Terrorist Expensing

Half my Twitter feed is convulsed by the discovery that terrorist organizations have office politics and management issues. If they’d been paying proper attention to the Monkey Cage, they’d have figured this out a little more than five years ago. From a more recent iteration of the Shapiro and Siegel project that I discussed back then:

From the mid-1990s through 2001 when one of them was killed by the U.S. military, two of the West’s most implacable terrorist foes, Abu Hafs al-Masri and Abu Khabab, carried on what appears to have been a long-running feud within Al-Qa’ida. …That their feud would entail lengthy arguments about reporting requirements, air travel reimbursements, and the proper accounting for organizational property does seem a bit odd. … This is all a bit puzzling in that covert organizations are commonly thought to screen their operatives very carefully and pay a particularly heavy price for such record keeping …

we provide an explanation for the seemingly odd facts that terrorist groups repeatedly include operatives of varying commitment and often rely on a common set of security-reducing bureaucratic tools to manage these individuals. Our core argument is that in small, heterogeneous organizations, longer institutional memory can enhance organizational efficiency for a variety of reasons … the greater the ambiguity about what the agents have done and whether failure is attributable to their shirking or to circumstances beyond their control, the greater the need for memory to establish a track record … motivating agents requires both the ability to punish and the ability to employ disciplinary strategies that fall short of ï¬ring wayward operatives … ‘managers’ are at high risk for being killed or captured, meaning that unless records are kept, institutional memory of past behavior is transitory. When past bad acts can be forgotten, incentives for good behavior are weakened as are incentives for leaders to follow consistent disciplinary strategies.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.