New book examines why terrorism, drug networks difficult to eliminate

March 22, 2007

University Park, Pa. -- As the United States struggles to win its wars on terrorism and drug trafficking, a Penn State faculty member investigates in a new book how our adversaries always seem to be one step ahead. "Traffickers and terrorists 'learn,' building skills and improving practices, which makes it increasingly difficult for state authorities to eliminate them," said Michael Kenney, author of the new book: "From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation," published by the Penn State Press.

In his book, he explains why drug enforcement and counter-terrorism policies have not worked very well in the past and are not likely to work much better in the future.

For all the traffickers and terrorists governments have captured, for all the money they have frozen, for all the activities they have disrupted, new and surviving criminals and militants continue to adapt, learning from the experiences, and failures, of their predecessors to resurrect their illicit operations.

Rejecting the popular yet misleading notion that "it takes networks to fight networks," Kenney, who teaches at Penn State's Harrisburg campus, argues that we must fight illicit networks with strong, constitutional governments -- liberal democratic states steeped in accountability, transparency and due process protections for citizens, aliens and enemy combatants alike.

Drawing on years of research, including interviews with drug traffickers and Palestinian militants, Kenney suggests that success in wars on drugs and terrorism depends less on fighting illicit networks with military operations and intelligence, domestically and abroad, and more on conquering competency traps -- traps that compel policymakers to exploit the same enforcement strategies repeatedly without questioning whether these programs are capable of producing intended results. This requires balancing existing approaches with innovations in public diplomacy, institution building, and multilateral development assistance.

The book "From Pablo to Osama" is particularly pertinent given recent national and international developments, including:

-- The growing frustration among the American public with the global war on terror and increased questioning, even among military officials, over whether the current approach is working;

-- Congressional testimony and media reports suggesting that al Qaeda as an organization is resurgent in Pakistan and Afghanistan;

-- Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's incriminating confession at a military hearing in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and

-- Continuing controversy inside Washington over renewing Plan Colombia, the initiative aimed at combating drug production and smuggling.

Kenney's ongoing research has most recently been supported with a $150,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, the research agency of the U.S. Justice Department, "to increase our understanding of how Islamic militants learn" through studies of extremist networks in Spain and the United Kingdom -- two critical theatres in the war on terrorism.

Previously, the Penn State researcher visited Israel through a fellowship from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy for an intensive course on terrorism studies, and in particular how democracies can defeat the worldwide terrorist threat. He also was one of eight scholars from across the nation to be awarded a fellowship to investigate ways governments and agencies can be organized to respond more effectively to terrorism. The fellowship, based at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, was part of a $1.65 million contract from the Department of Homeland Security.

For more information, visit the Penn State Press site at: online.

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Last Updated July 28, 2017