Expert Speak Energy News Monitor
Published on Jun 15, 2016
The terrorist CEO: How smart leaders manage terrorist groups The conventional wisdom holds that while Islamic State is very mean, it’s also very successful. In fact, Islamic State is purportedly so successful precisely because it’s so mean. Led by the reclusive “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the terrorist group called IS gained notoriety in the West for its brutal “Jihadi John” beheading videos. By propagating gruesome acts like these against journalists and other civilians over social media platforms, Islamic State intimidates target countries into compliance and boosts its support by attracting fanatics from all over the world. For this reason, social media alarmists appeal to companies like Twitter and Facebook to remove the violent online content if we’re to stand a chance against the group. But there’s just one problem with this common narrative — it lacks an empirical basis. It’s not even clear there’s a correlation between the number of pro-IS Twitter users in a country and its supply of foreign fighters. The United States has among the most numerous pro-IS Twitter users of any country, but has supplied relatively few jihadists. Conversely, Tunisia has relatively few pro-IS Twitter users, but has contributed the most jihadists. Perhaps there’s an association between foreign fighters and Facebook or other types of social media accounts. But when it comes to Twitter, the presumed link between social media and Islamic State-inspired foreign fighters is surprisingly weak upon examination. Social media alarmists also fail to show that Islamic State supporters are actually radicalised from social media; it seems at least as likely the causal arrow flows in the opposite direction, with radical people seeking to consume and generate radical content. As the Quilliam Foundation noted, “The vast majority of those that visit extremist websites and consume the content enthusiastically are likely to have been heading in that direction, and the websites in question are merely aiding an existing journey.” The truth is that the Islamic State made its main strategic gains a couple summers ago, before the widespread promotion of its savage videos in the West. The group managed to gain so much ground in Iraq and Syria when the international community was napping, largely unaware of its extreme brutality. Had the Islamic State been showcasing its atrocities then, the international community would have responded sooner. Indeed, only when the Islamic State released the beheading video of the American journalist James Foley did the United States ramp up military operations against the group. With each propaganda video, other target countries have joined the ever-expanding anti-IS military coalition. We saw this after Islamic State bragged over social media about torching a Jordanian captive and chopping the heads off of Egyptian Coptics in Libya. Because Islamic State has taunted so many countries into becoming its enemy, the group is naturally losing members on the battlefield at a far faster clip than its ability to replenish them. The media has tended to focus solely on what I call “the recruitment effects” of Islamic State’s extreme branding strategy, while ignoring “the attrition effects.” There’s no denying that a tiny slice of the world’s population is lured to Islamic State because of its barbarism. For those itching to decapitate foreigners or cage Kurdish children or rape Yazidi girls, the group’s marketing approach helps the Islamic State to “outbid” rival organisations competing over the same limited recruitment pool. This radical branding also attrits members, though, not only by mobilising target countries into pummeling them, but also by spurring desertions from their ranks, eroding local support, and convincing more moderate groups to counteract the menace. The Islamic State is thus losing battles, territory, revenue, and the cash to pay its dwindling fighters in its stronghold of Iraq and Syria, while other Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra are trading on their more moderate branding strategies to expand their territorial control, membership rosters, and material support, especially from Sunni Gulf countries and Turkey. The Islamic State’s downward plight accords with my previous scholarship, which finds that groups suffer a political price from wielding indiscriminate violence against civilians. Why, then, does the Islamic State brag about attacking civilians if it’s counterproductive? To put it bluntly, the Islamic State is led by a stupid CEO who exercises terrible brand management. Leaders of other terrorist groups seem to appreciate the costs of extremism and therefore market themselves as moderate. When Nusra fighters slaughtered 20 Druze villagers last year in northwestern Syria, for example, the leadership publicly announced that these wayward killers would stand trial before an Islamic court. When Ahrar al-Sham was accused of mistreating Syrian minorities, its leadership quickly penned an op-ed in The Washington Post insisting that the group is actually “fighting for justice for the Syrian people." Indeed, the historical record abounds with militant leaders warning their foot-soldiers to refrain from attacking civilians because of the political fallout. Mao Tse-tung repeatedly impressed on his fighters the importance of cultivating what he called a “unity of spirit that should exist between troops and local inhabitants.” In the 1980s, Sinn Fein assailed operatives in the Provisional Irish Republican Army for harming civilians due to the political backlash. The al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigadeschief Marwan Barghouti has advocated Palestinian attacks against the Israel Defense Forces, while opposing attacks against Israeli civilians within the pre-1967 borders or so-called Green Line. According to Barghouti, Israeli civilians should be off-limits because historically such indiscriminate violence has been“detrimental to us.” The FARC leadership has likewise “repudiated and condemned” its fighters for their “lack of foresight” in attacking civilians. Even the al-Qaeda leadership has reprimanded its foot-soldiers for attacking civilians in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. In fact, al-Qaeda leaders are increasingly issuing public apologies when operatives defy their orders by harming civilians, especially Muslim ones. Such apologies for harming civilians are found across militant groups from Colombia’s National Liberation Army to Lebanon’s Abdullah Azzam Brigades to Nepal’s Communist Party. These examples aren’t just anecdotal. In a recent paper in International Organization, Phil Potter and I show how many terrorist leaders go to great lengths to prevent their operatives from harming civilians. We demonstrate statistically in a sample of hundreds of terrorist groups that civilian attacks are very often the result of operatives defying the targeting preferences of their leaders, who have a better understanding of the political costs. For this reason, Justin Conrad and I find in a forthcoming paper in Security Studies that to brand their groups as moderate most terrorist leaders withhold credit for attacks, especially against civilians. Over the past four decades, the leaders of hundreds of terrorist groups around the world have evidently claimed credit for only about one out of seven of their attacks. When their operatives have struck counterproductive civilian targets, the likelihood of their leaders taking organisational credit drops by an additional 29 percent. Islamic State behaves in the opposite fashion. Rather than trying to curtail attacks against civilians, the leadership encourages them. Baghdadi is unusual not only by giving the green-light for operatives to strike almost any target, but by claiming credit for civilian attacks, even ones perpetrated by those with questionable links to the group. But like CEOs in business, terrorist CEOs need to be smart about how to brand their organisation for the widest appeal. There’s “power in numbers” even in the world of terrorism. Twitter and Facebook shouldn’t be condemned for helping the Islamic State broadcast its heinous behaviour against noncombatants — they should be commended for exposing it and thereby turning the world against this organisation. The Islamic State’s leader will be fired soon, perhaps by drone.
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