The Organizational Structure of Al Qaeda

9 May 2011 at 5:30 pm 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

Speaking of organizational structure, here’s former O&M guest blogger Craig Pirrong on Al Qaeda:

There is a concerted effort underway to portray Bin Laden as exerting operational control over Al Qaeda, based on material collected during the raid on his compound. Color me skeptical.

First, it’s hard to imagine how he could exercise any control at anything but the broadest strategic and conceptual level while he was relying on couriers to communicate with subordinates. Second, this hierarchical model is contrary to virtually all that has been written about Al Qaeda going back to its early days: the organization has been consistently portrayed as networked and distributed rather than hierarchical. Indeed, the conventional characterization of Al Qaeda represents it as more of a franchise operation in which the franchisees have considerable autonomy.

But let’s assume for a moment that the organization was hierarchical, and that operational elements required direction and approval from Bin Laden to implement any attack. If that’s true, we may have actually done ourselves a disservice by killing Osama. For it would be almost trivially simple to get inside AQ’s OODA (“observe, orient, decide, and act”) loop and disrupt and destroy its operations. Even if we didn’t know what AQ was up to, we could disrupt their plans just by mixing (randomizing) our strategies, by unexpectedly changing up the way we do things. If response to such changes required the locals carrying out missions to report back to OBL via a painfully slow communications system, await a decision, and wait for the decision to be couriered back, they would be unable to do anything serious. In this case, killing OBL would free the locals to be more flexible and responsive — and hence more dangerous. It would permit AQ to become more of a network, less predictable, and more able to adapt to our moves.

I too doubt this emerging meme on OBL as operational figure, perhaps for somewhat different reasons: I assume that any official information about the operation and its significance is primarily propaganda, not transparent disclosure. Naturally the Administration would want to exaggerate the significance of Bin Laden’s, um, “retirement.”

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Management Theory, Myths and Realities, Public Policy / Political Economy.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jim Rose  |  9 May 2011 at 10:14 pm

    Good points about the costs of excessive bureaucratic concentration of military power and its pluses to the other side.

    I recall that the allies gave up on assassinating Hitler from about 1944 because he was such a bad military leader, micro-managing and deluded, that his replacement was bound to be better.

    the Normandy invasion’s success owed a lot to Hitler’s personal control over the panzer tanks reserve and his night owl nature of not wanting to be awakened from his sleep before noon. Hitler then concluded that Normandy was a diversion and held his panzer tanks in reserve.

    There is a good paper called Killing Private Ryan on world war 2 military bureaucracy

  • 2. Links « Economics, Law and Institutions  |  10 May 2011 at 5:24 am

    […] The Organizational Structure of Al-Qaeda in […]

  • 3. Michael E. Marotta  |  13 May 2011 at 9:34 am

    Even though corporations publish org charts in their annual reports, the realities are different. About 20 years ago, I met eiither Jerry Vaske or Charles Granthm on The WELL (the old Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link; now a Salon property). They had just completed a study of a corporation (in Seattle, as I recall) in which they drew the real org chart by tracking the To: and From: fields in emails. (Socializing the Human-Computer Environment by Charles E. Grantham, Jerry J. Vaske, Norwood, NJ : Ablex Pub. Corp.,1990.)

    While a mature military probably has close conformance between theory and practice, it may be fundamental to all organizations that, as Hayek had it, orders emerge.

    The chaotic nature of Al Qaeda’s social reality places it more in the set of “organized crime” or even ELF/ALF and the WTO protests. Like “Cosa Nostra” and “Viet Cong” – and unlike the Bundeswehr and General Motors – the name “Al Qaeda” seems to have been given to them from outside. That may reflect a deeper truth. Bankrolling other people’s projects is not leadership. Perhaps Osama bin Laden was not so much a mastermind as a soft touch.

  • 4. Rafe’s Roundup May 14 at Catallaxy Files  |  14 May 2011 at 7:34 am

    […] organizational structure of El Quada. There is a concerted effort underway to portray Bin Laden as exerting operational […]

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