The Manchester Attack Shows How Terrorists Learn

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross,  “The Manchester Attack Shows How Terrorists Learn,” The Atlantic, May 23, 2017


Yesterday’s terrorist attack that struck at the end of an Ariana Grande concert in Britain’s Manchester Arena—leaving 22 people dead and 59 injured, by the latest count—feels perhaps even more callous and personal than other such recent atrocities. As The New York Times noted, the target was “a concert spilling over with girls in their teens or younger, with their lives ahead of them, out for a fun night.”

For Europe, the attack, now claimed by ISIS, represents a continuation of a nightmare scenario: The pace and deadliness of terrorist attacks in the continent has reached levels unprecedented in the post-9/11 era, with the heinous and grotesque becoming frighteningly routine.

Even five years ago, specialists could count the major post-9/11 attacks in Western countries on one hand, and knew every date on which they had been perpetrated. They were known by names like 3/11 or 7/7 (references to attacks in Madrid and London, respectively).

Over the past three years, though, there has been an explosion in the frequency of terrorist attacks against Western countries, and in the lethality of these events. From a brutal urban-warfare-style assault on Paris in November 2015 (130 dead) to the March 2016 bombings at the Brussels Airport and the Maalbeek metro station (32 dead), to a cargo truck plowing through crowds celebrating Bastille Day on a promenade in Nice (86 dead), to a truck striking a Christmas market in Berlin (12 dead), and now to an Ariana Grande concert, the message is that no place—no matter how familiar, beloved, or associated with the young and innocent—is truly safe. And there are so many other, recent examples. A priest whose throat was slit in the middle of a service in Normandy. An attacker in Magnanville who killed a couple, then turned on Facebook Live while menacing their three-year-old child. A suicide bomber who struck outside a concert in Ansbach, Germany, wounding 15.

The very events that would end up propelling the current spike in terrorist attacks were widely misread about six years ago as the solution to jihadism. When CNN’s Fareed Zakaria claimed in March 2011 that the revolutions that had swept across the Arab world at the beginning of that year represented “a total repudiation of al-Qaeda’s founding ideology,” he was articulating a near-consensus view. Peaceful revolutions brushing aside authoritarian governments and ushering in newly democratic regimes were supposed to show that the violence of jihadist movements was unnecessary. These views were shared not only by pundits, but by U.S. government analysts. In his memoir The Great War of Our Time, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell regretfully explained that his agency “thought and told policy-makers that this outburst of popular revolt would damage [al-Qaeda] by undermining the group’s narrative.”

In fact, the Arab revolutions and their aftermath provided the jihadist movement an unparalleled boost. The extraordinarily bloody civil war in Syria and the post-Muammar Qaddafi wreckage left behind in Libya have placed jihadists on the front lines of some of the world’s major conflicts. ISIS was able to use social media to popularize its cause—a sickening mirror of the way protesters turned out to oppose Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt—while also relying on physical networks like those associated with Khalid Zerkani or Sharia4Belgium to move devotees to its Syria-Iraq sanctuary. Jihadists’ newfound ability to reach broader audiences over social media in more intimate ways coincided with the global boom in end-to-end encryption, allowing ISIS to pioneer the “virtual planner” model of directing operatives from afar.

Those who predicted the decline of jihadism in 2011 missed several things. Most important, perhaps, is the sheer innovativeness and adaptability of major jihadist groups. For jihadist organizations, the ability to innovate is a necessity, not a luxury. Terrorist groups have a “fundamental organizational imperative” to learn, as the preeminent terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman noted in his classic book Inside Terrorism. As they face an array of internal and external challenges—the most significant being the existential threat they confront from state actors—these groups must adapt quickly and creatively or suffer the consequences.

Across a range of organizations—not just militant groups—organizational learning occurs when the knowledge that an individual gains can be transferred into broader organizational knowledge. One example of this is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s notorious bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri, who was able to transfer his extraordinary technical knowledge to the organization as a whole. This is reflected in the concerns expressed by security experts several years ago that al-Asiri’s knowledge had been transferred from Yemen to the Syria theater. When knowledge is disseminated through an organization’s memory in this way, the organization is “no longer dependent upon the original learner,” and can impart knowledge to others within the group, according to Mick Beeby and Charles Booth. This process is particularly essential for jihadist groups that suffer from high levels of attrition, and thus must quickly encode new techniques into their organizational DNA or risk losing them.

New technology provides an additional impetus and accelerant of organizational learning within the jihadist movement. New technologies, including communications platforms and systems that can be fashioned into weapons, such as ever-improving consumer drones, are introduced at a dizzying rate. Reporting from Iraq, Buzzfeed’s Mike Giglio recently noted ISIS’s ominous use of drones: “ISIS had also made deadly adaptations to its use of drones, Iraqi officers said. In the first days of the battle for western Mosul, they were being employed with newfound intensity, swarming Iraqi positions, disrupting operations, and inflicting casualties. The drones dropped more than 70 bombs on one sector alone in a span of just two days, commanders said.”

Many of the significant advantages new technologies have presented to militant groups do not represent true leaps of innovation, but, rather, intuitive applications of widely available technologies that have come to market. ISIS established an impressive apparatus for making itself omnipresent on social media before Twitter got serious about shutting down pro-ISIS accounts, but establishing a real social media brand is what twenty-first century organizations do. The virtual planner model fused two major technological trends—social media and improvements in encryption—but was fundamentally consistent with developments in online learning. Even ISIS’s aforementioned use of armed drones to repel Iraqi forces that are advancing on Mosul had been foreseen by experts (who, truth be told, had come up with even more inventive uses than those that ISIS ultimately made of the drones).

In the case of Manchester, there is much we don’t yet know, but many of the answers related to the attack may circle back to methods of organizational learning. How did the attacker sneak his bomb past the tight security that had been employed at Manchester Arena? How did he build the IED in the first place? Was he assisted by accomplices on the ground in Britain—or perhaps by technical experts advising him from their perch in Syria? Had the attacker been in touch with planners in an organization like ISIS to try to integrate the attack into a militant group’s broader war strategy?

European politicians don’t have good answers to the problem of terrorism right now. Often, it is regarded as “the new normal,” something we will just have to live with and die with for years to come. But as technology marches on—with 3D printing, increasingly capable consumer drones, growing vulnerabilities to hacking, and the like—there is the worrying prospect that tomorrow will be worse than today.

We should not, in the future, underestimate militant groups as learning organizations. And at the same time, the innovativeness of terrorists and the organizations in whose names they act should serve as a critical mirror.

They are growing increasingly adept at killing us. Are we as inventive about saving lives? Or do bureaucracy, inertia and failures of our own imagination stand in the way?