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Using Management Theory To Get Inside The Minds Of Terrorists, 'Dark' Networks

Lance Cpl. Nathan E. Eason
United States Marine Corps
The opening of a tunnel discovered by U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, February 2002

University of Arizona political scientist H. Brinton Milward spent the early part of his career studying corporations, non-profit organizations, and how to create more efficient mental health networks.

“Then after 9/11, I was asked to apply that kind of knowledge to what it would be like if I were Osama bin Laden,” Milward says.

Milward has applied that management theory over the past decade to terrorism, human trafficking, drug smuggling, and other illegal activities to understand the organizational principles required to run "dark networks" many are out to kill or capture.

“The more you act, the more people know where you are, they can find you better, but you can also hit your enemy,” Milward says. “On the other hand… you try to lay low, not use cell phones, the people in whose name you operate think, ‘What are you supporting these people for? They’re not doing anything.’ So that’s the terrible trade-off every leader of a dark network faces.”

Milward says in order to effectively combat dark networks, governments need to understand the context that created them. He says some groups considered “dark networks” at the time, such as the July 20 von Stauffenberg plot to kill Adolf Hilter, or the African National Congress during the 1950s and 60s are now viewed positively through the retroactive lens of history.

T.E. Lawrence once described fighting an insurgency as difficult as “eating soup with a knife,” especially if the network is viewed as legitimate. Milward says the key is figuring out how to counter that legitimacy.

“One of the ways you do that is to have a government that treats its people better,” Milward says. “Doesn’t jail them without a particular cause, that can provide useful services, that can provide, above all else, peace and order.”

Milward extensively studied the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. Leadership struggles fragmented the internal structure of the group, but the Tamil Tigers also lost the key Third Battle of Elephant Pass in 2009. That forced the LTTE to start fighting like conventional armies, and made it much easier for the Sri Lankan Army to defeat the insurgency. But even after the crushing blow, Milward says the problems of the Tamils in Sri Lanka did not go away, and could fester for decades.

“Our primary message for governments is that you can’t kill or capture your way to success,” Milward says. “Problems drive dark networks, and you need to combat dark networks, but you also need to combat the problems that created them as well.”


KGOU produces World Views through a collaborative partnership with the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies,with a goal of bringing internationally-focused conversations to an Oklahoma audience. Help support these efforts with a donation online.


REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Brint Milward, welcome to World Views. Thank you for joining us.

BRINT MILWARD: Thank you very much. I'm delighted to be here.

CRUISE: We wanted to talk with you a little bit about these so-called 'dark networks.' Now, when I generally think of networks, I talk with my students, and often tell them they need to go network to find jobs, and they need to meet people and do that sort of thing, but that's not what you're talking about here. You're talking about more of a nefarious type of network.

MILWARD: That's correct. We're talking about networks that are illegal, according to the laws of the state. And because they're illegal, they have to remain covert or they'll be killed or captured. So it's really the same principle of going out and networking and creating relationships with people who have affinity with what you're doing. But in this case, it's illegal. Now we may view some of that as terrible, like al-Qaeda. But on the other hand, there are plenty of examples of dark networks, from the standpoint of history, look pretty good. The von Stauffenberg network to kill Hitler, for example, was illegal, and a dark network, according to the laws of Nazi Germany. The African National Congress under Nelson Mandela, who just passed away. We've looked at that as a dark network. What we try to do is simply look at the organizational principles of what it's like to manage when people are out to kill you or capture you, and because of that you have to be covert and make all kinds of choices that you wouldn't have to make if you were a legal corporation.

CRUISE: So you can take some of the knowledge that you've accumulated about legal corporations and use that to understand how these dark networks are working.

MILWARD: Legal corporations, non-profits, government agencies, partnerships, collaborative partnerships. I studied mental health networks and how to create more effective and efficient health care networks for most of my career. Then after 9/11 I was asked to apply that kind of knowledge to what it would be like if I were Osama bin Laden. And what are the kinds of choices I would have to make. How would I have to make sub-optimal decisions, because I needed to be clandestine? So the real terrorist dilemma is to act, or to exist. That's the fundamental choice. It's very, very simple. The more you act, the more people know where you are, they can find you better, but you can also hit your enemy. On the other hand, if you want to exist, what you do is you go back to the caves in Afghanistan, you try to lay low, not use cell phones, but the people in whose name you operate think, 'What are you supporting these people for? They're not doing anything.' So that's the terrible trade-off that every leader of a dark network faces.

CRUISE: You mentioned al-Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden. We could probably also think of organized crime, and some of these other operatives that are trafficking in illegal substances, and people as well. What have we learned about how they operate? How is the network actually formed, and how does it grow?

MILWARD: Well, that's a great question, and it's one that people are just really starting to look at. For about the last 15 years, we've looked at networks relatively statically. How did it get to where it is now? But the real important thing to do is to figure out how did it begin? Where did it get to a point where it was successful, or maybe where it failed? Because plenty of these networks fail. So we're just getting into that right now, and we have the tools now. Social network analysis has moved to the point where we have very, very sophisticated modeling tools that I think in the next four or five years are going to let us make some real progress on this question, and try to predict which ones are going to succeed, and which ones are going to fail. We already know points of intervention. Where they're most vulnerable, and in fact if you take a look at what the United States has done in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Yemen and other places, or the cooperation in Mexico with the capture of 'El Chapo' Guzman. This is an example of the technology I'm talking about, being used to interdict networks and take out strategic nodes.

CRUISE: The technology you mention, this of course is changing. In the last 20 years globalization has increased, the speed of globalization has increased, and these networks are able to operate across borders much more efficiently. Is this a situation where we, or states, law enforcement, are always going to be a step behind? Or do you think we might be able to catch up? It seems that there's an attack that occurs, and we're somewhat reactionary, or there's illegal trafficking, and we stop one pipeline, but another one opens up. Are we going to be able to get ahead of this with some of this theory that you're talking about?

MILWARD: I certainly hope so. But it's very difficult. T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, once said that fighting an insurgency is like eating soup with a knife. It's very hard. And particularly if the network is viewed as legitimate by the people in whose name it operates. The real key, I think, is figuring out ways to counter the legitimacy of these networks. And one of the ways you do that is to have a government that treats its people better. Doesn't jail them without any particular cause. That can provide useful services. That can provide, first of all, above all else, peace and order. If you can't provide law and order, there's not much reason for supporting a government. So that is the kind of thing that we've learned is really important in decreasing the legitimacy of many of these dark network.

CRUISE: And how do we go about researching these networks? Obviously you mentioned they're clandestine. How do we get information about them?

MILWARD: Very carefully.

CRUISE: Very carefully.

MILWARD: Most of it is second-best. First of all, you need to understand, all data is biased in some way. All data is incomplete, has strengths and weaknesses no matter whether it's economic data on the state of unemployment in the United States, or whether it's the state of al-Qaeda's health. We use multiple sources. The work that I do...I don't use any classified sources. I've come to believe that the kind of strategic analysis that I do doesn't really require information about tactics. Where is somebody right now? What cave is this person in? So I'm really looking at a bigger picture of what it's like to manage these networks. So I read, and my students, we've got a large research group at the University of Arizona focused on this. We have some of the top people in the world, who helped invent many of these social network methods, to study this. We have people in computer engineering that have built these remarkable software packages for the military that we're able to use. So we can digest vast amounts of data to look for connections between individuals, organizations, and events in a zone of conflict.

CRUISE: One of the things we often hear, perhaps as a criticism, is the disconnect between what academia is doing and what policymakers are doing, and this sounds like you're collecting very, very valuable information. I'm just curious how that's being interpreted by our policymakers, by the people in power, how that collaboration is going?

MILWARD: I've really had a wonderful relationship with the agencies that fund me. The agencies that fund me are anywhere from just traditional places like the National Science Foundation to the Air Force labs. We've put together, on a big, multi-campus research initiative, a remarkable and strange group of people. Theoretical physicists, mathematicians, historians, anthropologists, people like me, organization theorists, sociologists, political scientists, and I think that's really the key to making a great deal of headway here. Bringing disciplines together around a common problem. We have a very well-defined problem. How do adversarial networks operate under conditions of great stress? That's what all these different disciplines are trying to help us understand. So I think that we've accomplished a lot.

CRUISE: How has this network theory been able to increase collaboration internally? We have a lot of different agencies that are involved in fighting terrorism. Fighting trafficking. Prior to 9/11 in particular, we heard a lot about the agency disconnect. So can we use some of the information that you've learned to bring these groups together to better fight networks, these dark networks?

MILWARD: I'm glad you asked that because one of the things I have done is executive training for the intelligence community. The intelligence community has done a number of things. They've required that people at the Central Intelligence Agency take a joint-duty posting at the FBI, for example. Their promotion depends on their spending time at another agency and starting to understand that agency's culture. Whether it's the National Security Agency, CIA, DIA or the FBI or any of the other members of the community. I think that's really important, but remember, these are agencies that were set up to keep secrets, and try to keep information not out there in the public domain. Although Edward Snowden has certainly put a crimp in that plan, and we know a lot more about what these agencies do now than we did a year ago.

CRUISE: We were talking before the interview about some of these organizations, and about why some dark networks persist, and others don't persist. I know one that you've looked into is the LTTE, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, an organization that existed for, gosh, about 30 years....


CRUISE: ...and is now, there may be some remnants of it, but for the most part the civil war there has ended, and they are not a power player. So what did they do wrong, or what were they doing successfully that let them persist for so long, and what did they do wrong that led to their demise?

MILWARD: Sort-of a cascading series of mistakes that very often happen. You had splits in the leadership structure, and you had internal fights. This certainly is true with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Internal fighting is one thing. The other thing they did was they lost a critical battle, the Battle of Elephant Pass, so they started to retreat back into an area where there really was no escape except the sea. And they started fighting more like conventional armies. When they did that, they become much easier for the Sri Lankan Army to bomb and find them and kill and capture them wherever they are. Eventually they pushed them into the sea. There was no exit. A vast number of civilians, Tamil civilians, were killed. But it was just really a crushing defeat.

CRUISE: Is this an organization that you think could rise up again? If they restructured, or is this an organization we've seen the last of?

MILWARD: Well, the thing we have learned is that dark networks are driven by problems. In this case, the problem of the Tamils in Sri Lanka did not go away. It will persist. It may take 15, 20, 30 years, who knows? The African National Congress in South Africa was almost destroyed when Nelson Mandela and the entire leadership of the ANC was arrested in 1962. It took them 13 years to get back to where they had been when they were all arrested at this Liliesleaf Farm in South Africa. So, if problems don't go away, these things will come back, and that's the message, I think, our primary message for governments and that is you can't kill or capture your way to success. I won't say that removing people like Osama bin Laden is a bad idea. I think it’s a very good idea. But the problems they represent, unless something is done about them, they're going to come back and it'll continue to fester, and people will continue to organize, and another generation of policymakers will be dealing with this.

CRUISE: Well, and as with the case with Osama bin Laden, the structure of the organization had changed somewhat in the past 10 years, so I think many have argued that capturing him didn't eradicate the organization. The leadership just filled in.

MILWARD: Well, then there's the question of what is al-Qaeda?

CRUISE: Very true.

MILWARD: Al-Qaeda on 9/11 does not exist anymore. But you have franchises that claim to act in its name all over the Islamic world. For a while it was just different franchises. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or [Jabhat] al-Nusra in Syria. And now you're starting to see the infighting themselves among these franchised groups.

CRUISE: So it seems that it's very important that we understand the individual dark networks in order to target them, and to understand them, and to combat them.

MILWARD: That's exactly right.

CRUISE: And thinking about Guzman, who you mentioned earlier, do you think that his capture is going to alter the situation with the drug war in Mexico? I know you're not an expert necessarily in that part of the world, but he's been a very large figure here in the last decade or so. Is taking out his leadership going to have an effect?

MILWARD: Will it have any effect on the war on drugs? No. There are plenty of lieutenants who will pick up the banner and the demand of the United States has not changed. And unless that demand changes, the same number of drugs will come into the United States, and I would predict that you'll find the same kind of fighting among the would-be successors to El Chapo, so that you have unorganized corruption, which is really worse than organized corruption, because a lot of innocent people get killed when it's unorganized. That's when it really gets bloody. Unless something is done to deal with the lieutenants...now one of the things that I read in the Wall Street Journal this morning is that the intelligence that we had on Guzman was so profound, that we're able to get down two or three layers of his lieutenants. And if that's the case, then you possibly could wipe out all of the people who have critical organizational or drug smuggling or drug making skills, and really deal the organization a blow. But if the Sinaloa Cartel goes away, the Mexicali Cartel comes up, or another cartel.

CRUISE: So it sounds like there are two takeaways here: One, that we need to understand the organization, the network, and the other that we need to understand the context in which they derive in order to combat them effectively.

MILWARD: Exactly. The takeaway for me is that problems drive dark networks, and you need to combat dark networks, but you also need to combat the problems that created them as well.

CRUISE: Well this is just a fascinating discussion of how we can take some theory from business and organizations and take that and look at a completely different area, so I appreciate your time today and thank you so much for joining us.

MILWARD: Thank you.

Copyright © 2014 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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