An Analysis of the Effect of Ideology on the Life Expectancy of Terrorist Organisations

Master's Thesis, 2008

142 Pages, Grade: Passed


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Literature Review
2.1 The Organisational Life Cycle
2.2 The Organisational Life Span

3. Terrorism through an Open Systems Framework
3.1 The Organisation as a Machine
3.2 The Organisation as an Organism
3.3 General Systems Theory: Organisations as Open Systems
3.4 Terrorist Organisations as Open Systems
3.5 Open Systems and Organisational Longevity

4. Terrorism as an Extension of Politics
4.1 Terrorist Organisations as Specialised Political Parties
4.2 An Ideological Taxonomy of Terrorist Organisations
4.2.1 Separatist/nationalist Terrorist Organisations
4.2.2 Left-wing Terrorist Organisations
4.2.3 Religious Terrorist Organisations
4.2.4 Right-wing Terrorist Organisations
4.3 A Structural Taxonomy of Terrorist Organisations
4.3.1 Hierarchical Terrorist Organisations
4.3.2 Flattening the Hierarchy: Terrorist Networks
4.3.3 Hybrids: The Real World of Organisational Structures

5. The Life Cycles of Terrorist Organisations
5.1 Organisational Life Cycles and the Biological Metaphor
5.2 Empirical Evidence for Organisational Life Cycles
5.3 A Generic Five-Stage Model of an Organisational Life Cycle
5.3.1 Start-up
5.3.2 Growth
5.3.3 Consolidation
5.3.4 Diversification
5.3.5 Decline
5.4 Life Cycle Models of Terrorist Organisations
5.4.1 Formation
5.4.2 Growth
5.4.3 Adapting
5.4.4 Decline
5.5 Hawks and Doves: An Abridged Life Cycle Model
5.6 Organisational Size
5.6.1 Organisational Size and Growth
5.6.2 Separating the Effects of Organisational Age and Size
5.6.3 Size and Growth in Terrorist Organisations
5.7 Connecting Qualitative Life Cycles to Quantitative Life Spans

6. Measuring the Life Spans of Terrorist Organisations
6.1 Methods for Survival Analysis
6.1.1 The Survival Function
6.1.2 The Hazard Function
6.2 Research Design
6.3 Non-parametric Analysis of Survival: The Kaplan-Meier Estimate
6.4 Semi-Parametric Analysis: Proportional Hazards Regression
6.5 Model Fitting Using Cox Regression
6.5.1 Cox-Snell Residual Analysis
6.5.2 Score Residuals
6.5.3 Deviance Residuals
6.5.4 Schoenfeld Residuals
6.6 Data Limitations

7. Future Research

8. Conclusion

9. References

Appendix A: Distribution of Ideology

Appendix B: Distribution of First Attacks

Appendix C: Data

1. Introduction

While the life spans of well-known terrorist organisations such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Shining Path, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), and Hezbollah can be measured in decades, the majority of terrorist organisations do not survive for more than a year. Al Qaeda’s current diffuse form is often cited as evidence in support of the view that modern terrorist organisations are complex adaptive systems. Yet the high failure rates of newly-formed terrorist organisations indicate that many of them are neither particularly complex nor adaptive. The vast majority of terrorist organisations are small, short-lived, and fail to achieve their stated strategic objectives.

Quantitative studies of the life spans of terrorist organisations are rare. This is a reflection of the difficulty in obtaining reliable longitudinal data on a large number of clandestine organisations, not a dismissal of the importance of studying the factors that influence mortality among terrorist organisations. One of the most widely-cited statistics concerning the life spans of terrorist organisations is David Rapoport’s (1992) suggestion that perhaps as many as 90% of terrorist organisations do not survive beyond their first year of operation. According to Rapoport (1992), of the few terrorist organisations that survived their first year of operation, fewer than 50% would survive until the age of 10. These figures, while approximate, convey the high failure rates experienced by terrorist organisations as they struggle to establish themselves. The high failure rates observed among terrorist organisations parallel the high failure rates seen among new business firms and voluntary organisations.

Many factors influence the life expectancy of a terrorist organisation. The availability of a large pool of potential recruits, external financial support, and safe havens in nearby countries can greatly enhance the survival prospects of a terrorist organisation. The ideology through which a terrorist organisation views the world is also thought to have an important influence on its life span (Cronin, 2006). Gurr (1979), Wilkinson (1979), Crenshaw (1991), and Rapoport (1992) drew attention to the longer life expectancies of terrorist organisations that use separatist/nationalist appeals to mobilise support and justify their violence. The distinct ethno-nationalist base available to a separatist/nationalist organisation confers considerable benefits in terms of its long-term viability.

The effect of ideology on a terrorist organisation’s life expectancy can be felt through the types of targets it attacks. The wrong choice of target can be fatal to a terrorist organisation (Bell, 1998). Egregious and indiscriminate attacks can result in the rapid withdrawal of crucial resources and support from the organisation’s repulsed constituents. Mistakes and disagreements over whom or what to target can cause irreconcilable internal schisms within terrorist organisations. Left-wing terrorist organisations are believed to exercise more care in the selection of targets in order to avoid harming members of the proletariat they claim to represent (Karber & Mengel, 1983; Fine, 2008). The disinclination to indiscriminate attacks among many left-wing terrorist organisations might enhance their survival prospects, as indiscriminate attacks often result in a loss of support from sympathisers and moderate members. While analysing the characteristics of a non-random sample of 77 terrorist organisations, Crenshaw (1991) noticed that left-wing and separatist/nationalist organisations appeared to be similarly well-represented among the 47 organisations that had survived for at least 10 years. Terrorist organisations mobilised around a religious ideology are believed to be much less discriminating in their targeting than secular organisations (Fine, 2008), a factor which, prima facie, has the potential to lead to rapid losses of support among their constituents and, as a result, higher rates of organisational failure.

A terrorist organisation’s political goals and ideological imperatives are more likely to play a dominant role as the drivers of violence in the early stages of its life cycle. As the organisation ages, however, intra-organisational dynamics frequently displace ideology as the primary driver of violence (Oots, 1989). This implies that steps taken to ameliorate the grievance that provided the original stimulus for the formation of a terrorist organisation might actually accomplish very little if enough intra-organisational momentum has already been gained (Creshaw, 1985). This highlights the importance of understanding terrorist organisations from a longitudinal perspective. Strategies and tactics that show great promise when applied to newer terrorist organisations can fail dismally when applied to organisations in the middle or later stages of their life cycles. Sageman (2004) pointed out that intra-group dynamics can dominate the decision-making of contemporary jihadi cells from their very inception, especially if a terrorist cell’s formation was the result of a group of friends that gradually became radicalised. Wilson’s (1973) influential theory that survival was the overriding goal of any political organisation (and this includes terrorist organisations) can be contrasted against the actions of the 2005 London suicide bombers, who did not plan for their group to survive the bombings they carried out.

While there is no universally accepted life cycle model for terrorist organisations, descriptions of the stages through which many terrorist organisations pass as they age have been provided by Karber and Mengel (1983), Long (1990), Bell (1998), Sprinzak (1998), and Roberts (2003). Several models of terrorist organisational life cycles have quite similar stages to the four and five-stage life cycle models that emerged from studies of legal commercial organisations. Karber and Mengel’s (1983) and Roberts’ (2003) life cycle models emphasised the important behavioural thresholds terrorist organisations often cross when they realise that their tactical success has not translated into strategic success. The large variation in circumstances, goals, and structures among terrorist organisations mean that a single life cycle model would be hard-pressed to cover them all. Sprinzak (1998) developed a life cycle model that described three distinct stages that many left-wing terrorist organisations pass through. The tendency for terrorist organisations to become less discriminating in their attacks as they age, to polarise along moderate and extreme lines, and to replace ideology with cohesion as the dominant driver of their violence emerge as leitmotifs from the various life cycle models discussed in this thesis.

The circumstances surrounding the formation of a terrorist group can vary widely. Terrorist organisations can form as a result of an increasingly radical faction hiving off from a larger, non-violent protest organisation. They can also form as a result of a merger between two or more organisations. Large terrorist organisations in their death throes can produce many smaller, distinct splinter groups, differentiated from each other on the basis of religion, geographic location, goals, and leadership rivalries. The sudden appearance of several radical splinter groups can complicate the environment for counter-terrorist planners and analysts. More importantly, it can lead to an increase in overall violence, as the smaller organisations ruthlessly compete with each other for recruits, publicity, and influence (de Mesquita, 2006). Terrorist organisations can end in as many ways as they begin. Some destroy themselves from within, some are eliminated by the authorities, while others decide to abandon terrorism as a strategy of political change. Some, like the African National Congress (ANC), succeed in achieving their goals and have no further use for terrorist tactics. Ross and Gurr (1989) pointed out that some terrorist organisations fail simply because of the members’ waning commitment to the organisation and its goal.

Agreement among scholars and governments on a definition of what constitutes terrorism has been, and is expected to remain, an elusive goal. While discussing Schmid and Yongman’s (1988) influential review of terrorism research, Silke (2004) pointed out that a diligent researcher could easily uncover twice as many definitions as the 109 Schmid and Yongman (1988) found. Silke (2004) felt that perennial definitional debates, while important, often diverted researchers from much more productive lines of enquiry. The definition of terrorism used in this thesis is based on the definition provided by the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT). The MIPT defines terrorism as, “Violence, or the threat of violence, calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm. These acts are designed to coerce others into actions they would not otherwise undertake, or refrain from actions they desired to take. All terrorist acts are crimes. Many would also be violation of the rules of war if a state of war existed. This violence or threat of violence is generally directed against civilian targets. The motives of all terrorists are political and terrorist actions are generally carried out in a way that will achieve maximum publicity. Unlike other criminal acts, terrorists often claim credit for their acts. Finally, terrorist acts are intended to produce effects beyond the immediate physical damage of the cause, having long-term psychological repercussions on a particular target audience. The fear created by terrorists may be intended to cause people to exaggerate the strengths of the terrorist and the importance of the cause, to provoke governmental overreaction, to discourage dissent, or simply to intimidate and thereby enforce compliance with their demands” (MIPT, 2007).

Like many aspects of research into terrorism, agreement over what constitutes a terrorist ‘organisation’ is not easy to reach and presents challenges on several fronts. There is a question of perspective. It would be rare to find an organisation that believed it deserved the label of ‘terrorists’. Those who use terrorism believe their violence is justified by their ideology and are acting on behalf of a larger, aggrieved or oppressed group of people. Many feel they are actually acting out of a sense of altruism towards society. The importance of perspective is neatly summarised by the aphorism, “One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”. A terrorist organisation can use several aliases, leading to distorted counts and a confusing picture of the number of organisations active in a particular area or epoch. An organisation might change its name several times, while remaining relatively unchanged otherwise. Umbrella organisations often subsume, and are sometimes consumed by, a morass of competing or cooperating factions with fluctuating memberships, shared members, ideological niches, and shifting loyalties. A large number of organisations without a clear title or name are missed by analyses that require, first and foremost, a unique identifier in order to efficiently label, list, and catalogue them. In a discussion of system identity, Weinberg (1975) pointed out that existence implies an identity, and an identity implies the existence of an identifier. The challenges in cataloguing, counting, and measuring terrorist organisations with widely varying structures, resources, goals, environments, and opponents have been discussed by Mickolus (1977), Gurr (1979), Oots (1986), Crenshaw (1991), and Chasdi (2002). This thesis subscribes to the definition of a terrorist organisation given by the MIPT as, “A collection of individuals belonging to an autonomous non-state or sub-national revolutionary or anti-governmental movement who are dedicated to the use of violence to achieve their objectives. Such an entity is seen as having at least some structural and command and control apparatus that, no matter how loose or flexible, nonetheless provides an overall organisational framework and general strategic direction. This definition is meant to include contemporary religion-motivated and apocalyptic groups and other movements that seek theological justification or divine sanction for their acts of violence” (MIPT, 2007).

One of the most important tasks facing a researcher embarking on an empirical study of terrorist organisations consists of deciding which organisations to include in the study (Crenshaw, 1991). The organisations analysed in Chapter Six are drawn from open source materials such as the Encyclopedia of Terrorism (Kushner, 2003), the US Department of State’s Patterns of Global Terrorism (1976-2003), MIPT, and peer-reviewed academic journals. The statistical analyses presented in Chapter Six are inferential, meaning that the results are intended to be generalised to the population from which the sample was drawn. Using archival data is a common way to study the members of a population of interest, although these studies can suffer from biases that skew the results and attenuate their generalisability. A realistic view of how well the sampling methodology covers the phenomenon under investigation needs to be communicated by the analyst. Gurr (1979), Oots (1986), Crenshaw (1991), and Merari (1991) outlined in clear and unambiguous terms the limitations of the data that quantitative researchers often used.

Identifying populations of organisations has been a significant methodological challenge for scholars of organisational dynamics (Hannan & Freeman, 1987). One of the most important issues to reflect upon when collecting and analysing archival data concerns the sample’s coverage. Thought needs to be given to the characteristics of a terrorist organisation which make it more, or less, likely to be included in the sample. Larger and older organisations are more likely to be found in this sample, as are organisations that, although small and new, carried out particularly egregious attacks. Gurr (1979) believed that larger and more publicity-conscious organisations were over-represented in the data sources used by many analysts. Terrorist organisations that claimed responsibility for attacks on US and Western citizens or property are also widely-believed to be over-represented in archival records. A US and Western-centric bias cannot be taken for granted, however, as Weinberg and Eubank (2004) found a bias in the opposite direction with data drawn from similar sources. Developing countries with obdurate insurgencies frequently lack well-organised and transparent statistical reporting mechanisms. Data gathered under such circumstances often suffer from uneven coverage and varying quality. Stohl (1988) pointed out that most of the world’s terrorist attacks go unreported by the Western media. A terrorist attack within a country whose government enforces strict media control is less likely to find its way into a database of terrorist attacks than an attack which happened in a country with a free press.

The true biases in the sample can only be evinced by testing the same hypotheses with alternative data sets. The sample analysed in this thesis would be most useful for those interested in larger or older organisations, although the fact that more than half of the 557 organisations in the sample had life spans of less than a year shows a serious attempt to include smaller and short-lived organisations in the analysis. Further data gathering efforts would be likely to net large numbers of obscure, short-lived, small organisations. Ignoring small organisations has its drawbacks, however. Although right-wing organisations are under-represented in databases, Crenshaw (1991) pointed out that the cumulative violence and impact of many small and fissiparous right-wing groups was as consequential as that of the more unified left.

Unfortunately, the simple lack of an appellation disqualifies an organisation from studies of organisational mortality. Studies of when, in a nascent or inchoate terrorist group’s life cycle, they assign themselves a name, and why, are few. A change of name can signify a change in intent or be one of many changes in a wider program of organisational renewal. Terrorist organisations can use several aliases. The operational cells of larger terrorist organisations sometimes adopt a new name with every attack to give the impression of a broader movement, confuse authorities, or simply to honour fallen comrades and martyrs (Mickolus, 1977). Clearly, identity does not reside entirely in an organisation’s name. Large changes within an organisation can take place while its name remains the same. Conversely, frequent name changes might take place within an otherwise stable organisation. Crenshaw (2007) pointed out that the Red Army Faction in Germany was not a monolithic entity – it was more like a succession of different groups using the same name. Despite these limitations, there are few, if any, ways of identifying and cataloguing terrorist organisations that are as effective, efficient, natural, and uncontroversial as the names these organisations give themselves.

The majority of research on terrorism is qualitative. Case studies that focus on a single organisation can communicate a depth and richness of analysis that quantitative studies are unable to provide. The sheer variety of terrorism’s circumstances, organisational forms, and causes and effects, combined with imprecise and ambiguous data, has meant that attempts at sophisticated quantitative analysis have often fallen far short of the rigor and predictive power they presaged (Crenshaw, 1991; Merari, 1991). The heterogeneity of terrorism’s actors, methods, and environments can be a serious impediment when generalising any statistical patterns the analyst uncovers to a wider population. Crenshaw (1992) warned researchers that studies which combined a large number or wide range of terrorist organisations operating in different milieus into one single analysis risked conflicting and ambiguous results. A more selective approach, which involves partitioning data along particular types of activity, location, and epoch can ameliorate some of the difficulties presented by the heterogeneity among terrorist organisations. Moving from the general to the specific can rapidly whittle down a data set to a handful of observations, however. Ideally, the sampling method and data analysis methods chosen by the analyst will represent a judicial compromise between what Boulding (1956) considered the general that lacked useful content, and the specific that lacked broader applicability. Somewhere between the two poles the analyst must find, for their purpose, resources, data, and level of abstraction, the most effective level of analysis.

Statistical approaches to the study of terrorism assume that the behaviours of terrorist organisations might have some underlying patterns and that the discovery of these patterns through even the simplest statistical procedures can be helpful (Mickolus, 2002). Any statistical analysis setting out to explore the possible association between ideological orientation and organisational longevity, for example, is based on the assumption that there are aspects of terrorism that are not completely random. Obviously, the usefulness of any particular approach depends greatly on the information being sought. If there are any consistent patterns or relationships within the data, statistical analysis can be a powerful tool for revealing them. Descriptive statistics can paint a clear picture of the variation along the dimensions that are amenable to measurement, such as life spans, target types, and attack frequencies. The information conveyed by descriptive statistics can also be a valuable complement to deeper and more context-sensitive qualitative studies. In his landmark study of the durations of terrorist campaigns in 87 countries, Gurr (1979) emphasised that although statistical estimates and large sample surveys were not a replacement for in-depth case studies, they were an essential complement to them. This thesis takes the view that there is no single best way to view the phenomenon of terrorism. Given the many subjective aspects of terrorism analysis, it is beneficial to use different methods to examine the same data or phenomenon.

The great diversity of sizes, structures, and ideologies observed among terrorist organisations may, prima facie, argue against including them in one sample. Yet such research designs are not without precedent. Hannan and Carroll (2000) pointed out that while there is often a great diversity of organisations, the assumption that each one is unique is too constraining for progress to be made in organisational demography. Terrorist organisations are more similar to each other than mining or banking organisations, for example, so knowing that an organisation is classed as ‘terrorist’ still conveys a great deal about what to expect from it. While Crenshaw (1992) advised against aggregating a wide variety of terrorist organisations into a single dataset, several justifications for aggregating the 557 terrorist organisations that comprise this study into a single dataset can be made. Firstly, all of the organisations in the sample were involved in the intentional production of the same generic product – politically motivated violence. Secondly, the organisations in the sample used similar tactics, such as bombing, assassination, kidnapping, or arson. Thirdly, all of the organisations in the sample extracted a common set of material and social resources from their environment such as recruits, information, money, and weapons. The commonalities that exist among terrorist organisations become more salient when they are viewed from an open-systems perspective. These commonalities are explored in greater depth in Chapter Three.

This thesis proceeds by reviewing the previous literature on terrorist organisational life spans and life cycle models. Chapter Three discusses the use of a systems approach, specifically open systems theory, to describe the less obvious commonalities among seemingly diverse terrorist organisations. A description of the major structural and ideological characteristics of terrorist organisations, and their relationship with organisational survival, is presented in Chapter Four. A description of the various life cycle theories of terrorist organisations is presented in Chapter Five. The important relationship between organisational age and size is also discussed in Chapter Five. The description of the internal and external forces acting on an organisation, from its inception to dissolution, provides a contextual, and complementary, background to the quantitative analysis of organisational survival in the following chapter. A non-parametric and semi-parametric analysis of the life spans (or more precisely, the length of time, in years, between the date of an organisation’s first claimed attack until its last claimed attack) of 557 terrorist organisations is carried out in Chapter Six. The association between ideological orientation and the survival times of terrorist organisations is a major theme of the statistical analysis. The possible biases in the data, and limitations these may put on the generalisability of the statistical analysis, are also discussed in Chapter Six. Several suggestions for further research are given in Chapter Seven. The thesis concludes in Chapter Eight with a summary of the findings.

2. Literature Review

For counter-terrorism planners and analysts, an understanding of the major life cycle theories of terrorist organisations, and the assumptions they are based on, is vital. Counter-terrorism strategies need to be developed with an appreciation of the different forces that can influence the actions of a terrorist organisation at different stages of its life cycle. Counter-terrorist actions and strategies that are highly effective in the early stages of a terrorist organisation’s life cycle might be fruitless, or even counter-productive, if applied in the later stages of its life cycle. This chapter reviews the research on terrorist organisational life cycles and life spans, highlighting aspects of both that are relevant to the current study. This literature review proceeds along two general themes - terrorist organisational life cycles and terrorist organisational life spans.

2.1 The Organisational Life Cycle

Much of the research into the life cycles of terrorist organisations has drawn heavily on the idea of an organisation passing through various stages of birth, growth, maturity, and decline. These stage-based models have strong parallels to those found in the analysis of economic and voluntary organisations. The idea that organisations pass through a series of distinct and predictable developmental stages comparable to the birth, growth, maturity, and decline of biological organisms has its origins in 19th Century Darwinism. Many modern life cycle models can trace their roots back to the work of economist Alfred Marshall. Marshall’s influential Principles of Economics (Marshall, 1890) compared the growth of business organisations to that of the life cycles of trees in the forest. The influential economist Kenneth Boulding (1950) did much to popularise the idea of a life cycle of organisations. Decades of cogent criticisms of the application of biological analogies of organisational development, spearheaded by Penrose (1952), have done little to reduce the widespread appeal and continued use of this analogy, however flawed or controversial it remains.

One of the most influential stage-based models of organisational development was developed by Chandler (1962). Chandler (1962) described a four-stage life cycle model and outlined the circumstances that drove an organisation to move from one stage to another. Greiner (1972) outlined what became one of the most cited models of organisational evolution. Using a five-stage model, Greiner suggested that transition from one stage to the next was precipitated by crises that led to dramatic or revolutionary changes in an organisation’s processes and structures. The transition from one stage to the next was not seen as smooth or gradual. Greiner’s (1972) life cycle model is explored in greater depth in Chapter Five. In subsequent years, many life cycle models have been proposed (Kimberly & Miles, 1980; Churchill & Lewis, 1983; Mintzberg, 1984; Hanks, 1990; Dodge & Robbins, 1992). Lichtenstein, Levie, and Hay (2007) conducted a comprehensive review of the empirical evidence related to stage theory and concluded that despite its appeal, over 40 years of research in stage theory had not produced any consistent large-sample empirical confirmation of a particular stage-based life cycle model of economic organisations.

There is no universally applicable life cycle model of terrorist organisations. Given the great diversity of sizes, structures, ideologies, environments, and historical epochs, any such model would doubtless have many exceptions. Wilson’s (1973) observation that political organisations invariably shifted their focus from the achievement of a stated strategic goal to that of organisational survival has been a recurring theme throughout the literature. Wilson’s (1973) emphasis on organisational survival as the primary, albeit tacit, goal of political organisations (this includes terrorist organisations) was expounded on by Crenshaw (1985, 1991), Oots (1989), and Post (1990).

Many life cycle models of terrorist organisations emphasise how the growing tension between moderate and extreme members often leads to organisational schisms, internecine violence, and splinter groups (Bell, 1998; Roberts, 2003). Karber and Mengel (1983) drew attention to the pivotal role the decision to use indiscriminate violence, as opposed to discriminate and symbolic attacks, played in the evolution of terrorist organisations. Sprinzak (1998) described a life cycle model of left-wing organisations in democracies, describing three stages through which a peaceful non-violent political protest group went through on their way towards engaging in strategic terrorism. The first stage involves a crisis of confidence, where an enraged ideological challenge group opposes a detested leader or specific policy through verbal, and usually peaceful, protest. There may be small scale unplanned violence at protests and strikes. The second stage involves a conflict of legitimacy, where the entire system is viewed as rotten and in need of overturning or transformation through violence. The third stage involves a crisis of legitimacy, where everyone remotely associated with the system is seen as a potential target. The world becomes bifurcated into good and evil. A marker of this stage is the intentional use of rhetoric that dehumanises those associated with the regime, thus making it morally easier to kill them. This stage is associated with the adoption of strategic terrorism. Sprinzak (1998) pointed out that very few angry protest groups reached the crisis of legitimacy stage. Gurr (1979) believed that the perpetrators of terrorist acts seemed to be more often motivated by hostility towards particular policies or political figures than revolutionary aspirations.

The distinction between external strategic focus and internal organisational focus was brought into sharp relief by Crenshaw (1985) who contrasted instrumental and organisational approaches to understanding the behaviour of terrorist groups. The instrumental approach considers terrorist behaviour to be driven primarily by its publicly stated goals of liberating its constituency or influencing government behaviour. The organisational approach considers terrorist group behaviour to be driven primarily by the internal dynamics of the group, the most basic of which is group survival. Oots (1989) and Post (1990) emphasised the frequency with which instrumental considerations gave way to organisational considerations as a terrorist organisation aged, thereby accommodating the two different views. One of the implications of this change is that belated, but genuine, attempts by the government to ameliorate the original grievance may have little effect on a terrorist organisation whose motivations for violence have become thoroughly dominated by intra-organisational dynamics.

It is not a straightforward task to reconcile the idea that organisations become more homogeneous and extreme in their opinions over time (Post, Ruby, & Shaw, 2002) against life cycle models such as Karber and Mengel (1983), Bell (1998), and Roberts (2003) which view an organisation-rending schism between moderates and radicals as almost ineluctable. The growing size of a terrorist organisation over time also means an increase in the ideological diversity within the organisation, perhaps serving as a counter-weight to the increasing homogeneity of opinions Post, Ruby, and Shaw (2002) referred to. Sprinzak’s (1998) three-stage model of left-wing organisational development, where each successive stage attracts different types of recruits, and sheds more moderate members, is consistent with an increasingly smaller, extreme, and homogeneous terrorist organisation.

Using a graphical approach analogous to industrial control charting, Lockett (1994) examined the level of violence of four terrorist organisations over their lifetimes. This life cycle model drew attention to the way terrorist organisations often failed to keep their level of violence between a level that was too high, thereby alienating supporters, or too low, thus failing to influence anyone. A terrorist organisation that manages not to stray too far from the optimal level of violence for their environment has a better chance of survival. Overestimating the maximum level of violence supporters will accept is a common cause of failure among terrorist organisations (DeGhetto, 1994; Bell, 1998; Gerringer, 2002; McAllister, 2004). Attacks that are tactically brilliant may turn out to be strategically unwise.

While not expressly studying the life cycles or life spans of terrorist organisations, Chasdi’s (2002) extensive statistical analysis of how age, size, and ideology influenced terrorist organisation target selection in the Middle East demonstrated that as Middle Eastern terrorist groups aged, they tended to become less discriminate in their targeting.

Roberts (2003) proposed a five-stage model that bore a resemblance to the traditional four and five-stage formation, growth, maturity, decline, and collapse models used in the organisational analysis of business firms. The traditional maturity stage, however, was re-interpreted by Roberts (2003) as an adapt-or-collapse stage, where the organisation invariably struggles with its failure to translate tactical successes into strategic success. Most life cycle models of legal organisations have a maturity or consolidation phase as their mid-life, as well as less emphasis on decline. The emphasis Roberts’ (2003) places on the emergence of factions and schisms in the middle of the life cycle is justified given the widespread factionalism and infighting observed in many terrorist organisations (Oots, 1986; Cragin & Daly, 2002; Zirakzadeh, 2002; Siqueira, 2005; de Mesquita, 2006). Terrorist organisations often splinter along moderate-radical fault lines in the middle and later stages of their life cycles, a phenomenon which is not immediately evident among legal organisations. The description of a generic life cycle for a terrorist organisation in Chapter Five of this thesis draws heavily on the life cycle models of Karber and Mengel (1983), Long (1990), Bell (1998), and Roberts (2003).

2.2 The Organisational Life Span

Research concerned with measuring the life spans of organisations has made use of statistical models drawn from mortality studies and demography, such as the Gompertz distribution and Makeham-Gompertz distribution. Stinchcombe (1965) was influential in promulgating the theory of a liability of newness, which referred to the very high rates of failure among new organisations of all kinds. The effects of organisational age and size dominate investigations into the failure rates and life expectancies of organisations, but the effects of environmental changes, founder personality, previous experience, and circumstances of organisational formation have also been investigated (Hannan & Freeman, 1987; Hannan & Carroll, 2000). Rapoport’s (1992) suggestion that perhaps as many as 90% of terrorist organisations fail in their first year comported with Stinchcombe’s (1965) liability of newness theory and highlighted the fact that the vast majority of terrorist organisations fail more quickly than their founders and members anticipate. Gurr’s (1979) study of the duration of terrorist campaigns found that campaigns of violence were typically short-lived and conducted by tiny groups. One of the goals of this thesis is to apply statistical methods from the field of failure and survival analysis in order to analyse the survival times of a large number of terrorist organisations.

The association between ideological orientation and longevity of terrorist organisations has been addressed in the literature on a mainly descriptive basis, but there has been little disagreement over the much longer duration of nationalist/separatist organisations. The advantages an ethnically, linguistically, or religiously distinct supporter base confer on a terrorist organisation mobilised around a revanchist, separatist, or nationalist cause are well-known (Gurr, 1979; Crenshaw, 1991; Rapoport, 1992). In fact, Rapoport (1992) claimed that without a distinct nationalist or ethnic base, terrorist organisations almost always fail. Less well-known is the effect of left-wing, religious, and right-wing ideologies on organisational life expectancy. Crenshaw (1991) compiled a list of terrorist organisations (n = 77) and noted that separatist/nationalist and left-wing organisations appeared to be roughly equally represented among the 47 organisations in the list that had survived for more than 10 years. The data analysed in this thesis allow a similar, but not direct, comparison to be made by looking at the predominance of certain ideologies and certain combinations of ideologies ascribed to the organisations in the sample that have operated for 10 or more years (see Appendix A, Table 4). Crenshaw (1991) noted a number of unavoidable conceptual problems that arise when measuring the life spans of terrorist groups. The first problem was deciding which organisations to include. The second problem was specifying the time period during which the organisation was active – taken as the year when the strategy of terrorism appeared to be adopted. Although acknowledging that the nature of the data did not lend itself to definitive conclusions, Crenshaw (1991) drew attention to the durability of the separatist organisations in the list. The statistical analyses presented in Chapter Six of this thesis build upon Crenshaw’s (1991) study by using a much larger data set (n = 557) and Cox proportional hazards regression to investigate if ideological orientation can help to explain the variation in life spans observed among terrorist organisations.

Rapoport (1992), while tracing the rise of contemporary religious terrorism from the mid to late 1970s, drew attention to the longevity of religiously-inspired violent clandestine organisations such as the Hindu Thuggee cult (13th to 19th Century India) and the Ismaili Shiite Nizari Assassins (11th to 13th Century Iran) against the comparatively fleeting existence of modern terrorist organisations. While raising doubts over the relevance of traditional organisational analysis and life cycle models in an era of web-based recruitment and leaderless resistance, Cronin (2006) nonetheless encouraged more research on the life spans of terrorist organisations, particularly those that used religion as their primary mobilising ideology. The wave of religious terrorism that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s is much more recent than the separatist/nationalist wave which began soon after 1920, and the USSR-sponsored social revolutionary/left-wing wave, which began in the 1960s. The relative recency of contemporary religiously-inspired terrorism, which derived its impetus and early succour from the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution and the USSR’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, has meant that fewer life cycle models have been developed to reflect the distinct characteristics of terrorist groups mobilised around religious ideals.

Using open-source data, Blimes, Berohn, and Mewhinney (2005) used Cox proportional hazards regression to assess the effect of various county-level independent variables on the duration of terrorist organisations in 160 countries. Their study excluded terrorist organisations that had not carried out 10 or more attacks, thus biasing their sample towards more tactically successful and aggressive organisations. Truncated and biased datasets are very common in organisational studies, where the majority of organisations studied tend to be the larger and more successful ones (Hannan & Carroll, 2000). While acknowledging the limitations of their data, Blimes, Berohn, and Mewhinney (2005) found that terrorist organisations based in countries with a high proportion of Muslims, large urban populations, and liberal political institutions operated for a significantly longer duration. Their study illustrated the importance of incorporating environmental variables into the analysis of the terrorist organisational life spans.

The great diversity of organisations that use terrorist tactics has meant that life cycle models that reflect a segmented approach to their applicability are more realistic. Sprinzak’s (1998) life cycle model of left-wing terrorist groups in a democratic society demonstrates this more finely-tuned and contextually sensitive approach. The diversity among terrorist organisations is a common obstacle to meaningful and generalisable statistical studies.

The next chapter uses an open systems framework approach to highlight the way diverse organisations can be described, understood, and compared in terms of their generic sub-systems and functions.

3. Terrorism through an Open Systems Framework

This chapter discusses the view of terrorist organisations as systems. The early 20th Century theories that promoted the view that organisations were analogous to machines are contrasted to the more modern view of organisations as analogous to organisms. One of the main themes of this chapter is the contribution General Systems Theory made towards characterising organisations as open systems which imported, transformed, and outputted material to their environment.

3.1 The Organisation as a Machine

Early organisational theorists drew heavily on the analogy of the organisation as a machine. This view was prominent in Taylor’s (1911) pioneering research on scientific management. The mechanistic view of organisational behaviour is entwined with bureaucracy and hierarchy. It was rapidly adopted by an increasingly industrial workplace, one where workers were seen as little more than cogs in a giant machine. By working in unison, the organisation’s goals could be reached with maximum efficiency. Taylor’s focus was on task and structure. There was little emphasis on the environment with which the organisation interacted, nor was much thought given to the human ‘cogs’ that ran the organisation. The focus on task and structure reflects the typical closed system view of an organisation. A closed system is one that is totally insulated from its environment. Although it is unrealistic to claim that any organisation is an entirely closed system, Jackson (1991) pointed out that the most influential organisational theories of the first half of the 20th Century disregarded the relationship between an organisation and its environment in favour of the pursuit of internal operational efficiency and control. One of the reasons for this oversight was the increasingly mechanised industrial environment within which Taylorism flourished. A production line built on the theory of scientific management can be treated as a closed system to the extent that it is sufficiently insulated from fluctuations in demand and supply (environmental contingencies) through the stockpiling of raw materials and finished goods to keep it in a relatively static environment.

Taylor’s (1911) theories were heavily influenced by industrial engineering and formed the basis for Weber’s (1947) bureaucratic theory of organisations. Weber (1947) emphasised the importance of hierarchical power structures and formal rules in order to establish clear lines of authority and control, reduce diversity and ambiguity, insure stability and uniformity, facilitate the division of labour, and increase task specialisation. This epitomised the reductionist approach to organisational analysis, one that sought to understand the behaviour of an organisation by decomposing it into ever-smaller components. Weber (1947) believed that a deeper understanding of the cause and effect relationships among these components was a necessary step towards greater control over the organisation’s behaviour.

The bureaucratic and hierarchical model of organisations, along with its machine analogy, had two major flaws; it did not deal well with internal conflict, nor did it adequately address the issue of structural adaptation in response to a changing environment. Barnard (1938) believed that organisations were cooperative systems, analogous to mechanical systems in equilibrium. One of Barnard’s most important contributions to systems theory was the idea that effectiveness and efficiency could be achieved by taking into account the formal and informal interactions within the organisation. The formal aspects of the organisation are the consciously coordinated activities that define a common purpose, reward organisational members, and put individuals in communication with one another. Informal structures arise without a common or coordinated joint purpose. Barnard (1938) believed that the informal organisational structures that existed alongside the formal structures were often overlooked by management theorists. Despite the limitations arising from of his reliance on the organisation as a machine analogy, Barnard’s (1938) idea of treating the organisation as a whole system of closely interrelated parts, with both formal and informal structures and processes cooperating to maintain equilibrium, left a lasting impression on systems theory (Jackson, 1991).

Human relations theory, advanced by Maslow (1954) softened the mechanistic interpretation of organisations by promoting the view that humans had a far more important role to play in the life of an organisation than just cogs in a giant machine. Like Taylor (1911) and Weber (1947) before him, Maslow (1954) paid little attention to the environment, and treated organisations as closed systems.

3.2 The Organisation as an Organism

Analogies between organisations and organisms arose from sociological systems theory. The analogy of an organism striving to ensure its own survival highlighted the importance of adaptation to environmental changes. This was a significant departure from the analogy of organisations as machines. More important to the evolution of organisational thinking was Selznick’s (1948) belief that an organisation adapted independently of the consciousness of the individuals involved. To reflect the view that organisations were cooperative and adaptive systems, Selznick (1948) proposed several requirements for an organisation’s survival:

- Security of the organisation in relation to its physical and social environment
- Stable lines of authority and communication
- Stability of informal relations
- Continuity of policy and its sources of determination
- A homogeneous outlook with respect to the meaning and role of the organisation.

Viewing an organisation as an organism led to a variety of descriptions of how an organisation could meet its need for survival. One of the most prominent approaches to conceptualising the way an organisation attempted to enhance its survival prospects was Parsons’ (1956) adaptation, goals, integration, and latency (AGIL) framework:

- Adaptation - the system has to establish relationships between itself and its external environment
- Goal attainment - goals have to be defined and resources mobilised and managed in pursuit of those goals
- Integration - the system has to have a means of coordinating the actions of its subsystems
- Latency - the first three (AGI) have to be solved with a minimum of strain and tension by ensuring that organisational actors are motivated to act in an appropriate manner.

Parsons (1956) believed that the goal attainment requirement was what separated an organisation from a mere group.

Al Qaeda’s current diffuse organisational form, with its extensive use of the Internet, has led to biological analogies that portray it as a virus. As with many of the biological analogies applied to organisational analysis, it has limitations. Cronin (2006) guarded against taking this analogy too far and pointed out that although the analogy was enticing, the growth and perpetuation of al Qaeda was a sentient process involving strategic thinking and deliberation.

3.3 General Systems Theory: Organisations as Open Systems

The comparisons between organisms and organisations led to the idea of organisations as open systems being adopted from biology. The biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1950) believed organisations should be studied as complex wholes and that a general theory of complex systems could be developed that applied to all complex systems, whether biological or social. This became known as General Systems Theory (GST) and established the notion of open systems on a rigorous basis. Von Bertalanffy (1950) clearly distinguished between closed and open systems. As mentioned in the previous section, a system is closed if no material enters or leaves it. By contrast, an open system exchanges matter and energy with its environment across a permeable boundary. Unlike the static closed system, the open system can evolve towards greater complexity and differentiation. Open systems are self-regulating, that is, they attempt to adapt to changes in their environment by altering their structure and the processes of their components. Open systems try to adapt to changes in their environment by becoming more elaborate, a process which results in increased differentiation of organisational structures, processes, and activities (Perry, 1975).

Growth provides the energetic inputs necessary for system or organisational differentiation. A system or organisation is effective if it has grown or successfully competes for scarce resources. Growth is an indication of how well the organisation is adapting to its environment (Perry, 1975). Open systems can, in theory, survive indefinitely because they interact with their environment to achieve negative entropy. They do this by importing more energy than they export. The process of increasing differentiation and elaboration also aids in system survival, although it is necessary for a system to spend part of its energy to develop a more differentiated structure. Open systems also exhibit equifinality, that is, the ability to reach the same state, or pass through a sequence of states, from different initial conditions and in different ways. General systems theory hoped to make possible the development of a uniform and generally understood scientific language for researchers from a wide variety of disciplines by emphasising the similarities among complex adaptive systems and the illumination of universal laws governing system behaviour. For many years, GST was thought to be particularly suitable for the analysis of organisations and became absorbed into organisational theory by the 1960s (Jackson, 1991).

General systems theory was elaborated on by Katz and Kahn (1966), who believed that all open systems shared nine characteristics:

1. The importation of energy from the external environment.
2. The throughput and transformation of the input.
3. The output of the transformed input back into the environment.
4. Systems as cycles of events, in that the output provides new sources of energy for the input so the cycle can start again.
5. Negative entropy - open systems live off their environments by acquiring more energy than they spend.
6. Information input and coding process - systems selectively gather information about their environments and also about their own activities so they can take corrective action.
7. Steady state and dynamic homeostasis - despite continuous inflow and export of energy, the character of the system remains the same.
8. Differentiation - open systems move in the direction of differentiation and structure elaboration, that is, greater specialisation of functions.
9. Equifinality – the ability to reach the same end state through different ways and means.

In addition to these nine characteristics, Katz and Kahn (1966) identified five generic subsystems that all open systems possessed:

1. The conversion subsystem, concerned with work done on the input as it passes through the system.
2. The supportive subsystem, concerned with obtaining inputs and disposing of outputs.
3. The maintenance subsystem, which ensures conformance of personnel to their roles through selection, rewards, and sanctions.
4. The adaptive subsystem, concerned with ensuring responsiveness to environmental variations.
5. The managerial subsystem, which directs, coordinates and controls other subsystems through various regulative mechanisms.

Unlike many systems thinkers of their era, Katz and Kahn (1966) avoided the trap of identifying organisational purposes with the goals of individual members or sub-systems. Instead, they pointed out that organisations were systems with their own goals, independent of the goals of their members. Implicit within GST is the assumption of goal consensus among organisational members – an assumption that is rarely met in the real world of social organisations. According to Jackson (1991), GST did not give adequate attention to the prevalence of intra-organisational conflict, nor did it recognise intra-organisational tensions as a major source of organisational change. Like von Bertalanffy (1950) before them, Katz and Kahn (1966) did not believe that internal tensions were the most potent drivers of organisational change. Changes came primarily from outside the organisation via some significant change in input. This implied that the environment’s causal texture, which contained competitors, neutrals, and allies, played a much greater role in shaping the organisation than internal factors.

Von Bertalanffy’s dream of establishing general laws that held across all system types has not been fulfilled, however. General Systems Theory formulations within organisational theory are limited because of a lack of appreciation of organisational conflict, diversity of values, and an over-reliance on growth as the primary means of sustaining both goal consensus and environmental adaptation (Jackson, 1991). The emphasis GST placed on organisations or systems as teleological was questioned by Jordan (1968) and Checkland (1999), who both felt that an organisation’s purpose was not an immanent feature of the organisation, rather, its purpose existed only in the mind of the beholder. Weinberg (1975) also saw a system’s purpose as a relation, not an attribute of the system itself. Building a series of cause and effect models of a system from as many perspectives as practical and comparing them to each other forms the basis of Checkland’s (1999) soft systems methodology.

Just as there are many perspectives from which to view an organisation, there are also many ways for an organisation to operate. Like Katz and Kahn (1966), Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) drew on aspects of GST when formulating an approach known as contingency theory. Contingency theory promoted the idea that there was no one best way for all organisations to operate. Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) believed that the ‘best’ way to structure an organisation was contingent upon the particular circumstances it faced. This ran counter to the optimising notions of the Tayloristic scientific management approach that believed that science could always identify the quickest and best way to achieve organisational goals. It also ran counter to theories that emphasised the establishment of a universal set of management principles that could be successfully applied to all organisations (Jackson, 1991). Contingency theorists believed that an organisation would have the best chance of survival and growth if its internal features and external interfaces were well-matched to the environment’s demands. Contingency theory also points out that a high rate of change or uncertainty in the environment affects the internal features of an organisation. Different organisational structures reflect different environments, with hierarchies of specialists more frequent in predictable environments and networks of generalists more viable in uncertain environments (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967). The more variegated the environment, the more differentiated the organisation’s structure needs to be. Different sub-systems need to be structured differently from each other to confront differing external demands. As a result, some of the organisation’s sub-systems may be highly centralised and formal, while others may be more decentralised and possess greater autonomy. These differences can cause coordination problems among sub-systems, so the extent to which an organisation can functionally differentiate itself, while still remaining integrated enough to carry out collective action, is crucial to its survival. Scott (1987) pointed out that uneven internal differentiation led to conflicts among sub-systems, communication obstacles, and uncertainty over organisational goals.

3.4 Terrorist Organisations as Open Systems

This section describes how the generic sub-systems outlined in the previous section can interact with the input, transformation, and output functions often observed among terrorist groups. The inputs to a terrorist organisation include leadership, recruits, money, weapons, training, false documents, transport, and information. These resources must be decided upon, searched for, procured, and imported across the organisation’s boundary. The transformation of the inputs takes many forms. Raw recruits are transformed into competent fighters through training and indoctrination. Information about potential targets is transformed into firm plans for an attack. Financial donations are transformed into bribes, wages, influence, support, and propaganda. Bulk chemicals and detonators are converted into bombs. The transformed inputs are output into the environment in the form of violent attacks, kidnappings, and media releases. A very large terrorist organisation will often supply basic social services to its supporters as it strives to set up a parallel government and establish legitimacy.

Importing and exporting material across a system’s boundary is dangerous (Weinberg, 1975). New recruits might be regime informants, incompetent, troublemakers, or more interested in what the organisation can do for them in material terms than its ideology. Careless over-the-counter purchases of bulk chemicals or poor communications security can alert authorities to a planned attack. A particularly shocking and indiscriminate attack can quickly curtail the supply of crucial system inputs such as donations from a diaspora or new recruits (Bell, 1998). If an organisation cannot import more energy than it expends, it will not survive long. A store of energy, called negative entropy, is necessary to survive lean times and unexpected shocks from the environment. For a terrorist group, stores of energy can take the form of safe houses, sanctuaries in other countries, legitimacy, money, morale, leadership, weapons, and personnel. Smaller terrorist groups have far fewer resources to fall back on in the event of an emergency. Transformation activities have their risks as well. Money intended for operations, training, or weapons can be appropriated by self-interested members of terrorist organisations (Shapiro & Siegel, 2007).

The various sub-systems outlined by Katz and Kahn (1966) focus on different aspects of the input-conversion-output cycle. The support sub-system is mainly concerned with managing boundary operations. The main activities of this sub-system are recruiting and resource acquisition. Maintaining relationships with sympathetic governments, diaspora members, corrupt officials, and the local population are important aspects of resource acquisition. It is often through these people that the essential resources pass through on their way to the terrorist organisation (Thomas, Kiser, & Casebeer, 2005). The conversion sub-system involves transforming the inputs into outputs that can be exported to the environment. Well-developed training programs such as those run by al Qaeda in Afghanistan are a good example of how volunteers are converted or transformed into combatants. Indoctrination into jihadi ideology is also an important part of the training and transformation process for some groups. The managerial sub-system is concerned with organisational learning, strategy, and control of the other sub-systems. Terrorist organisations are involved in a deadly contest with the much more powerful state, as well as other terrorist organisations, so learning is imperative if the organisation is to adapt and survive. Organisational learning is especially crucial in the early stages of the organisation’s life cycle, as the smaller, nascent organisation often lacks the resources to absorb the consequences of any large mistakes (Thomas, Kiser, & Casebeer, 2005). The managerial sub-system is responsible for monitoring the feedback from the environment, as well as within the organisation and making adjustments. This sensitivity to feedback illustrates the organisation’s cybernetic capability. Strategic planning is another function of the managerial sub-system . Strategic plans, no matter how brilliant, need to be implemented correctly. It is imperative that actions at the operational cell level (the supportive sub-system) are correctly aligned with the strategic goals set out by the managerial sub-system. Communications within a clandestine organisation can be fraught with misunderstanding, resulting in the wrong targets being attacked. Controlling obstreperous operational cells can be much more difficult if the cells do not fear leadership sanctions (Shapiro, 2007). The maintenance sub-system provides rewards and sanctions to the organisation’s members. These are the norms and values that hold the organisation together. Ideology plays a more important role in holding together diffuse organisations than localised ones (Mayntz, 2004). Rewards can range from transactional, such as money, through to transcendental, such as the promise of a blissful eternity in a martyrs’ paradise. In some terrorist organisations, sanctions include execution for betrayal or defection. Excoriation and forced self-criticism in front of comrades are common methods of punishment within left-wing organisations.

Without an effective managerial sub-system, the other sub-systems often optimise their functioning at each other’s expense. The tendency for sub-systems to drift apart or work at cross-purposes to each other is exacerbated by the clandestine circumstances under which the vast majority of terrorist organisations operate. The most effective organisations are those whose sub-systems are well-aligned with each other, and their overall environment, in pursuit of the organisation’s goals (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967).


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An Analysis of the Effect of Ideology on the Life Expectancy of Terrorist Organisations
Master of Engineering (systems engineering)
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Analysis, Effect, Ideology, Life, Expectancy, Terrorist, Organisations, Master, Engineering
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Tony Wragg (Author), 2008, An Analysis of the Effect of Ideology on the Life Expectancy of Terrorist Organisations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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