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Micromanaging Terror

Just like managers in the government and in private sector companies, terrorist leaders often turn to micromanaging to make their operations run smoothly. This can help the leaders maintain control over their members in a line of work that is very prone to defection, but it can also make the groups and their members more vulnerable to being uncovered.

Jacob Shapiro, associate professor of international affairs and codirector of the Empirical Studies of Conflict project at Princeton University, who does research on this topic, lists two main reasons why terrorists become micromanagers. The first is that, as organizations grow, the leaders must start to recruit individuals that they do not know and trust. Keeping close tabs on the recruits allows for more control. The second reason is that “the kinds of people who are attracted to being in a terrorist organization, for whatever reason, tend to be difficult to manage.”

Shapiro adds that the types of people who have “been arrested for involvement in terrorist organizations, they’re often not the brightest. And they often have an outsized view of their own importance. So in any organization, people who have those traits can be difficult to manage.” Shapiro says these individuals often use violence differently than the leaders would like. In some cases, they use more violence than the leaders want. In other instances, these followers choose unapproved targets.

The terrorists are recruited to strike a blow against others, and it can be difficult to convince new recruits to wait to launch an attack until the time is right and they get the go-ahead.

Shapiro adds that another reason terrorist leaders must micromanage is that the local cell often spends money in ways the organization’s leaders don’t like. For example, “Al Qaeda in Iraq had a real problem with the folks leading cells in different communities having ghost employees on the payroll and getting salaries from the organization for more people than they actually had out there fighting,” Shapiro explains.

Such misuses of resources have prompted leaders to demand that underlings file expense reports and other accounting documents so that the leaders can see whether they’re being taken advantage of and can set the expectation that they must be informed about the actions of their followers, says Shapiro. It’s a dynamic not unlike a boss-employee relationship in many companies.

These documents can be extremely revealing if law enforcement finds them. For example, a cache of documents from al Qaeda in Iraq listed more than 700 members, says Shapiro. The documentation can provide information on whereabouts or meetings.

Another business issue that terrorist leaders care about is employee loyalty—for terrorist leaders, that translates to wanting recruits who won’t defect. A defection could spell the end of the entire organization. Eli Berman, economics professor at the University of California, San Diego, has spent years researching this topic.

He says it’s difficult to actually measure how many terrorists defect from a group, but he looks at whether a group has the ability to pull off ambitious attacks as one indicator of whether there are low numbers of defectors. Berman theorizes that such missions probably couldn’t be kept secret in organizations without loyalty because anyone who wanted to defect would know that their knowledge of such attacks would be worth a lot of money. But loyal members wouldn’t tell about the attacks for any price.

If the group is a radical religious organization and has successful social service programs that provide real benefits, as is the case with Hamas, Berman says that it is more likely to breed loyalty.

The insularity of such groups furthers the sense of community that is condusive to loyalty. These groups also tend to be removed from the mainstream, and they’ll often have lifestyle rules and social restrictions that isolate adherents. An example from outside of the terrorism world might be the Amish or Orthodox Judaism.

“People who are willing to take on all those restrictions are very community-minded people, and they’re the kind of people you’d want in a mutual-aid organization,” Berman explains.

However, Berman adds that the mutual-aid aspect of breeding loyalty also applies in certain nonreligious organizations whose members share an ideology, such as Aum Shinrikyo, the group that attacked Tokyo subways with Sarin gas. “So in all forms of mobilization, having a very committed population is a huge asset. And that’s true of coordinated violence as well,” he notes.

For those developing counterterrorism strategies, the obvious lesson to be gleaned from this research is that any strategy that can lessen or disrupt a terrorist group’s cohesiveness and loyalty has the potential of reducing the group’s overall effectiveness.