Shapiro lectures on counterterrorism

Princeton University assistant professor of politics and international affairs Jacob Shapiro explored the way in which studying subnational variance in conflict provides insight in his lecture entitled “Explaining Local Intensity in Intrastate Conflict” this Thursday.

Shapiro’s lecture, which was sponsored by the Center for International Relations and Politics (CIRP), focused primarily on the way in which civilian decisions and cell phone use affects the government’s role in targeting violence spurred by insurgency.

According to the mission statement on their website, the CIRP “addresses policy issues through social scientific and interdisciplinary lenses,” focusing on five areas, including globalization, grand strategy, and facilitating research into these areas.

Counterinsurgency describes the political or military strategy that takes action to prevent the insurgency tactics of rebels or revolutionaries.

Shapiro argued that information is critical in formulating counterinsurgency tactics and for culling insurgency theories.

He broke his argument down by exploring the relationship between the players in counterinsurgency.

“There’s a three-sided game going on between the government, rebels, and the civilian population that is affected by economic and political development,” Shapiro said. “The government and the rebels fight each other, but there is also a third actor involved through the civil population, or noncombatants.”

“Although the government is dominant militarily, noncombatants know information and have the choice to share it or not,” he continued.

Even though civilians seem to be an uninvolved player in terms of counterinsurgency, Shapiro asserted that they both pay taxes to the rebels and provide information through tips to the government.

Using his research and statistics, Shapiro showed that there was a negative correlation between unemployment and violence. In places with higher unemployment, there was less violence.

“You pay people less in times and places when combat is more intense, so one possibility is this: When the economy is bad, there is less violence,” Shapiro said. “What we think is happening is that when the economy is bad, it becomes easier for the government to buy information.”

Shapiro’s research also showed a correlation between development and spending; places that received more governmental spending saw more violence.

“Why does it look like CERP spending made things worse? The people making decisions on spending had an idea about where the violence would be bad, so they put more money into those places,” Shapiro said.
CERP, or Commander’s Emergency Response Program, provided money that was used during the Iraq War and War in Afghanistan to rebuild and benefit Afghan and Iraqi citizens.

“Just because, statistically, places that receive welfare have high poverty rates, that does not mean causation — the welfare is not causing the poverty,” he continued.

Shapiro noted that locations that received more small-scale spending, in fact, experienced a reduction of violence.

Insurgents, Shapiro argued, pay a price for harming civilians.

“There’s a causal effect. Essentially, the rebels face an information-sharing constraint, as some community members share information with the government if the rebels impose too many externalities,” he said.
These externalities include the level of collateral damage given the government’s use of military force, the level of government service provision, local political views, and the rebels’ ability to retaliate against collaborators.

“This seems kind of abstract, but it’s exactly how Afghanistan and al-Qaeda talked about it,” Shapiro said. “They try to set that optimal level of violence in asking themselves how aggressively they can control the territory before the people get pissed off and start sharing information with the government.”

Shapiro noted that it’s difficult to measure that information flow to the government. “Human intelligence is one of the most carefully guarded secrets the government has.”

Researchers have been able to collect data by testing the use of cell phones in Iraq. “It’s a lot easier to pick up your cell phone and text others,” Shapiro said. “There’s a reduction in rebel ability to sanction informers, an increase in signal intelligence to coalition forces and an increase in rebels’ ability to produce violence.”

Counterinsurgency tactics have expanded to utilize tip cards, which helped the U.S. and Iraqi governments to receive information more easily.

There was a 10 percent reduction of violence in a month after an increase in cell phone tower buildings.

Sophomore international relations and politics major Ariel Lee said, “I thought Shapiro’s talk was really informative. At times, it was a bit difficult to understand his research and all its implications, but I thought it was interesting how he found a connection between cell phone towers and the level of violence in a given area because I would have never related the two together.”

Shapiro concluded by noting the importance of understanding the variance in intrastate violence.

He also pointed out how the research and information provided has a direct impact on policies.

Dana Kim, a sophomore international relations and politics major, said in an email to The Tartan, “Dr. Jacob Shapiro’s talk provided insight into the world of terrorism and insurgency and yields interesting statistics. Personally, I think the talk made me realize that what we see in the media is oftentimes misleading as to what is actually going on in states that are at war.”

Shapiro co-directs the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project, which analyzes politically-motivated violence. His research focuses on political violence, economic and political development in conflict zones, and security policy, according to a university press release.

Shapiro also authored the book The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations.