Over the past decade, violent non-state actors’ (VNSAs) adoption of new technologies that can help their operations have tended to follow a recognizable general pattern, which this study dubs the VNSA technology adoption curve: As a consumer technology becomes widely available, VNSAs find ways to adapt it to their deadly purposes. This curve tends to progress in four stages:
1. Early Adoption – The VNSA tries to adopt a new technology, and disproportionately underperforms or fails in definable ways.
2. Iteration – The consumer technology that the VNSA is attempting to repurpose undergoes improvements driven by the companies that brought the technology to market. These improvements are designed to enhance consumers’ experience and the utility that consumers derive from the technology. The improvements help the intended end user, but also aid the VNSA, which iterates alongside the company.
3. Breakthrough – During this stage, the VNSA’s success rate with the new technology significantly improves.
4. Competition – Following the VNSA’s seemingly sudden success, technology companies, state actors, and other stakeholders develop countermeasures designed to mitigate the VNSA’s exploitation of the technology. The outcome of this phase is uncertain, as both the VNSA and its competitors enter relatively uncharted territory in the current technological environment. The authorities and VNSA will try to stay one step ahead of one another.
This report begins by explaining the adoption curve, and more broadly the manner in which VNSAs engage in organizational learning. The report then details two critical case studies of past VNSA technological adoption to illustrate how the adoption curve works in practice, and to inform our analysis of VNSA technological adoptions that are likely in the future.