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Assessing the Dangers of Illicit Networks: Why al-Qaida May Be Less Threatening Than Many Think


Theoretical work on networked organization informs a large swathe of the current literature on international organized crime and terrorism in the field of international relations. Clandestine networks are portrayed as large, fluid, mobile, highly adaptable, and resilient. Many analysts have concluded that this makes them difficult for more stable, hierarchical states to combat. The prevailing mood of pessimism about the ability of states to combat illicit networks, however, may be premature. International relations scholars working in the area have often been too quick to draw parallels to the world of the firm, where networked organization has proven well adapted to the fast-moving global marketplace. They have consequently overlooked not only issues of community and trust but also problems of distance, coordination, and security, which may pose serious organizational difficulties for networks in general and for illicit networks in particular. Closer attention to a wider body of historical and contemporary research on dynamics of participation in underground movements, the life cycle of terrorism and insurgency, and vulnerabilities in organized crime reveals that clandestine networks are often not as adaptable or resilient as they are made out to be. An analysis of the al-Qaida network suggests that as al-Qaida adopts a more networked organization, it becomes exposed to a gamut of organizational dilemmas that threatens to reduce its unity, cohesion, and ability to act collectively.