Friday, 26 September 2014

Managing terror


Probably the biggest international event at the moment is the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS), which has taken over large chunks of Iraq and Syria and is enacting widespread horror including the filmed beheading of American and British hostages, as well as brutal, wholesale massacres of the local population accompanied by torture, crucifixion and rape.
It has become commonplace to talk of such Islamist terrorists as being a throwback to the Middle Ages, and in fact the British Prime Minister today referred to IS in just those terms. But as the political philosopher John Gray explained in his 2003 book Al Qaeda and what it means to be Modern this is a serious misnomer. Whilst the barbarism of such groups may recall Mediaeval religious fanaticism, Gray argues that they are both a product of global modernity and make extensive use of the products of that modernity: their reliance on social media being one example of the latter.
I recalled this today as I read a quite astounding and chilling article in Le Nouvel Observateur entitled “Etat islamique: le bilan comptable des massacres” [Islamic State: the balance sheet of killing – my translation]. The article reports that IS is making use of many of the techniques of corporate management – annual reports, balance sheets, marketing strategies and so on – and indeed publishes an account of its activities and resources.
It is tempting to conclude from this that management is simply a set of techniques, neutral in themselves, that may be used for good or evil purposes, and there is some truth in this. But it also suggests that despite its espoused rejection of ‘Western modernity’, IS sees the need to legitimate itself and to express itself via the deployment of those techniques (that is to say, they are not simply neutral techniques, but have a political significance). In fact, more generally, the proclamation of itself as a ‘State’, with territorial holdings and ambitions, shows that IS has a desire or need to embrace Modern forms of rule.
If that is so, then it also creates new vulnerabilities. In one very obvious way this is true: by becoming an identifiable group in an identifiable space, IS is much easier to attack militarily than would otherwise be the case. The organizational theorist Charles Perrow, in his book The Next Catastrophe, argues that the key way that the risk of terrorism can be reduced is to disperse strategic hubs (power plants, airports etc.). But this cuts both ways: if terrorists concentrate themselves spatially then they become more vulnerable as well. It is potentially easier to deal with Islamist fanatics if they locate themselves in a war zone than if they lurk undetected within wider society.
This applies not just to territorial vulnerability, but to organizational vulnerability. It was often said of Al Qaeda (e.g. Marc Sageman’s 2008 book Leaderless Jihad) that it derived strength from being a dispersed network and an organizing principle, rather than being a terrorist organization in the conventional sense like, say, the IRA. If, as AQ morphs into IS, that is now being supplanted by a more orthodox command-and-control organization that suggests that it may be vulnerable to all of the problems and failures that management and organization in more familiar corporate settings are prey to; problems and failures that have been so exhaustively documented by ‘critical management studies’ (CMS). It might be that disrupting the financial and managerial systems that they have adopted could be a more potent weapon against IS than air strikes. It might even be that the insights of CMS could have a role in countering the threat of IS now that they have configured themselves as not just a ‘State’ but as what Le Nouvel Observateur calls “Etat Islamique Inc.”.

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