Professor Jacob N. Shapiro studies terrorist groups’ organizational methods to help expose their vulnerabilities.
Sameer A. Khan
Terrorist groups such as al-Qaida, says Jacob Shapiro, are ‘surprisingly mundane’

Terrorist groups hiding deep in Afghanistan and other countries spend their time plotting attacks on their foes, securing weapons, and devising ways to stay hidden. But Professor Jacob N. Shapiro says they also devote lots of manpower to managing personnel records, filling out paperwork, and bookkeeping.

Shapiro, who teaches politics and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, finds terrorist groups “surprisingly mundane and normal” in their organization and in the bureaucratic tasks that they perform. During the 1990s, al-Qaida had detailed job descriptions and employment contracts that described vacation policies, he says. “As the number of people in an organization increases, the more of a paper trail they will have,” he says. “That’s true if you’re running a sales force, and it’s true if you’re running an organization of bloodthirsty terrorists.”

ISIS has developed a sophisticated bureaucratic structure, Shapiro says: “On the surface, the Islamic State looks like it emerged and transformed itself into a state very quickly. But it was the administrative infrastructure that the group developed in 2006 through 2008 that gave it an initial advantage compared to other rebel groups when it moved forces into Syria from western Iraq in 2013.”

Shapiro studies terrorist groups’ methods of organizing to help expose their vulnerabilities. He became interested in the topic while serving as a surface-warfare officer in the Navy between 1998 and 2005. He has examined internal correspondence from terrorist groups such al-Qaida in Iraq and the Islamic State in Iraq, which was retrieved by U.S. forces and is publicly available. Shapiro’s work was published in his 2013 book The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations.

Terrorist groups are beset with problems, especially financial difficulties, Shapiro says. They must balance their need for secrecy with their desire for control over their members. The result, says Shapiro, is that these groups are neither as fearsome nor as invulnerable as they may appear.