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A review of: The Economics of Violence: How Behavioral Science Can Transform our View of Crime, Insurgency and Terrorism

by John Byrne, on Apr 6, 2020 2:07:51 PM

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A View to a Kill?[i]

I have said many times that AML professionals in today’s world need to evolve and change with the various ways criminals adjust their actions to fit technology, laws and policies. Part of that strategy is to read and listen to those that come up with different approaches to age-old challenges. It doesn’t mean, of course, that outside voices are right, but being open to different types of analysis is always useful in improving our ability to have a strong and vibrant AML community.

I approached Gary Shiffman’s new book, “The Economics of Violence” with the goal of assessing his theme “How Behavioral Science Can Transform our View of Crime, Insurgency and Terrorism” and see how it impacts AML. Now to be candid, as a career long AML professional, I am not sure his argument of changing the way we understand and counter violence is the role of our community. Therefore, the value proposition of his approach would be mainly to perhaps use different data in AML systems for identifying suspicious activity.

With that in mind, the book is worth a read by all in our community so that we can better appreciate the many challenges of national security and the ongoing debate by Shiffman and others to adjust their tactics and strategies. One key criticism is his belief that because agencies in the US are set up to combat different kinds of threats, there can be a fixation on terms such as drug trafficker, terrorist and insurgent to the detriment of coherent policy approach to many conflicts. Shiffman concludes that the answer to this confusion is the “language of economics.”

Through the use of examples of famous criminals/terrorists/insurgents and references to some interesting books, movies and plays, even non-economists (like most of us) will find this a useful read.

Pushing against “Identity Labels”

Gary Shiffman, the CEO of Giant Oak, Ph.D., and a professor at Georgetown University has had an extensive career in the military, national security and on Capitol Hill. He states right at the beginning of the book that his experience has convinced him that “violence does not emanate from religion, ethnicity, or poverty, and that entire groups of people do not act as a mass.” He goes on to say that there is some violence from those categories but never with an entire identity group. I have to say after completing the book, the distinction is not that clear to me.

The overall thrust of the book is the need for new approaches to national security - at least through a social-based analysis of violence.

He focuses on three infamous examples of individuals/groups that “trafficked” in violence as a means to an end. The revisiting of violence by Pablo Escobar, Joseph Kony, and Osama bin Laden makes for an interesting history lesson, but ultimately leaves it up to the reader to decide if Shiffman’s analysis of those three self-centered purveyors of organized violence could have been stopped by a different national security strategy.

Motivations of Violence—Three Examples

While the examples are interesting, the themes presented throughout the read indicate violence is often used because it is the best option to a situation or market condition, and not necessarily because the leader is inherently evil. I don’t think Shiffman would dispute that a case can be made for the evil nature of the three individuals he covers in detail, but again - not the premise of the book.

Pablo Escobar, as veteran AML professionals know, was a well-known Columbian drug trafficker that was certainly mentioned by policymakers in the US in the 1980’s when Congress passed massive anti-drug bills every election year into the early 90’s. As the book details his horrific actions, it also delves into the governance structure of his organizations to make the case from an economist’s perspective; his “criminal, terrorist, and insurgent violence appears rational and rooted in market dynamics: goals and constraints”.

The coverage of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is also a compelling review of an individual responsible for the abduction of 66,000 children over 15 years. Shiffman argues it is too easy to characterize those abominable acts as perpetrated by a “psychotic, religious zealot”, instead pointing to the cause emanating from “rational economic roots.”

The chapter on Osama bin Laden contains a number of stories familiar to most. For example, he did not come from “circumstance” but a wealthy family, where he utilized his wealth to support other causes before focusing on Al Qaeda. We certainly recall what we assumed were bin Laden’s use of religion to advance his goals, but Shiffman says those decisions were used simply as a way to manage, recruit and retain workers to “form organizational partnerships during Al Qaeda’s early and formative days.” He proposes that the reader think of religion as a “technology” to recruit and increase sales to potential members and donors.

Osama bin Laden's use of business tactics is covered as well. He provided material and non-material rewards to recruits as did Kony and Escobar. Shiffman reminds us that after bin Laden, we had ISIS. With that comes a reminder of the book’s theme that these groups and/or individuals cannot not be lumped into one category—insurgent or terrorist. Such classification is a major limitation in stopping or identifying the crimes being committed.

What does this all mean?

Gary Shiffman has given us much to consider, but what does he want the national security world to do in response? I won’t list all the prescriptions here, but he encourages us to “analyze like a business executive” then to “define victory in market terms” and then “fight like an entrepreneur.” He adds the need to further utilize data to focus on the correct targets and for agencies to cease intergovernmental competition; the last an age-old problem.

Will these approaches work? We leave that to others, but it is never harmful to reconsider tactics and strategies and Shiffman gives us a lot to consider.


[i] A View to a Kill by Duran Duran, and the theme for the James Bond movie of the same name. The song made it to #1 on that year’s Billboard Hot 100.

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