ISIS Fighters

Terrorism as a Wicked Problem

Tonight, the President of the United States will deliver in prime time a speech, the United States strategy for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). According to open source information, President Barack Obama will announce a three-stage campaign against ISIS. Administration officials say the campaign may take three years to complete, and may thus require a sustained effort which would last beyond the Obama presidency.

The first phase, which is already underway, consists of air attacks on ISIS targets (this phase of the campaign began 8 August; to date, 145 airstrikes have been conducted).

The next phase, to begin after Iraq forms a more inclusive government, will involve an intensified effort to train, advise, and equip the Iraqi military, Kurdish fighters, and Iraqi Sunni tribes.

The third phase, which is the most politically controversial, would involve destroying the terrorist army in its sanctuary inside Syria.

Primarily, the U.S. strategy for dealing with ISIS is a military one. And here is where I think we are missing some insight. My comments are not made in a political context but more in looking at a long-term strategy to address the social and cultural dynamics of terrorism. Applying a military strategy solely to a complex sociocultural system that leads to radicalization is shortsighted. My thoughts on this fall into two broad observations. One is that our current military, top-down, command and control, individualist focused, back door emphasis is incongruent with the current collectivist, decentralized terrorist state. Second, this kind of orientation is inconsistent and incongruent with terrorism as a whole, which is a wicked problem.

Centralized Military Policy as Inconsistent with Decentralized Terrorism

Terrorism is a chronic concern. We’ve treated terrorism as mainly a military problem, but it is a cultural psychosocial problem. Despite not having numerous definitions of the term — terrorism, is a highly politicized term used to describe any number and style of oppositional forces. Politicians even irresponsibly use the term to vilify and cast a negative light on opponents in elections. For the purposes of my discussion on terrorism policy and subsequent strategy, terrorism is defined as “politically motivated violence that is perpetrated by individuals, groups, or state-sponsored agents and intended to bring about feelings of terror and helplessness in a population in order to influence decision making and to change behavior.”

Our current terrorist threat is one byproduct of the tectonic social shifts occurring rapidly that threaten social order and culture. In social terms, groups tend to view the world through their own cultural ciphers. For example, from a broad perspective, America is an individualistic culture and Near and Middle Easter countries are more of a collectivist culture. These two world views have dramatic consequences for terrorism.

Fast changing globalization is not proving to be a smooth, cohesive process. To put that phrase in context, we are experiencing what Dr. Fathali Moghaddam, renowned Georgetown University professor calls “fractured globalization”, the tendency for sociocultural disintegration to pull in a local direction at the same time that macroeconomic and political systems are set up to pull toward the international direction and to accelerate globalization. It is important to note that a consequence of fractured globalization is the strengthening and revival fundamentalism, support for authoritarianism, and a decline in support for the open society.

Along with fractured globalization is the population problem of the ‘tragedy of the commons.’ In William Forester Lloyd’s 1800’s pamphlet, this dynamic plays out as philosopher Whitehead calls, “the essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseful workings of things. “This plays out in globalization as the tragedy of freedom in a commons. I would say some of the struggles with immigration is that there is a struggle over global resources and the fairness of distribution. As an example, Jonathan Haight in his book, The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, states that the current polarization seen today in U.S. politics has to do with distributed fairness. Liberal leaning Americans believe fairness is about the principle of basic equality and rights while conservative leaning Americans believe fairness is about proportionality, you get what you put in. This gets back to the concept of finite resources in a finite world, not an American commons issue but a global commons issue.

Furthermore, whoever has the power of the storyline has great positioning for socially constructing the narrative or “knowledge” for the general public. In a world of winners and losers, good and evil, in or out, this kind of insight into interactions is vitally important.

Our current counterterrorism polices are based on a military, command and control, top-down paradigm, inconsistent with the decentralized, oft times, leaderless networks of terrorists. It reflects the traditional law enforcement approach in which the task of the police is to apprehend criminals and gather evidence for their prosecution. It comes from a narrow military approach in which the armed forces close with and kill or capture enemy soldiers and interrogate them for operational intelligence but do not consider prisoners a possible resource. Brian Jenkins, in his text Unconquerable Nation points out that insufficient attention is paid to defeating radicalization, indoctrination, and recruitment at the front end or to developing a coherent strategy for dealing with detainees at the back end. We have concentrated on degrading the jihadists’ operational capabilities by eliminating jihadists, but not by impeding recruiting, inducing defections, or getting detainees to renounce jihad. Our terrorism strategy then must move to address the whole sociological dynamics of radicalization and focus more on the front door instead of the back door. Focusing then on the front door, we should understand terrorists’ organizations from the Near and Middle East as collectivist oriented, not individualist oriented.

Terrorism as a Wicked Problem

Social complexity is the sociological study of phenomena through the lens of complex systems. For homeland security, social complexity is often described as “wicked problems.”

A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.

Wicked problems have innumerable causes, are tough to describe, and are not easily solvable. They’re the opposite of hard because for ordinary problems, people can solve in a finite time period by applying standard techniques. Not only do conventional processes fail to tackle wicked problems, but also they may exacerbate situations by generating undesirable consequences. Wicked problems often occur in social contexts and their social complexity make them tough to manage because they are hard to recognize and can change rapidly. Examples of wicked problems for homeland security are decentralized terrorist networks, climate change, pandemics, poverty and natural disasters. The homeland security enterprise is attempting to solve wicked problems with ordinary management techniques.

In 1973, Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, two Berkeley professors, published an article in Policy Sciences introducing the notion of “wicked” social problems. The article, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” named 10 properties that distinguished wicked problems from hard but ordinary problems.

10 Properties of Wicked Problems

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. It’s not possible to write a well-defined statement of the problem, as can be done with an ordinary problem.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. You can tell when you’ve reached a solution with an ordinary problem. With a wicked problem, the search for solutions never stops.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, good or bad. Ordinary problems have solutions that can be objectively evaluated as right or wrong. Choosing a solution to a wicked problem is largely a matter of judgment.

4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. It’s possible to determine right away if a solution to an ordinary problem is working. But solutions to wicked problems generate unexpected consequences over time, making it difficult to measure their effectiveness.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot” operation; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly. Solutions to ordinary problems can be easily tried and abandoned. With wicked problems, every implemented solution has consequences that cannot be undone.

6. Wicked problems do not have an exhaustively describable set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan. Ordinary problems come with a limited set of potential solutions, by contrast.

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. An ordinary problem belongs to a class of similar problems that are all solved in the same way. A wicked problem is substantially without precedent; experience does not help you address it.

8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. While an ordinary problem is self-contained, a wicked problem is entwined with other problems. However, those problems don’t have one root cause.

9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. A wicked problem involves many stakeholders, who all will have different ideas about what the problem really is and what its causes are.

10. The planner has no right to be wrong. Problem solvers dealing with a wicked issue are held liable for the consequences of any actions they take, because those actions will have such a large impact and are hard to justify.

Wicked Problems Treated as Ordinary Problems

The mission of homeland security is to build a system of safety and resiliency for the nation and the challenge for homeland security is to realize that the American citizen in an integral partner in the ability to design systems to cope with the confusing, complex, and contradictory world in which we live. So far, the system design has been a deficient oriented problem focused, top down structure. For example, the Department of Homeland Security has an entire website devoted to Lessons Learned although nowhere on it is there a definition of “Lessons Learned.” Generally, “lessons learned,” is commonly understood as important those experiences that surface after a disaster that one does not want to repeat, often in the context of corrective actions and remedial action planning. The “lessons-learned” processes include tools like in-progress reviews, after- action reviewing and reporting, hot-washes, and various kinds of debriefings.

A lessons learned strategy is a management strategy response to ordinary problems.

Most processes involve some version of three core components:

1. Evaluating an incident (through systematic analysis of what happened and why);

2. Identifying lessons (strengths to be sustained and weaknesses to be corrected); and

3. Learning (specifying and inculcating behavioral changes consistent with the lessons).

The problem here is that these activities are linear, past-oriented and problem-centric. When and if corrected, there’s only a return back to status quo. The Department of Homeland Security has its historical roots in a military model which is a top-down, command and control framework while terrorist networks, natural disasters and our nation’s declining critical infrastructure, pandemics, and climate change are wicked, socially complex adaptive networks, just to name a few. There is an incongruity between the nature of the homeland security system and the framework used to respond to it. The Homeland Security Enterprise is a complex-adaptive system. The Homeland Security Enterprise is complex because it is a diverse dynamic network of interconnected interactions and it is adaptive in that individual and collective behavior can change and “self-organize” based on a micro-event or a collection of events. The current use of traditional organizational frameworks that are primarily command and control are not effective. As threats and disasters are becoming increasingly complex, our style of thinking rarely matches this complexity. Complex adaptive systems with numerous interconnected parts are at work in groups wishing to do our country harm. The nature of complexity is that no one individual has the entire answer which highlights the need for people and all levels of community to cooperate with each other on our nation’s challenges. In other words, homeland security is a social concept.

Strategy in a Wicked Problem World

A word about strategy is needed here though as a reminder that wicked problems will always complicate any framework. In other words, as stakeholders gather the more disagreement, confusion, discord and lack of progress on how to tackle the problem is a telltale sign that it is a wicked problem. Lessons from the business world applicable to homeland security is that over time, business consultants recognized five characteristics of wicked problems.

  • The problem involves many stakeholders with different values and priorities
  • The issue’s roots are complex and tangled
  • The problem is difficult to come to grips with and changes with every attempt to address it
  • The challenge has no precedent, and
  • There’s nothing to indicate the right answer to the problem

Wicked problems occur in a social context. An overdependence of experts and hierarchy in a linear system is not particularly helpful in a wicked problems world. In the wicked problem world, ecologist C. S. Holling once wrote that in really complex systems, wealth should be measured, not in money or power but rather in the ability to change and adapt.

A shift of policy then must be focused from a collectivist context, taking a long-range strategy to look at the cultural and sociological factors leading to terrorism and a way to ‘disconnect’ the cycle of radicalization, leading to wicked problems.

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