Combatting Terrorism – Pyramids vs. Pancakes

After 17 people were killed over the course of three days earlier this month, Paris joins a growing list of cities or provinces inextricably associated with terrorist attacks in recent memory.


Boston, Bali, Nairobi, Sydney, Mumbai, Washington DC, New York – to name a few – and now, Paris.


As the world continues on its path to hyperconnectedness – socially, economically, and culturally – global security issues and threats are evolving at an ever-increasing pace. The traditional borders between war and peace, states and individuals, and military and civilian considerations are becoming increasingly blurry.


The Changing Face of Security


Adversaries’ abilities to conduct attacks are becoming progressively more complex and difficult to predict. An airplane into a building? A bomb at a marathon? Hostages in a coffee shop? And now masked gunmen shooting up a newspaper office? What’s next? The attacks in Paris are just the latest example of a new reality; the face of security has changed, and will continue to change in ways yet imagined.


This reality hits hard across the globe. Disturbing images of bombings, beheadings, and brazen killings beg the question – has the world gone mad?


Maybe. But a more logical explanation can be found in the asymmetric nature of the battle against terrorism.


An Asymmetric Conflict: Pyramids vs. Pancakes


Terrorists and world governments are seen as unevenly matched, which is why think-tank experts and TV pundits call the conflict “asymmetric.” In fact, terrorists derive their strength precisely from the fact that their organizations are small, fast, flexible, and pancake-flat, while governments in developed nations are huge, slow, sclerotic, and pyramidal.


This war of pyramids vs. pancakes has important implications, and we can learn a lot from the way world governments and terrorists are reorganizing for the longer struggle ahead. Someday business schools will study case histories based on what is now happening, as will the training academies where intelligence agents learn their craft.


Looking back in history, huge and pyramidal worked for the United States in World War II. It worked in the Cold War when we opposed an even more bureaucratic foe.  But attempting to fight the deadly, fast-flitting, flea-sized terrorist enemy with yet another pyramidal bureaucracy is a blueprint for failure.


A Classic Ploy


Any big-company manager can recognize this classic bureaucratic ploy, described by Alvin and Heidi Toffler in their 1990 book “Powershift” as follows:


“When bureaucracies are forced to deal with a problem that fits into no one’s existing cubbyhole, they behave in certain stereotyped ways. After some initial fencing, someone inevitably suggests setting up a new unit… This is instantly recognized for what it could easily become: a budget-eating rival of the older units …” The result is bureaucratic battle.


The world thus seeks to fight the “malevolent actor” pancake with the traditional pyramid. Nothing should please militant jihadists more.  It virtually guarantees that dots will go unconnected in the future, just as they have in the past.


Connecting the Dots


In “Powershift,” bureaucracies were described as consisting of compartments or “cubbyholes” into which specialized information is stuffed. For example, in business, consumer information goes into the marketing cubbyhole, engineering data into the engineering cubbyhole, etc. Each of these is headed by an executive who is also a “gatekeeper” and whose power depends on control of the information.


But for dots to be connected, information needs to be synthesized.  Somebody needs the big picture. That is why bureaucracies also have vertical “channels.” At each level of the chain of command, a manager collects information from the cubbyhole controllers who report to her or him and decides whether to send it up through channels to the next higher authority. For example, take that FBI bureaucrat in Washington who apparently failed to send up the line a message from an agent in Arizona warning that terrorists might be enrolling in flight schools.


As another passage in “Powershift” put it: “Smart managers also know that people in one department seldom speak to their counterparts in another. In fact, this lack of cross-communication is precisely what gives mid-rank managers their power.”


Pyramids are Making Progress but Aren’t There Yet


Since Sept 11th, progress has been made within the pyramids to combat the speed and innovation of adversaries.  Governments and organizations around the world are increasing their usage of technology to connect within and across “cubbyholes;” building global partnerships to collect and share threat information; implementing common information-sharing standards and protocols; creating new organizations that force stovepipes to work with each other to solve multi-dimensional problems; and increasing analytic and decision-making cycles.


But there is still more to be done. Pancake-flat adversaries are innovating faster than the world’s albeit improved pyramids.


Given the impossibility of predicting all possible threats, pyramid structures must become more pancake-like by developing strategic frameworks that provide general guidance on how to operate in given situations, no matter how orthogonal the situation may be. They must hire personnel capable of making real-time decisions in complex operating environments, even in the absence of perfect information.  They must also build the internal capability to anticipate potential risks and consider the future consequences prior to taking actions.


Critical to successfully fighting “pancakes” is the ability to understand, plan, and adapt to the complexity of the myriad of threats out there. This will require a deliberate focus on seemingly unrelated events and – equally as important – what could happen if/when those events collide.

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