Management Issues in Terrorist Organizations

Terrorist organizations have the same management problems as other organizations, and new ones besides:

Terrorist leaders also face a stubborn human resources problem: Their talent pool is inherently unstable. Terrorists are obliged to seek out recruits who are predisposed to violence -- that is to say, young men with a chip on their shoulder. Unsurprisingly, these recruits are not usually disposed to following orders or recognizing authority figures. Terrorist managers can craft meticulous long-term strategies, but those are of little use if the people tasked with carrying them out want to make a name for themselves right now.

Terrorist managers are also obliged to place a premium on bureaucratic control, because they lack other channels to discipline the ranks. When Walmart managers want to deal with an unruly employee or a supplier who is defaulting on a contract, they can turn to formal legal procedures. Terrorists have no such option. David Ervine, a deceased Irish Unionist politician and onetime bomb maker for the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), neatly described this dilemma to me in 2006. "We had some very heinous and counterproductive activities being carried out that the leadership didn't punish because they had to maintain the hearts and minds within the organization," he said....

EDITED TO ADD (9/13): More on the economics of terrorism.

Posted on August 16, 2013 at 7:31 AM • 23 Comments

Comments

KenAugust 16, 2013 7:43 AM

RE: "We had some very heinous and counterproductive activities being carried out that the leadership didn't punish because they had to maintain the hearts and minds within the organization..."

Lee Iacocca, former President of Ford & CEO of Chrysler put it like this:

“There are times when even the best manager is like the little boy with the big dog, waiting to see where the dog wants to go so he can take him there”

GweihirAugust 16, 2013 7:58 AM

Not a surprise. All human organizations over a certain (small) size suffer the same problems. I bet they also have the Peter-principle.

A partial solution to some of these issues is a suicide-bombing business strategy. You get to use the available "troublemakers" efficiently, and they cannot complain later. You can also easily dispose of lower-ranking member whenever they start to create issues, and without the possible disruption that killing them without their consent would create. A classical win-win situation that leverages synergies between business strategy and personal member goals.

(Yes, suicide-bombers are fundamentally stupid. They are not cowards, however, as they are willing to make what in soldiers is called the "ultimate sacrifice". Calling them "cowards" is just propaganda, violates "know your enemy" and thereby prevents or hampers possible countermeasures.)

bickerdykeAugust 16, 2013 8:21 AM

Never viewed terrorists from that angle. But it's an intresting thought that those organizations have the same problems as ANY organization.

And it sounds like it would make a fun theme for a management simulation if you push that idea into the slightly absurd.

@Gweihir: You can't dispose members by *ordering* suicide-bombings. You have to *convince* them to do that. It's not that terrorists are bound by anything to observe orders.

GweihirAugust 16, 2013 8:30 AM

@bickerdyke: Indeed, you cannot "order" them. But advanced employee management practices from the fields of "indoctrination", "religion" and use of peer-pressure form a viable substitute to "orders" that can reach the same effectiveness if implemented competently.

Of course, in particular "indoctrination" requires maintenance, but leveraging insights from the field of "religion" can be used to implement a partial "self-indoctrination" solution (commonly called "prayer" in the field of religion) that significantly reduces employee dedication maintenance effort while yielding the same or possibly even better results.

P.S.: Apologies for the language. I find I cannot help myself.

Scott "SFITCS" FergusonAugust 16, 2013 8:45 AM

@bickerdyke

You can't dispose members by *ordering* suicide-bombings. You have to *convince* them to do that. It's not that terrorists are bound by anything to observe orders.

For that to be true all suicide bombers would have to volunteer - which is not the case.
Padlocks, family hostages, threats about what happens to traitors to the cause and doubters - often enhanced with a wad of opium might constitute "convincing" - but an order is an order whether you are "convinced" you should comply with it or not. Pedantic semantics tend to crap out in the face of deadly realities.

In some cases the "suicide" bomber isn't even aware of their final task. A number of "terrorist" organisations have dealt with fractious members by sending them on tasks from which they won't return.

Free will is one the primary things those sorts of organisations focus on denying it's members. Not all orders are direct, not all volunteers are volunteers. In some ways conventional military organisations are similar to unconventional (terrorist) ones. People will "volunteer" due to peer group pressure when denied the opportunity to think it through - by which time they can't back out (and won't be allowed). You might be surprised by how many people will go to their death to avoid being killed.

Michael BradyAugust 16, 2013 8:47 AM

See also Loretta Napoleoni The intricate economics of terrorism TEDGlobal 2009: www.ted.com/talks/loretta_napoleoni_the_intricate_economics_of_terrorism.html

Clive RobinsonAugust 16, 2013 9:40 AM

If you think about it for a few minutes you will realise the managment issues run a little deeper than you would find in any ordinary organisation.

The first issue is "recruitment" followed by "training" before an individual is of use to any organisation.

But what happens when an individual leaves, in ordinary business recruitment and training are fairly open activities.

Not so for a terrorist or other covert activity organisation, to prevent the organisation being "rolled up" by the authorities or other compeating / oposition organisations the recruiters, trainers and places where the activities take place need to be kept secret.

Now you have to alow not just for members leaving, but being captured as well as trying to detect infeltraitors.

This obviously prevents some quite fraught logistics.

As I've noted befor "Capt Underpants" and "Cpl Hotfoot" are not exactly the brightest light bulbs in the whole country let alone the corridor. Thus it must have be fairly obvious to their handlers that they were a major security risk because they lacked the mental capacity for interegation. Further as I've noted befor the planners must have known that the chance of the plots actually succeding was close to zero and likewise the chance that either of them would actually die was likewise very very small.

Thus the handelers must have known that the probability was very very high that they would both be captured and interogated and virtualy everything they new would be revealed. So it is probably safe to say they took some quite extrodinary steps to protect the recruitment and training process. Possibly in effect as extream as running a shadow organisation.

Thus whilst it is possible they still have "suicide ready" people within their organisations it is increasingly unlikely that they have the resources to actually deploy them safely now that so many countries in the middle east and around Afghanistan have in effect changed hands.

WinterAugust 16, 2013 9:56 AM

@Clive Robinson
"As I've noted befor "Capt Underpants" and "Cpl Hotfoot" are not exactly the brightest light bulbs in the whole country let alone the corridor."

I have heard a tale that they were probes.

I do not have the details ready, but IIRC one had been run through the Israelis (El-Al) and interrogated before going to the states. It was pure and utter stupidity of the US carrier that he got on the plane at all.

NobodySpecialAugust 16, 2013 10:35 AM

It also depends on "professional" vs "civilian" terrorists. Just like you use different tactics if you are fighting WWI with unlimited cannon fodder vs fighting a modern war with expensive jet fighter pilots.

If you are IRA/UVF/RAF/ETA you have a limited number of potential recruits. If they get killed or leave you have a hard time replacing them - so you need to manage resources.

If you are a 1000 disparate organisations sharing only a general feeling that the USA is bad. And you get another 1000 willing recruits every time the Great Satan bombs a wedding party or a babymilk factory - then your attitude to the recruits is rather different.

John DoeAugust 16, 2013 1:09 PM

Interesting when we consider the atrocities committed by American troops during our recent semi-wars in various countries. Perhaps such atrocities went unpunished by their military commanders to improve morale among the troops, who seem to have a very casual moral attitude towards the death and/or suffering of their fellow man/woman/children/babies.

GweihirAugust 16, 2013 2:17 PM

@Winter: Indeed. Using people as probes is another way to get rid of them in a way beneficial to the terrorist organization.

@Clive Robinson: There is no need to deploy suicide bombers "safely". You only need to make sure they are either successful or captured and for the later case make sure thy do not know anything relevant. In both cases you get rid of them. There is also no need to deploy them against high-value targets. Just use whatever is convenient and within the borders of credibility to the suicide bomber in question.

As to the two terminally incompetent wannabes you mention, they had little chance of direct success, but my impression is that they were also very cheap to deploy and the loss to the organizations was exceedingly small. If you assume a meta-target, namely reducing freedoms in the west, then both qualify as pretty good successes though.

paulAugust 16, 2013 2:36 PM

"But what happens when an individual leaves, in ordinary business recruitment and training are fairly open activities.

Not so for a terrorist or other covert activity organisation, to prevent the organisation being "rolled up" by the authorities or other compeating / oposition organisations the recruiters, trainers and places where the activities take place need to be kept secret."

This is, as Clive points out, a crucial consideration for state-sponsored as well as non-state-sponsored covert organizations.

In some ways, the terrorist and criminal organizations may have an easier job of this, because the "good guys" take over part of the job of convincing former operatives to keep their mouths shut. If you fess up, you'll likely get time off your sentence, but not end up on the net positive side of the scale. (And in addition, of course, a state-sponsored organization's threats against former members have to be a little more circumspect.)

(One other comment: it may be easier to get certain kinds of candidates to engage in suicide bombings than to get them to kill or damage in more discriminating fashion.)

ThecaseforpeaceAugust 16, 2013 2:51 PM

This article is completely lacking of any real understanding of various "terrorist" organizations motivations or context. Al Qaeda itself is a special case, and not the norm. In analyzing terrorism, it is important to seek understanding of root cause. Many people will argue that "these people have been fighting for centuries", but that is both academically lazy and wrong.

Firstly, terrorist is a loaded term. Terrorism is a tactic, not an organizational structure. Both governments and insurgencies have repeatedly used the terrorist tactics over time. Governments, in fact, use terrorism to a much more devastating effect, resulting in orders of magnitude more death of civilians than insurgent organizations. The Polish resistance in the 50s was termed a "terrorist" organization by the soviets, but to the local population and the rest of the world, they were freedom fighters, rebels, etc. So it's disingenuous to dump all non-state actors into the terrorist bucket.

The origins of Al Qaeda are well documented - they were created by the US CIA in order to provide resistance against the Russians in Afghanistan, and appear to have been funded well into the 90s. That's an ugly truth that is usually glossed over in much state dept information. They were born as a vertically collective organization (top-down), just like a conventional military or a modern corporation. These types of organizations require lots of funding to work properly. The IRA of recent times in Northern Ireland had a similar structure, with a political wing Sinn Fein, that got substantial funding from sympathetic individuals and groups in the United States.

Other resistance or insurgency organizations like the Polish resistance were not vertically integrated, instead they were cellular. This model is found in the country of Afghanistan as well as in Taliban groups, or people the US decides to put in the "Taliban" category ex-post, or posthumously. Cellular organizations have different motivations and causes. Generally they are grass-roots:

A village is bombed, killing entire families while several people who lived there weren't present to be killed. Those people often seek revenge on the responsible parties. Cellular insurgent organizations or the local community may assist them in becoming a bomber, or they may self-recruit themselves into an insurgent organization. This is the reason COIN doctrine was developed. It is far more effective to eliminate terrorism by not blowing up children in drone strikes, and ensuring communities have water, food, and buy-in to the local government. When people have legitimate channels to seek justice, terrorism is reduced or eliminated. It is typically very desperate people that go down the road to terrorism. Radicalization is only a small part of it.

This is a huge topic, that when studied in earnest becomes multidimensional shades of gray. I highly recommend you start doing research on insurgencies, not terrorist groups. Researching "terrorist groups" implies a significant bias towards the US state department propoganda that is counterproductive to historical or empirical peace research.

robAugust 19, 2013 8:54 PM

I saw this earlier today and wondered if a policy of killing the leaders actually reduced or increased acts of terrorism. Does killing a terror-manager mean that his underlings are more or less likely to commit acts of random terrorism?

Marcos El MaloAugust 21, 2013 3:22 PM

Terror organization management shortages are a regional issue. Regions experiencing shortages due to attrition in whatever form need to examine the strategies of other regions that are more successful. For example, terrorist groups in the South Pacific are relying on headhunters to replace the pool of executive candidates.

Clive RobinsonAugust 21, 2013 3:42 PM

@ Marcos El Malo,

    ... terrorist groups in the South Pacific are relying on headhunters to replace the pool of executive candidates

I don't know if I should laugh or wince at that...

JerryAugust 22, 2013 7:42 AM

@Gweihir

"....significantly reduces employee dedication maintenance effort..."

That phrase could garner you a nomination for a Golden Dilbert Award, if there was one.

KurzlegAugust 22, 2013 8:07 AM

Terrorist leaders also face a stubborn human resources problem: Their talent pool is inherently unstable. Terrorists are obliged to seek out recruits who are predisposed to violence -- that is to say, young men with a chip on their shoulder. Unsurprisingly, these recruits are not usually disposed to following orders or recognizing authority figures. Terrorist managers can craft meticulous long-term strategies, but those are of little use if the people tasked with carrying them out want to make a name for themselves right now.

I don't buy this characterization. The analogy I'd draw is to gang recruitment. Gangs target disaffected kids that are looking for some direction and validation. These kids generally aren't violent by nature but become violent later in order to affirm their commitment to their gang.

The same thing is probably true in the world of terror groups. I suspect terror groups target similar individuals, and then slowly indoctrinate the them until the individuals are primed to act. Which isn't to say that this is easy to do, but the problems this process presents are different from the one's expressed in the article. Their most difficult tasks may be finding enough candidates and convincing them to act.

It's certainly possible for groups to recruit the wrong kind of individuals (i.e. violent ones) due to poor management or to desperation caused by candidate shortages and then encounter the problems that are described in the article. As Marcos El Malo notes, shortages do occur, and sometimes that forces the group's hand. But it's not clear that a candidate pool "predisposed to violence" is an endemic problem for most groups.

SusanAugust 22, 2013 9:16 AM

The discussion on the terrorists' "office politics" (along with their info on the incredible incompetency of the Bush administration) was the most interesting part to me of the 911 Commission's report. There was quite a lot of detail on that in the book--seemingly mundane (if they weren't terrorists), but fascinating (since they were).

Mass IndependentAugust 22, 2013 10:47 AM

Interesting that terrorist group recruitment and management is compared to Wal-Mart management.

s9August 22, 2013 3:42 PM

There is also the famous SNAFU Principle, popular among adherents of Discordianism, which paraphrased for context goes like this: managers who brandish guns at their subordinates are only told what people assume will not provoke them to start shooting.

This is a big problem for any organization where managers are actually brandishing real guns.

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