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Shapiro on the Internal Problems of Terrorist Organizations

Abstract: Terrorists organizations face a difficult task in a hostile operational setting. First, they must achieve the controlled application of violence in the service of political goals. Hitting the wrong targets, or conducting too many attacks, can be just as damaging to the group’s political cause as doing too little. Second, they must maintain this calibrated use of force in an environment where becoming known to government equals operational failure. The organizational challenge is that political and ideological leaders—the principals—have to delegate certain duties—planning attacks, soliciting funds, recruiting, and the like—to middlemen or low-level operatives, their agents. Such delegation poses no problem if all the agents are perfectly committed, see the world as their leaders do, and agree with them on how to best serve the cause. Under those conditions, the preferences of the principals and their agents will be aligned, and the agents will act exactly as the principals would like. However, where preferences diverge, the covert nature of terrorist groups necessarily implies that agents can take advantage of delegation to act as they prefer, not as their principals would like. Thus, terrorist groups and other covert organizations face two fundamental trade-offs. The first is between security and financial efficiency. Here selection pressures and recruiting dynamics drive divergent preferences over spending, creating inefficiencies in resource allocation from the leaders’ perspective. Strategies to mitigate these problems all entail security costs. The second tradeoff is between security and operational control. Here selection pressures, small group dynamics, and the information problems inherent in underground organization create preference divergence over strategy and tactics. Efforts to mitigate these problems through greater control entail security costs for groups as a whole. The enduring importance of these tradeoffs points to a series of strategic principles for counterterrorism policy and highlights the need for organizationally informed analysis of terrorist groups.

Jacob Shapiro (2007), “The Terrorist’s Challenge: Security, Efficiency, Control,” unpublished paper. Available here.

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