Interest in creativity and innovation stems from a common assumption that these are positive forces, helping to usher in progress, which is why they are lauded. This may also explain why innovation let alone creativity has been under-theorised and under-studied in terrorism studies. This is unsurprising as many terrorist groups are small, hierarchical, and insular, making studying their decision-making processes challenging.
Over the last 30 years sporadic work has appeared on terrorist groups and innovation (see for example here, here, here, here). The focus was very much on the group and its use of technology, however as the field is changing due to the growth in lone-actor terrorists it is important that scholars and policymakers devote time to studying the link between terrorist groups, creativity, and innovation, as it would help assess what could be coming down the pipeline, as innovative groups represent ‘strategic surprises.’
Crucially, malevolent actors draw influence, whether intentionally or not, from John Boyd’s Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) Loop as they are always looking for ways to circumvent anti- and counter-terrorism measures. This is also when terrorist groups turn to the Internet, where they can find solutions to questions or solutions to problems. That is, the Internet by providing connectivity as information at one’s fingertips has greatly empowered malevolent actors who use it amongst other things for propaganda; financing; training; planning; execution; and, cyberattacks. Simply, the Internet allows violent extremists to connect on an unprecedented level, whilst maintaining their anonymity.
A common assumption is that creativity and innovation come with a eureka moment whereby one finds a solution to a problem, when in fact such moments rarely happen, as generally, problem-solving is slow and methodical (for some leading studies see here, here).
Over the last few decades, scholars in cognitive psychology, business studies, organisational theory, sociology, philosophy have looked at how one could stimulate creativity, and innovation, creating a rich body of work that terrorism scholars can and should draw upon.
Creativity in problem-solving is abstract, whereas innovation is practical, involving what Crenshaw calls ‘the adoption of new patterns of behaviours’ which is why the two exist in a symbiotic relationship in the sense that one needs the former to get to the latter.
Studies by such scholars as Mumford, Sternberg, Lubart, and Cropley et. al. emphasise that the process of creativity requires four things: person, process, product, and environment. Thus, the process of creativity calls for a person to identify a problem, which occurs by observing the environment. This leads to the identification of a problem that calls for an imaginative (new) solution (the product) that is developed through the acquisition of knowledge, whether explicit, tacit, techne, or metis. Fundamentally the creative process is aimed at generating something ‘novel’ that would supervise. Once the creative process had begun, the innovation part follows, as the person seeks to find a practical solution to the problem that they had identified.
Cropley et. al. explored the idea of malevolent creativity, a reference to people and groups using the creative process in such a way that it harms people. However, as Cropley et. al. show, some people set off down the creative and innovative route with dark or malevolent intentions. In other words, not all creative engagement is positive.
Paul Gill et. al and Brian Jenkins argue that for terrorist groups, the creative and later the innovative process may begin by asking if the group is satisfied with an existing tactic or a tool it uses to achieve its end-goal. This stage is the most creative stage in the process as it involves an idea generation. During this stage, the group or person not only generate something new, but they also consider the applicability of the idea, which may mean that for each idea, one must also include a consideration of alternatives. For terrorist groups, this may explain why they prefer tried and tested means as oppose to creative and innovative actions as the consequences may cause enormous harm to the group. This suggests that some groups are very conscious of their vulnerabilities as they recognise that they are fighting the state which is more powerful. At the idea generation stage, what may also happen is a free-flowing exchange of ideas or unfiltered brainstorming. The focus is purely on generating ideas and not at looking at their quality, which may include very outlandish ideas. A different approach to idea generation is idea synthesis, effectively a filtered brainstorming session. This process is more structured, as there is clarity as to the extent of the problem that the group is seeking to overcome. Under this approach, the focus is more on the quality of ideas as opposed to the number of ideas generated. The purpose of idea synthesis is on getting better ideas. Whether one engages in idea generation or idea synthesis, the desired outcome is idea evaluation (best idea) followed by experimentation, or the need to explore how to actualise the idea.
Post-9/11 Salafi-jihadi groups have shown to be more fluid than many traditional terrorist groups, such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and others who remain wedded to a specific mode of operation that has remained largely static. The new groups however increasingly operate as networks and franchisors, encouraging and supporting lone action but also innovation in how they disseminate information, attract recruits, raise money, etc. Notably, when these groups try to be creative, especially when it comes to technology, their efforts are crude and limited, as seen for example with various attempts to use cryptocurrencies.
When terrorist groups operate more loosely, they tend to encourage innovation and creativity as the individuals motivated by the ideology need not go through a rigid command structure that demands approvals for action, as the individual could take action on their own, without approval.
Returning to the notion of malevolent creativity and terrorism, the reason why policymakers must recognise this field is because a creative terror act is an act that the security services had not considered or they had considered it but dismissed it because it had seemed too outlandish or because the cost of defending against it outweighed the risk. We need not only look to capabilities, probabilities and motivations of such groups, but at their commitment to evolve, which requires the group to be creative and innovative.
One way to ensure that counterterrorism remains financially manageable is by ensuring that we monitor and assess the level of malevolent creative of terrorist groups, as many are rational actors with specific end-goals. We must therefore endeavour to understand, and explain the strategy (which includes ideology), organisation and tactics of violent extremists.