Micromanaging Terror

By Laura Spadanuta

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.



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