This is the third in a series of brief posts about Intelligence and Terrorism.
In this post I want to raise again the issue about the dynamic issues within terrorist organisations that the intelligence analyst has to face, and look at how those organisations are changing.
With some exceptions generally I think it is true to say that terrorist organizations are much less centralized then in the past. The international efforts to counter terrorism post 9/11 have forced terrorists to operate at a much looser level than before. Groups are less hierarchical, groups have sacrificed efficiency for security and there is less top-down control and this has a number of implications:
- There is less hierarchical control of targeting by terrorists. This can work both ways – loosely affiliated terrorist groups can operate with either more adherence to their core philosophy or can be distracted, without the discipline of central control , to taking on easier, or less relevant targets. Looser organised terrorist groups are more likely to surprise us in their attacks and lone wolf attacks even more so as they are often driven by idiosyncratic targeting.
- In the years following 9/11 there was an assumption that large-scale terrorist attacks needed a number of team members in order to succeed. Breivik proved that assumption to be false.
- Intelligence works best against structured groups because, largely, discipline and control leads to OPSEC issues which intelligence can exploit. However the lack of efficiencies in looser organization sometimes leaves vulnerabilities which intelligence can penetrate. But they are different vulnerabilities.
- This means we will see, proportionally more lone wolf attacks. But lone wolf attacks are less likely to succeed.
- Different intelligence techniques are needed to tackle lone wolf threats than more traditional hierarchically driven threats. This factor deserves some more thought and I’ll return to this in the future. There is something of an obsession within intelligence organisations about “network analysis”. Yes, network analysis is important but the fact we can produce pretty network diagrams does not mean we have necessarily adequately characterised an enemy organisation. We need better ways to understand organisational dynamics and the factors which affect them.
- A less hierarchically driven threat does not mean a more dangerous threat.
- Leadership of terrorist groups in looser organized groups is less effective because there is no structure to promote organizational talent. (the greatest potential weakness in any terrorist group is lack of organizational management talent. This is something that counter terrorist efforts should, in my opinion do more to exploit. Indeed careful efforts to point out the poor leadership in terrorist organizations should receive much higher attention, unless of course we do the opposite and encourage the promotion of incompetents
Hierarchy allows terrorist groups to screen potential operatives. Loose organisations are more likely to allow incompetents. Lone wolf terrorists are often, but not always incompetent. as i hinted at in my earlier post we should do more to highlight organisational incompetence. as Jacob Shapiro says in his book “The Terrorist’s Dilemma”, Pointing out the mundane side of terrorism helps to demystify these groups. Terrorism gains much power from the exaggerated weight society gives to its practitioners’ capabilities.
But before we laugh to hard at the fundamental inefficiencies of terrorist groups and their ineffective controls, we should take an honest hard look at our own organisations.