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PERSPECTIVE: How Do You End Organized Violence? Think Like an Entrepreneur

As ISIS scales up its attacks in the Middle East, we need to start thinking about how we combat violence in a post-coronavirus world.

This starts with how we talk about the perpetrators of violence. The words we use matter; they determine our approach to combating violence. We make a mistake, for example, when we refer to terrorists as “radical Islamists.” This motivates us to think in terms of religion when we should really be thinking in terms of economics.

Imagine national security professionals collectively beginning to refer to terrorist leaders as “entrepreneurs” – ambitious people who make resource allocation decisions for a “firm,” or “business,” and who are seeking to maximize success in the marketplace. This success could mean money, power or revenge. Suddenly, our actions to combat this violence become market-based. We develop strategies to take market share from competing firms. Instead of selling a consumable product, however, we compete for the loyalty of the people. As someone who has spent three decades operating in and studying the relationship between economics and violence, I can tell you that this is our best chance of promoting peace and security.

The entrepreneur chooses his or her tactic – theft, insurgency, or terrorism – based on the probability of success in the context of other options available. Violence occurs in the midst of scarcity – scarcity of goods, of money, of resources, of justice, etc. Violence is not an aberration, but an easily understandable human phenomenon. The firms we read about in the headlines, whether they’re ISIS or al-Qaeda or Boko Haram, each operate under leaders who are making decisions in conditions of scarcity and competing for resources. They are operating like you and me — predictably.

We have to start seeing them as humans – people who love their families; who need to make a living; who are motivated by individual concerns. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien writes of “the enemy”: “You wonder what his name is, where he came from. And if he was really evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home. If he would rather not have stayed there in peace.”

We also have to start seeing perpetrators of violence as not only humans but business leaders. The leaders of these groups are really just running brands. And if we’re going to compete with their businesses of violence, our national security professionals have to start thinking of themselves as brands of their own.

To combat terrorism, and crime, and insurgency, we have to put our rivals out of business. Here are three ways to talk about perpetrators of violence:

  1. Analyze Them Like A Business Executive.

Any competitive business understands the market they’re competing in. They think about what’s allowing other companies to succeed or causing them to fail. They ask if the success of those businesses is dependent on one leader or several. They take note of new startups who could pose a threat.

If a violent group is really just a “firm,” how can we undermine the credibility of their mission? Can we deter potential recruits and make current employees second-guess the firm’s leadership? What are they offering their employees, and can we make a better offer? How can we interrupt their revenue streams? Can we join with a competitor (“the enemy of my enemy is my friend”) to put them out of business?

  1. Define Victory in Market Terms.

Instead of focusing on the physical area, like we’ve done in the past, we need to focus on the markets of an area in order for our competing firm to succeed. Clearing an area of insurgents with military force doesn’t earn lasting loyalty from locals if the market favors a return of the belligerents. Insurgents simply go into hiding and then re-emerge.

Even when we clear one firm from a region, unless we address the market which permits its success, we create a power vacuum that will be filled by another entrepreneur leading another firm. Victory doesn’t last when market power remains up for grabs. The market that enabled Osama bin Laden to create and grow al-Qaeda in Iraq, for example, facilitated Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the creation of ISIS.

  1. Fight Like an Entrepreneur.

Successful violent groups evolve; our institutions of national security have to be ready to evolve, too. ISIS, for example, relied on a variety of developing tactics, from recruiting with religious rhetoric, to terrorizing locals, to utilizing sophisticated cyber marketing operations. The U.S. government approach to national security can feel rigid, however; turf battles between agencies are common as they fight for their share of the federal budget.

To truly fight like an entrepreneur, we need to increase interagency collaboration. Government leaders should seek advice from leaders of the private sector. We should create a national security advising agency that focuses on bringing market perspectives to the national security fight.

Our wars aren’t between uniformed soldiers fighting across well-marked borders anymore. Violence has become more complex, but it doesn’t come from religious or ethnic identity. It comes from entrepreneurs forming and running firms in an effort to gain wealth, power, or revenge. We have to start thinking like business leaders if we want to defeat them.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email HSTodayMag@gtscoalition.com. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Gary M. Shiffman, Ph.D., brings passion, creativity, and scientific rigor to the mission of making the world a more difficult place for illicit actors and networks. He works primarily through the application of behavioral science to the world of organized violence. In 2012, Dr. Shiffman founded the software company, Giant Oak (​www.giantoak.com​), to bring government-funded research and development to U.S. national security, and to compliance professionals in the financial services industry. He seeks to democratize advanced analytics so that organizations, regardless of size, can benefit from best practices in countering illicit activities. Dr. Shiffman teaches at Georgetown University and his second book, ​The Economics of Organized Violence: How Behavioral Science Can Transform our View of Crime, Insurgency and Terrorism ​is forthcoming in late 2019 from Cambridge University Press. Dr. Shiffman’s past professional experiences have qualified him as an expert on the intersections of big data, business, national security, and social science. Prior to his work at Giant Oak, Dr. Shiffman served as Managing Director of the Chertoff Group, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Risk Management Solutions at L-3, and Chief of Staff at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Additionally, Dr. Shiffman has served as a Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Senate Leadership, advised international law firms on anti-terrorism and homeland defense issues, and served in policy, planning, and operational positions in the U.S. Department of Defense. Dr. Shiffman proudly served his country and is a decorated U.S. Navy Gulf War veteran. He earned his Ph.D. in Economics from George Mason University, his M.A. in Security Studies from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and his B.A. in Psychology from the University of Colorado.

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