words the metis, they need to actually build bombs, fire weapons, survey potential targets, and perform other terrorism-related activities. In making this case, the PI debunks current misconceptions regarding the Internet’s perceived role as a source of terrorism knowledge.
Another major research finding of this study is that while some Islamic militants learn, they do not learn particularly well. Much terrorism learning involves fairly routine adaptations in communications practices and targeting tactics, what organization theorists call single-loop learning or adaptation. Less common among militants are consequential changes in beliefs and values that underlie collection action or even changes in organizational goals and strategies. Even when it comes to single-loop learning, Islamic militants face significant impediments. Many terrorist conspiracies are compartmented, which makes learning difficult by impeding the free flow of information between different parts of the enterprise. Other, non-compartmented conspiracies are hindered from learning because the same people that survey targets and build bombs also carry out the attacks. Still other operations, including relatively successful ones like the Madrid bombings in 2004, are characterized by such sloppy tradecraft that investigators piece together the conspiracy quickly, preventing additional attacks and limiting militants’ ability to learn from experience.
Indeed, one of the most significant findings to emerge from this research regards the poor tradecraft and operational mistakes repeatedly committed by Islamic terrorists. Even the most “successful” operations in recent years — 9/11, 3/11, and 7/7 — contained basic errors in tradecraft and execution. The perpetrators that carried out these attacks were determined, adaptable (if only in a limited, tactical sense) — and surprisingly careless. The PI extracts insights from his informants that help account for terrorists’ poor tradecraft: metis in guerrilla warfare that does not translate well to urban terrorism, the difficulty of acquiring mission-critical experience when the attack or counter-terrorism response kills the perpetrators, a hostile counter-terrorism environment that makes it hard to plan and coordinate attacks or develop adequate training facilities, and perpetrators’ conviction that they don’t need to be too careful when carrying out attacks because their fate has been predetermined by Allah. The PI concludes this report by discussing some of the policy implications of these findings, suggesting that the real threat from Islamic militancy comes less from hyper-sophisticated “super terrorists” than from steadfast militants whose own dedication to the cause may undermine the cunning intelligence and fluid adaptability they need to survive.