Critical Reflection on Prof. Max Abrahms’s Paper – Explaining Terrorism: Leadership Deficits and Militant Group Tactics

Critical Reflection on Prof. Max Abrahms’s Paper – Explaining Terrorism: Leadership Deficits and Militant Group Tactics

As a student of social science I admire Professor Max Abrahms’s work that explains the behaviour of actors who indulge in political violence i.e., terrorists in this case. His ability to explain terrorist actions in a quantified manner is admirable and inspiring especially to students like me in addition to the value of policy implications his findings have. Policy makers should definitely take some of his findings as guidance while making policies on this domain. Some of Max’s earlier articles, for eg. Why terrorism does not work is seminal and impressive indeed.

This exercise is primarily an attempt to critically reflect on the paper mentioned which was authored by Max rather than carrying out a systematic review as that would be a lengthy endeavor involving gathering evidence and literature for counter arguments.

For organizations to survive and then to succeed effective leadership is fundamental. Peter F Drucker’s “Effective Executive” may be a good start to understand the role of leadership. So this is not only the case with corporate organizations but also terrorist organizations. At the end of the day all organizations are driven by their mission, this is articulated by their mission statements which are publicized. The mission is achieved through the core competencies (read Prahalad) of human resources that are employed by the organization.

In corporate organizations employees don’t share the top leadership’s vision of achieving the goals of the company and are made to meet certain key deliverables for an incentive, ie., salary. This is a routine exercise, with an exception to certain organizations and employees.

When it comes to terror organizations there is one fundamental difference. The employees that are recruited in an organization do not undergo a rigorous indoctrination process, but people who join a terrorist group do undergo such process or they come from the same background. So, you only see a Muslim joining an Islamist terrorist organization or if it is a communist based group the members are taken for granted that they are deeply indoctrinated in Marxism/Maoism ideology, this is to make sure that there is no hesitance or confusion while carrying out specific tasks in furtherance to accomplishing organizing goals, mostly involves indulging in violence.

With this explanation on difference between terror organizations and others, I continue to reflect on Professor’s paper under few heads.

On the question of Jihadi leadership against attacking the civilian targets etc., – The statistical evidence is certainly compelling and instructive in showing that the leadership of terror organizations normally do not approve attacking civilian targets, as that would not help them in forcing the target countries to make concessions.

I have said this in one of the earlier comments also that, there is a need to categorize terrorist organizations based on their goals, definitive (or realistic) or vague (non-realistic). At least we should differentiate the groups that are fighting for an independent homeland like Palestine and the ones whose goals have no regional limits like Al-Qaeda & ISIS. Groups such as these have clear end goals and are unambiguous on steps that are required in achieving them. It is only the actors (USA) who fight them are not clear in their comprehensive strategy to defeat them. Terrorists just don’t care if civilian attacks push the voters towards rightwing political parties, are we saying that left wing parties are more amenable to the cause of Jihadis? Ie., are we suggesting that a non-right party will be more forthcoming in conceding to the demands of terrorists ? If that is the case, then Chechens in Russia and Muslims in Xinxiang of China could have seen the closures long ago.

If we are to assume that attacking the civilian targets is not a well thought out strategy to achieve their goals then how about attempts to assassinate the civilian leaders? Should we equate it with the attack on civilians considering the case that the civilian leader is a representative of civilians? Attempts on Hamid Karzai for eg are a case in point.

If we are saying that there is a clear distinction between terrorist and insurgent groups then all insurgent groups should be excluded from the study of terrorists for a correct understanding, else the findings may be misleading.

It will be a grave mistake to go by the stated goals of terror groups. Do we have a definite and limited goal of all terror groups? What are goals of Al-Qaeda or Taliban? Is it just a demand that asks Americans to leave Afghanistan? I don’t think so. Before 9/11 America was not there, that was when Bin laden attacked America.

The goals of Islamist and communist terrorists are global. All the regional goals i.e., concession on ceding a territory etc., are only contributing to that larger goal. What is the guarantee we have even if America concedes the demand of Taliban and leaves Afghanistan tomorrow after handing over the power to Taliban? Can America assure the world that Taliban will not pose any threat to international community? I don’t think so.

As terrorists operate in the plane of asymmetric warfare, how are we deducing that all the stated goals of terrorists are true? The elementary technique in asymmetric warfare is deception, hence taking the statements of heads of terrorist organizations at a face value is inappropriate.

Studies must be conducted not in terms of whether terrorist organizations have achieved their goals, yes or no. But what effect continued attacks be it civilian or otherwise had on the targeted state? We can come up with something like for example Nation Peace Index (NPI) or National Stability Index (NSI) etc. to quantify the suffering a state has endured. Of course a terror group cannot make an organized state to abandon its authority over a territory and hand it over to the terror group, terrorists know it better. If terrorists know it for sure that they cannot expect America, Israel to hand their territories in a platter to them, then why continue their nuisance?

If we are saying that it is because of lower rung militants operate with relative autonomy and they attack civilians to grow internally because leadership of terror groups has a long horizon? Then doesn’t that mean their goals also have the same character? Getting America out of Afghanistan is not the ultimate goal.

It is incorrect to claim that terrorist attacks on American territory and American interests have reduced in post 9/11 world because America was successful in eliminating the leadership of Al-Qaeda. Another dimension that needs to be studied before making such a claim is to assess the increase in costs in defending the territory and interest.

Finally to say that it is because of the weak link between leadership and frontline terrorists, attacks are frequent on civilians also needs to be tested with much rigor, especially if the benchmark is set based on the examples of South Asia. One reason being the leverage that Pakistan’s establishment has with terrorist groups in South Asia independent of the leadership of the terrorist organization needs to be considered. After all the 2008 Mumbai attack was not carried out by a middle level commander, it was a well coordinated attack by Pakistan’s establishment, ISI and LeT. The statements of Heads of terrorist organizations cannot be considered as gospel truth.

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