Matthew Atkins was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, on his way to full colonel, with 20 years of intelligence and counter-terrorism experience. He was frustrated. Time and again, he had watched the U.S. military take out leaders of al-Qaeda and other terror cells. And time and again, he had watched those cells regroup.
Atkins thought there might be a better way. He wanted to, in his words, “achieve truly disruptive effects on terror cells.” There is one place in America, above all others, where would-be disruptors flock. Atkins went there, to Silicon Valley, to study for a year on a fellowship at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He set up interviews with dozens of CEOs and venture capitalists. He read up on how successful terror groups organize themselves. He developed a theory on how to truly disrupt terrorists, and he published a research paper on it.
His breakthrough insight was that the best terror cells work a lot like a big nonprofit group. Like the Boy Scouts of America.
From studying the scouts, he determined the best way to stop terrorists is to target their bureaucrats – not top leaders.
“The reason I like the Boy Scouts,” Atkins said in an interview, “is they face a lot of the same management challenges that al-Qaeda does.”
He’s serious. Both groups have a lot of motivated but relatively unskilled volunteers, he writes in his paper, “Boy Scouts, Bureaucracy, and Counternetwork Targeting.” Their desired goals can be hard to quantify, especially in the eyes of their donors. “Perhaps the most intriguing similarity,” he writes, “has been a shared dependence on a very complicated relationship with a variety of constituencies or stakeholders.”
Terror cells have been most successful when they have employed a bureaucracy that would be at home in the Boy Scouts, complete with payroll clerks and fundraisers and, especially, liaisons to those stakeholders who keep them in business. Terrorists need a steady stream of money and fighters and equipment, just like the Boy Scouts need parent volunteers and “charter partners” — often churches — who host and support local scout troops.
In the late 1990s, when it successfully bombed the USS Cole, al-Qaeda’s bureaucracy was fairly top-down. It’s evolved since then — it still has leaders, but it now uses a more hybrid structure that diffuses more power through the organization, in order to ensure the loss of a top leader won’t cripple the whole operation. (Atkins said the Islamic State also employs a highly effective hybrid structure. In the paper, he also compares early al-Qaeda to a venture capital firm: “al-Qaeda was originally conceived as a ‘base’ or foundation where Usama bin Laden could serve as a CEO of sorts, gathering and funding creative ideas…”)
Instead of going after terror leaders, Atkins argues, America should target the members of the terror group who nurture its connections — to donors and supporters, and within the flattened leadership structure. This, again, is like the Boy Scouts: If he wanted to gum up their operation, Atkins said, he’d target fundraisers, lobbyists and local leaders who have a lot of pull with churches who support the group. Not the Boy Scout president, who just happens to be a former defense secretary.
“Killing bin Laden was big, symbolically,” Atkins said. “But continually wiping out accountants and No. 3 guys and operations guys and public affairs guys is a lot more effective.”
Atkins’ paper argues strongly for a shift in counterterrorsim strategy along those lines — a better algorithm, so to speak, for targeting the more valuable bad guys. In the interview, he acknowledged how hard that shift might be to make, from a practical standpoint.
In an actual war zone, like Afghanistan, it’s easier to pick out and go after the more valuable, lower-profile terrorists, Atkins said. It’s harder when you’re targeting terrorists in North Africa, Yemen, Mali or Somalia, where almost every strike requires White House sign-off.
When you’re taking your requests all the way to the president, he said, it’s tough to justify going after an accountant.