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Hearing the Chords in Organized Violence: A Case for a Behavioral Approach to Understanding the Consonance among Acts of Crime, Insurgency, and Terrorism

by Gary M. Shiffman, PhD, on Jun 9, 2020 4:08:28 PM

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Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army murdered tens of thousands of Ugandans, including children, beginning in the 1980s. In 1976, drug kingpin Pablo Escobar founded the Medellín Cartel, which conducted thousands of assassinations in Colombia, and organized the bombing of a domestic passenger flight in 1989. Osama bin Laden masterminded the September 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. and dozens more mass-casualty terrorist events. What was the common denominator among all these cases? It wasn’t radical religion, drug dealing, or ethnic nationalism.

The common element: People in each of these narratives chose violence. We have a science of human choice, called economics. It is time to apply economic science to help us understand the consonance among the different types of organized violence – crime, insurgency, and terrorism. Viewing violence as a behavioral science challenge, we see it isn’t a religious problem. It’s not an ethnic problem. It’s not a nationalist problem.

Until now, our understanding of violence has been hindered by the segregation of our analysis by labels of convenience. If we want to understand what motivates and enables organized violence, we must appreciate the complexity of the act but also acknowledge the simplicity. Each violent actor is motivated by individual goals and constrained by individual circumstances. The key to understanding sub-state violence comes back to economics – not in the sense that all violent actors seek monetary gain, but rather that organized violence, when it occurs, results from a market in which individuals understandably pursue their self-interests. Individuals making decisions in conditions of scarcity choose behaviors that are much more predictable than one might otherwise expect, including violence.

This predictability provides the key to clarity among the cacophony of a violent and coercive world. Predictable patterns of violence, like musical notes, become congruent. For example, Joseph Kony, Pablo Escobar, and Osama bin Laden behaved in equally understandable ways. They were not insurgents, criminals, and terrorists, but rather they were entrepreneurs leading firms struggling for shares in competitive markets.

To counter violence, we must exploit the insights which come from solid market analysis. Rather than an inevitable result of religion, ethnicity, or poverty, these identity labels only play a role and do not cause violence.

Violence does not emanate from religion, ethnicity, or poverty, and entire groups of people do not act as a mass. The questions we must ask shouldn’t relate to one particular religion or group, but to the scarcities among the population centers where these violent groups operate and the rules of the marketplaces that allow entrepreneurs to engage in sustained acts of coercion and violence.

Themes of violence perpetrated by a domestic shooter who is “inspired” by a terrorist organization’s rhetoric are concordant with themes of violence perpetrated by a Mexican drug boss and a Taliban fighter. One leader may be politically motivated while another may be financially motivated, but coherence starts here: All composed acts of violence are carried out by individuals choosing violence among all other options available. If we apply the behavioral analytical frameworks across disciplines – crime, insurgency, and terrorism – we can understand violence as a whole and contiguous threat emanating from market forces acting on the human condition. Then, we can enact better informed policies across the security spectrum.

What can we do? National security professionals must move beyond shallow identity category foreign policy and move toward behavioral science-based practices. We must develop sound economic analysis of the firms involved, understand the markets in which they operate, and understand what in those markets allows the firms’ leaders — the entrepreneurs — to succeed.

Instead of terms like “radical Islamic terrorist” and “rebel insurgency,” we must use labels such as “entrepreneur,” “firm,” and “market.” When we do this, we begin to think in terms of how to defeat a “rival.” Kinetic force, for example, is one tool to combat a foe — such as when a U.S. drone strike killed the leader of the terrorist Al Quds force in Iran in January 2020. However, with good market analysis, we would know when taking out a leader provides upward mobility for others, and when it damages the ability of the enemy’s firm to capture market share. In some cases, it would make more sense to damage a rival firm’s brand, harm their ability to recruit and retain talent, deny them access to banking and sound monetary instruments, and restrict an enemy’s access to trade and valuable markets.

If we can approach violence through an economic and behavioral science lens, then we will learn the common themes across the spectrum of human choices, better organize our institutions, and create policies to make the world more secure for our families and future generations.

For more on this topic see The Economics of Violence: How Behavioral Science Can Transform our View of Crime, Insurgency, and Terrorism.


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