Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, May 16, 2016

Principal-Agent Dilemmas and Terrorism

Recent research on terrorism has explored the phenomena via the lens of principal-agent relations. It’s a good avenue to pursue. Such scholars as Max Abrahms and Jacob Shapiro, among others, have pointed out the profound theoretical implications of looking at terrorism by distinguishing between terror leaders and subordinates.

Most importantly, as these scholars rightly point out, terror groups aren’t unitary actors that automatically and always move in a lock-step direction. Rather, terror groups consist of some sort of hierarchy of senior leaders and foot soldiers, and, depending on the group, all sorts of unsavory of players in between. As such, we can think of terror group as very much akin to organizations, bureaucracies, and institutions. Put simply, we can observe terror group members, much like individuals within conventional organizations, with varying degrees of power, differing interests, and divergent motivations.

Let’s look closer at the distinction between principals, or the leaders, and agents, or the subordinates. Research by Abrahms and others have uncovered the following things.  

Principals: relative to agents, principals have more power, better access to resources, are more knowledgeable, and tend to think more strategically.

Agents: relative to the principals, agents lack power and resources, aren’t as knowledgeable and sophisticated, tend not to think strategically, are more motivated by narrow, selfish concerns (promotion, making a name of oneself, etc.) than group interests, and might not even share the ideology/political platform of the group.

Because of their positions within the group, principals and agents have different incentives and motivations to commit terrorism, which impacts how groups carry out terrorism, who they target and whether they take credit for such violence. Moreover, through the prism of principal-agent relations, we can see terror groups as complex and messy, often plagued by in-fighting, turf battles, power struggles, and ideological fissures.

The next step in this research program is to address more fully the microfoundations of the principal-agent dilemmas at work in terrorism. In particular, what is needed is a specification of who the principals and agents are within terror groups. In streamlined, local groups, conceivably, it can somewhat easy to identify leaders and their subordinates. As an example, Hassan Nasrallah, the leading figure within Hezbollah, seems to green and red light much of what the group does, at least big picture plans and activities. It’s probably makes sense to point to him and his cabal as the main principals within Hezbollah.

But what about in groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, which are global organizations with affiliates and cells worldwide? Who are the leaders and subordinates in these groups? Maybe it’s the self-declared headquarters in Raqqa and Mosul and the mountainous Af-Pak area for ISIS and al-Qaeda, respectively. If you buy that argument, then, it would seem, all other affiliates and cells are subordinates. In this case, then, what’s most important is the location of the group and where that group sits within the overall hierarchy of the organization. That’s a plausible way of looking at al-Qaeda and ISIS.

But the problem is that there’s another way to identify the principals and agents within ISIS and al-Qaeda. Perhaps the top dogs in al-Qaeda and ISIS central and all of their affiliates and cells—i.e., the top layer of political and military actors across the entire organization—are the principals; and all other individuals, regardless of where their group is located, are subordinates. Here, the location of the group isn’t the crucial factor; instead, what matters most is whether one controls or has access to the instruments of decision-making, the ability to coordinate, plan and implement plans. In other words, we can think of an executive class as existing across the organizations of al-Qaeda and ISIS, and it is these individuals who are principals.

To illustrate this dilemma further, let’s go to the corporate world. Take McDonalds as an example. Perhaps the principals are the executives who work in the company’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. If so, then all of the franchises are subordinates. But maybe the principals really are the individuals who are empowered to make decisions within the company. In this case, that would include some, though not all, folks who work in Oak Brook, but also those workers within specific franchises who make decisions, such as store managers and assistant store managers.

But we can expand this muddiness even further. For example, what about the terror organizations that have separate political and military wings? Who counts as leaders in these groups? Perhaps the senior level personnel in both wings are the leaders. But what if one side—either the military or political wing--has power more influence and power than the other? Maybe it’s that subset of the overall organization—or more specifically, the senior level individuals of that subset—that are the leaders.

The main point I’m getting at is the necessity of operationalizing both principals and agents within scholarly research designs. One way to get around this is for scholars to define and operationalize these terms as is appropriate and relevant to their specific studies. Put simply, scholars can explicate operational definitions as they relate to their own specific statistical and case studies. This is a study-contingent approach.

But can we do more? Can we can go beyond this? And does it make sense to do so? In other words, can we derive more generalizable conceptual and operational definitions of principal and agent? In other words, can we create and apply a set of definitions that’s germane to a wide class of cases? And should we try to do so? In one sense, terrorist groups do vary widely, in terms of size, ideology, or structure, tactics and strategy, and so on, which could make this task difficult. But in another, maybe we can put forward a generalized set of definitions for groups that do look and act similarly. Further theoretical and research insights can—and I hope will—address this point.

This topic is something I—and terrorism scholars more generally—need to think more about, to be sure. But for now, I think it’s sufficient to begin a dialogue on the importance of scholars thinking more clearly and more explicitly about the principal and agent relations in the context of terrorist organizations. I hope this blog post does just that.

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