Knowing How Terrorist Groups Learn and Adapt Can Aid Counterterrorism Efforts

For Release

April 26, 2005

Intelligence and law enforcement agencies can combat terrorism more effectively if they understand how terrorists learn and adapt, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

Such understanding can enable authorities to assess terrorist threat levels more accurately and design and implement effective counterterrorist strategies—especially in allocating resources against terrorists—according to the report.

The study—prepared by RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment—is titled “Aptitude for Destruction: Organizational Learning in Terrorist Groups and its Implications for Combating Terrorism.”

The report is the first of a two-volume analysis of the innovation and learning processes of five groups of terrorists: Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the radical environmental movement, and Islamic organizations Hezbollah and Jemaah Islamiyah.

According to the RAND study, understanding how terrorists learn can provide insight into how they acquire and use new weapons and tactics, sharpen member skills, collect and use intelligence, and adapt to a constantly changing world.

By anticipating how and where groups evolve over time, intelligence and law enforcement officials can adjust their counterterrorism measures accordingly, the report says.

“Knowing how terrorist groups learn is like having a window into the playbook of the opposing team,” said Brian Jackson, a RAND researcher and lead author of the report. “If you know the play they’re running and how they’re likely respond to your defensive moves, you have a better chance of keeping them from scoring.”

For a terrorist group to survive and grow stronger, it must adjust its methods to thwart countermeasures and seek to preserve its capabilities even when some members are lost, according to the study.

Drawing from the broad literature on organizational learning, researchers identified four specific processes through which terrorist groups learn: acquiring, interpreting, distributing, and storing information and knowledge.

The study says groups must acquire information to evaluate their current activities and identify changes needed to improve performance. Terrorist groups search out information by watching and coordinating with other groups and obtaining new technologies and plans. Groups also develop information internally, drawing on their own experiences, training efforts, and research.

Interpreting information is vital because information is only valuable when it relates to a group’s needs, the study says. A terrorist group must be able to assess the relevance of new knowledge to its current actions and its broader strategic goals.

The more widely information is distributed throughout an organization, the more likely it is to be correctly interpreted and used, contributing to the group’s body of knowledge and suite of skills, according to the report.

To build capabilities that endure over time—and survive counterterrorist efforts to undermine or degrade them—terrorist groups must be able to store information so that it can be used at a later date, the report finds. Groups use a variety of strategies to build their “organizational memory,” including development of group cultures, organizational structures, and production of manuals and instructions for group members.

The report describes three strategies to improve efforts to combat terrorism by focusing on group learning activities:

The first strategy is to detect terrorist groups’ efforts to change and adapt. This involves identifying, extracting, and interpreting key information about terrorist groups’ adaptive efforts from the constant stream of intelligence. By using this lens in intelligence gathering and analysis, officials can better understand the implications of group activities that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, gain insight into a group’s long-term strategy, and more accurately tailor counterterrorist measures.

The second strategy is to strengthen the ability of intelligence and law enforcement organizations to anticipate whether terrorists will be successful in their learning efforts. Although any effort by a terrorist group to acquire new weapons or capabilities is a concern, the threat posed by the group only increases if its learning efforts are successful. An understanding of group learning processes provides better ways for intelligence and law enforcement analysts to assess group efforts and better anticipate the likely outcomes of group efforts to adapt.

The third strategy is to limit or undermine terrorist groups’ ability to learn and thereby evolve over time. Potential actions include limiting a terrorist group’s access to information, technologies and weapons; targeting a group’s “learning leadership;” identifying and breaking connections among group members; and denying groups a safe haven for experimentation and adapting strategies. Similarly, employing deception, misinformation, and other psychological techniques could also be used to shape the learning processes of terrorist groups, steering their actions and ultimately affecting their outcomes.

Funded by the National Institute of Justice, the RAND study was initiated out of a need to better understand how terrorists and insurgents adapt and become more dangerous over time.

The mission of RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment is to improve development, operation, use, and protection of society’s essential built and natural assets; and to enhance the related social assets of safety and security of individuals in transit and in their workplaces and communities.

A printed copy of “Aptitude for Destruction, Volume 1: Organizational Learning in Terrorist Groups and Its Implications for Combating Terrorism” (ISBN: 0-8330-3764-1) and “Aptitude for Destruction, Volume 2: Case Studies of Organizational Learning in Five Terrorist Groups” (ISBN: 0-8330-3767-6) can be ordered from RAND’s Distribution Services ( or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).

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