Faculty Interview Series: An Interview with Dr. Gary Shiffman, SSP Adjunct Professor

By: Donnie Hill, Reporter

Photo Credit: Giant Oak

Dr. Gary Shiffman is the founder and CEO of Giant Oak, a technology firm that specializes in blending social science with big data environments to identify illicit actions, actors, and networks. His past positions include managing director at the Chertoff Group, senior vice president and general manager of risk management solutions at L-3, and chief of staff at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In addition, he is the author of Economic Instruments of Security Policy and is currently writing Economics of Organized Violence. Dr. Shiffman earned his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University, M.A. in security studies from Georgetown University, and B.A. in psychology from the University of Colorado. He has taught as a professor at Georgetown since 2002.

Your book, Economic Instruments of Security Policy, examines the many economic tools available to governments interested in combating international terrorism. How do you view the relationship between economic pressure and traditional military force or policing in the realm of counterterrorism?

The goal of foreign and national security policy is to influence human behavior. There’s a full spectrum of things we can do to influence human behavior. If you think of the enemy as a combatant, combatants tend to be human. Within this context, kinetic force and military operations are one aspect of power. But there are multiple aspects of power that would affect somebody’s cost-benefit analysis or their opportunity set. Think about kinetic or military force as one way to influence the combatant’s opportunity set. You can deny trade, impose sanctions, drop bombs, target their leadership—there’s a full spectrum in which we can influence the choices of our adversary. A lot of the book is thinking about these alternatives, especially economics.

In many ways, the so-called Islamic State has become a victim of its own successes. Does its unprecedented economic strength—grounded in a diversified revenue stream—also make ISIS especially susceptible to financial warfare?

The success of ISIS, or any other adversary, does make them susceptible to overreach, which is trying to do more than you can afford to do. To the extent that ISIS has diversified their sources of revenue—that’s good for them. It makes them stronger and harder to defeat, because diversification decreases risk. To the extent they diversify, they decrease the risk of failure—which is bad for us. But to the extent to which they grow their organization faster than they grow their revenue, or decrease their cost of losing revenue, then that works to our benefit if we seek for them to fail as an institution.

The USG has repeatedly targeted ISIS’s economic support network as a key component of its strategy of disruption and degradation. What aspects of the economic campaign have been most successful? The least successful?

I don’t think we’ve done a good job of targeting ISIS’s economic infrastructure. I think that the Islamic State has broadly diversified its sources of revenue. When they were at their pinnacle, they were actually governing—meaning that they were able to tax all the revenue generated in the area they governed. Our approach has been to decrease their ability to govern population centers and therefore cut into their tax base. That’s been successful. Now we need to think more broadly about the economic activity in places where the Islamic State governs and how we can balance two competing interests, i.e. supporting the local population, while simultaneously decreasing the ability of the Islamic State leadership, the autocrats, to tax that population. That’s very hard to do, and I don’t think we’ve made any progress on that.

Coalition air forces took the highly unusual move in early 2016 of bombing ISIS’s physical cash reserves in Mosul; shortly thereafter the so-called Islamic State cut fighters’ salaries by 50%. Does pay matter in an organization fueled by virulent ideology?  

Absolutely. That was one of the best things that we could have done, and we saw tangible changes in their behavior as a result of that action. What we’ve learned over many years of fighting terrorist organizations, is that going after their money hurts—it hurts a lot. Anything we can do to go after the cash is a good thing. Every company needs to be able to pay salaries to recruit and retain talented individuals. If the Islamic State can’t retain and attract talent, that further limits its ability to effectively operate as an institution.

In addition to teaching, you also lead a successful tech firm. Giant Oak harnesses Big Data and intelligent algorithms to assist clients seeking to identify illicit actors in the finance sector. What advantages does Big Data analysis offer compared to more traditional small-scope analysis?

Think about data the way scientists think about data. The scientific method calls for observing a phenomenon, ideally many times, in order to predict what will happen next. If you do an experiment 99 times, you know what’s going to happen the 100th time. In the realm of national security there are scientists as well, and the phenomenon we’re interested in is human behavior as it relates to organized violence. Data can be a reflection of human behavior. Big Data is about looking for patterns in human behavior across more data than we’ve ever been able to absorb in the past. As social scientists interested in national security, we’re relying on naturally occurring incidents—what’s going on in the world. Chemists and physicists have laboratories where they can recreate experiments. You and I don’t have that ability. We have to watch what’s going on in the world, make observations, and draw conclusions. Big Data allows us to do that to a greater degree than any other point in history.

How important is it for security professionals—many of which have a liberal arts background—to understand the technical aspects of Big Data analysis?

It’s incredibly important for analysts with non-technical backgrounds to be able to ask critical questions. You will have colleagues with quantitative backgrounds who will present you with conclusions based upon data. You need to know enough to ask critical questions, because even though your colleague may have a quantitative background, there’s no guarantee that they got it right. You need to know enough to ask tough, critical questions based on common mistakes and fallacies. I want to see the next generation of security studies graduates who are proficient enough in data analytics to understand common pitfalls and ask those critical questions when interacting with others.

This spring you’ll be teaching Economics of Organized Violence (IECO 225). In what ways would this course prove valuable for a security studies student with little or no economic background?

Picking up where we just left off, during the course of the semester we present an introduction to data science for security studies professionals. At the end of the course, students are better equipped to ask good, critical questions when presented with empirical results. Second, thinking about data and the scientific method as it reflects human behavior is critical to my class. Understanding human-to-human behavior and organized violence—that combination is critical for understanding how the world really works. Third, we do a lot of applied work. That means we’ll take hard core academic research and apply it to case studies—things that are going on in the world—and compare where the academic research helps us and where it falls short.

What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in economic security?

Any SSP student interested in security—be it terrorism, counterinsurgency, or transnational criminal organizations—should understand the human component of their adversary, and don’t treat them like organizations with unanimity and an independent will. The adversary that you’re thinking about is a collective with internal competing gears, dynamics, tensions, frictions—if you want them to fail, think about how you exploit those internal challenges and then think about kinetic actions in that context. Violent force is a tool that can be very helpful, but it’s a tool that, if not complimented with all of the other elements of power, might not bring about the results that you seek.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.