Public Policy and Management

Article Image To Combat Terrorism, a Systems Approach is Vital

Russell L. Ackoff is an emeritus professor at Wharton and a leading proponent of systems theory. He recently attended a meeting where economists and other experts were weighing the chances of terrorist attacks crippling the U.S. economic system. That discussion surprised Ackoff. “Why should terrorists attack the U.S. economic system?” he wondered. “They don’t have to; CEOs are already doing a fine job of that.”


That wry observation opened Ackoff’s presentation at a conference in Washington, D.C. on developing a “Systems Approach to Terrorism.” Organized jointly by the Association for Economic Integration (AIEI) and various research centers at Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania and George Washington University, the conference urged the need for private business and the government to work together to develop a holistic approach to combating terrorism and containing its impact on business and society at large. The sessions covered geo-political and economic perspectives on terrorism, approaches to assessing vulnerabilities, and ways to manage tradeoffs between increased security and civil liberties in a free society.


The issues that Wharton professors and other experts raised at the conference were particularly timely. When President George Bush presented his 88-page proposal for homeland security at the White House Rose Garden on July 16, the document proposed such measures as the creation of “red teams” that can think like terrorists to identify potential targets, national standards for drivers licenses, better screening of international shipping containers, the creation of a national department of homeland security and several others. At least two of these issues – the creation of “red teams” and the screening of shipping containers – were discussed on the first day of the conference.  


The Penn sponsors of the event included the Ackoff Center for the Advancement of Systems Approaches, the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center, the SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management, the Fels Center for Government and the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology. George Washington University’s sponsors included the Research Program in Social and Organizational Learning and Organizational Sciences Program.


“The only way to come to grips with these large questions is to focus on real issues,” said Paul Kleindorfer, chair of Wharton’s Operations and Information Management department and co-director of the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. Quoting economist Joan Robinson – who once said that time was invented so that we don’t have to do everything at once – he noted that the conference would explore some possible solutions and also develop a research agenda for further investigation of these issues.


This report deals with two perspectives presented at the conference. A follow-up article will examine other aspects.


Terrorism: A Systems Perspective


Ackoff said that he sees close ties between terrorism and fundamentalism. He pointed out that change usually provokes three types of responses: conservative, which seeks to prevent change; reactionary, which tries to idealize the past and unmake change; and liberal, which attempts to make small, disjointed, cumulative changes. Reactionaries, he added, become fundamentalists: They develop a fixed set of beliefs and “try to find a static equilibrium in a dynamic environment.” Ackoff distinguished between two types of fundamentalists: The introverted variety, such as the religious Mennonite sect – which shuns technology – essentially wants to be left alone. The extroverts are more zealous and evangelical. They regard those who don’t accept their beliefs as potential converts to their cause or as enemies. Fundamentalists who go a step further to use violence against their perceived enemies are terrorists. All terrorists are fundamentalists, though few fundamentalists are terrorists, Ackoff said.


In order to counter the threat of terrorism, “we must enable extroverted fundamentalists to deal with their environments effectively,” Ackoff explained. “This requires providing them with knowledge and resources required to achieve what to them is an acceptable standard of living and quality of work life.” He drew parallels between such efforts and those that the U.S. government has made since the 1960s to draw internal minority populations into the mainstream of American social and business life.


The basic problem that spurs terrorism is misdistribution of wealth within the U.S. and around the world. “Awareness of this inequality is widespread because of communications,” he noted. “We don’t understand how to close the gap, and the IMF and the World Bank often make matters worse. We cannot solve the problems of disadvantaged people. They must solve them on their own.”


Ackoff proposed several steps to counter terrorism by helping bridge the wealth gap.


In order to be effective, the U.S. and other wealthy nations must support development efforts in the rest of the world. But these efforts must be made – and seen to be made – in ways that make sense to the intended beneficiaries. For example, he said, during the 1950s India wanted to buy American merchant marine vessels, which the U.S. was planning to mothball. The U.S. refused, because it feared that India, with its lower labor costs, might undercut the profitability of American merchant shipping fleets. Instead, the U.S. offered to sell India butter, without realizing that most Indians at that time didn’t eat butter (which needs refrigeration) but ghee, or clarified butter (which has a longer shelf-life, without refrigeration, than butter). This made the U.S. “a laughing stock in India” at the time, Ackoff noted. “The Indians said, ‘Your generosity is aimed at solving your problems, not ours.’” The U.S. will have to change this approach if it wants to deal effectively with terrorism, he added.


Ackoff also argued that if funds are made available, their use should be determined through a democratic process. This implies that corruption must be excluded from the handling of funds and other resources. In addition, experts must work to help disadvantaged groups make decisions in any way they (the disadvantaged) desire. Finally, conditions must be monitored by a group acceptable to the providers and recipients of aid. “Unless we can do this,” Ackoff said, “all we can do is defend ourselves against terrorism.”


Geo-Political Perspectives on Causes


Brian M. Jenkins, senior advisor to the president of RAND, a non-profit think tank, noted that research into terrorism was a niche activity until last year but has gained a massive audience since Sept. 11. “Terrorism is not just a set of beliefs but also a set of tactics and actions,” he said. It includes, in addition to the actions themselves, the effects of those actions, such as fear and security steps that are taken to prevent further attacks. As such, terrorism has a cascading effect.


Jenkins maintained that terrorists inevitably arise out of local conditions, and that it is crucial to understand the causes that drive groups such as Al Queda, Direct Action or the Red Army. He cited several reasons why researchers should probe the causes of terrorism. “It serves predictive purposes, and it also allows pre-emptive intervention,” Jenkins said. “Studying causes is helps you learn how to deprive terrorists of their constituencies.”


The U.S. – historically – has put causes aside and instead focused on counter-terrorism. This is because U.S. policy on terrorism evolved in response to hijackings and attacks on American diplomats overseas, and “what was affecting us was not causes but tactics,” Jenkins noted. “When attacks took place abroad, it needed international cooperation to deal with them. When you try to deal with terrorism internationally you run into the problem of definition, which is very difficult to resolve. One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Such discussions lead to disagreements and failure to fight terrorism. As a result, U.S. policy pushed definitions of terrorism based on the quality of action, and it deliberately kept cause out of the discussion. Only in this way could the U.S. gain international cooperation.”


Jenkins explained that researchers make five assumptions about the causes of terrorism. First, there are the causes that the terrorists themselves offer. The Irish Republican Army sums up its cause as, “Brits out!” while the Basque separatists proclaim, “Spaniards out!” Other groups fight for broader concepts such as anti-imperialism or anti-globalization. Many terrorist causes are based on religion. “If you read terrorist literature, you often find that their goals are vaguely expressed,” he said. “If terrorists didn’t have guns or bombs, they could bore you to death with their literature.”


A second assumption about terrorist causes roots them in international conspiracies. “In the past, a lot of terrorism was seen as a Soviet conspiracy, and now it is often regarded as an Iraqi conspiracy,” Jenkins noted. “Such explanations discount local factors that drive terrorism, and instead search for an Evil Empire on which to blame terrorist actions. There may be a kernel of truth in these explanations, but usually they are tendentious.” Third, some analysts point to environmental factors as drivers of terrorist causes. “They ask why Italy, Spain and Germany have high levels of terrorism and ask if this is related to these countries’ fascist past.”  Fourth, technological change is sometimes viewed as a cause of terrorism. Terrorists observe the overwhelming military superiority of the West and this forces them to look for new vulnerabilities and capabilities.

Finally, some analysts believe that terrorism and its causes can best be studied in terms of their natural history. Failure of rural guerrilla action in some areas leads to an increase in urban terrorism. When mass demonstrations fail to achieve certain goals, terrorist actions are planned around those causes. “Understanding causes is important, because terrorism is self perpetuating,” Jenkins said. “Causes may change over time, but terrorism is constant.”

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Web Links

Systems Approach to Terrorism site

National Strategy document for Homeland Security

Risk Management and Decision Processes Center
SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management

Ackoff Center for the Advancement of Systems Approaches

AFEI website

RAND Organization

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