News / Middle East

Al-Qaida’s Business Savvy Sows Uncertain Future

Osama bin Laden, left, and his top lieutenant, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, right, are seen at an undisclosed location in this TV image broadcast, October 2001 (file photo)
Osama bin Laden, left, and his top lieutenant, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, right, are seen at an undisclosed location in this TV image broadcast, October 2001 (file photo)

Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command has taken the helm of al-Qaida, following what many call a “corporate succession plan” charted out by the terrorist group’s late leader. This plan illustrates bin Laden’s business sense that he picked up long before he was the face of jihad, while working for his Saudi family's multi-billion dollar construction company.  His knack for business has been critical to al-Qaida's growth, but it is also proving to be a vulnerability.

Al-Qaida Emir

  • Duties:

    - Internal and external representative of al-Qaida
    - Chairman of the Leadership Council
    - Oversees all al-Qaida activities, including budget, execution of goals and agenda, appointment of leaders

  • Qualifications:

    - “Practical” jihad experience
    - Clear dedication to jihad
    - Must be in “good health”
    - Must carry out basic responsibilities of an Imam
    - Preferred familiarity with military operations
    - Preferred to have completed a university degree
    - Age is considered
    - Must be trustworthy, not greedy, a team player, patient, wise, intelligent

    Read more: Al-Qaida's Structure and Bylaws

Al-Qaida runs like any other business. It keeps financial records with trails of receipts, often scribbled on notebook paper. Even arguments over printer toner cartridges are tracked. The hiring process is thorough, with a questionnaire asking recruits for personal references, previous jihad experience and whether they are exiled from their home country. If a candidate is hired, al-Qaida's bylaws neatly define their top operatives' job descriptions.

These rare details of al-Qaida's inner-workings are outlined in a series of documents from the U.S. Defense Department's Harmony Database. U.S. forces uncovered the files in Iraq, Afghanistan and other battlefields over the past decade.

Business savvy

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University in Washington, said bin Laden's corporate know-how defined his brand.

"I think it's his personal stamp and personal approach. And don’t forget this is what catapulted al-Qaida to prominence and certainly enabled it to become the preeminent non-state threat of our era,” said Hoffman, adding that this approach is proving troublesome for bin Laden’s group.

“So I think he applied in many cases successfully the same technique from business to running the terrorist organization, but his penchant for organization and al-Qaida’s, I think, detailed record keeping is now proving to be an enormous vulnerability.”

Al-Qaida’s Business Savvy Sows Uncertain Future
Al-Qaida’s Business Savvy Sows Uncertain Future

This vulnerability was exposed when U.S. special forces killed the world's most wanted terrorist in May. The commandos confiscated troves of information from bin Laden's Pakistani compound in the raid. The intelligence added to a collection of secrets, some of which are held at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point in New York. The Harmony documents provide anecdotes about al-Qaida's training process, operations, fighter profiles and even job benefits.

As of 2001, documents showed married fighters earning nearly six times more than single men. The fighters also received on average a week of vacation each month and funded trips abroad for medical care. Files also revealed that al-Qaida requires its suicide bombers to sign a martyrdom agreement, vowing they willingly accept the mission and will not back out.

View the timeline of Osama bin Laden Terror:

Organizational hierarchy

In the mix of documents is a lengthy draft of al-Qaida's central command. The emir, now Ayman al-Zawahri, sits on top with a deputy emir and a leadership council of five to eight members. Below that are various committees including military, security and foreign relations.

Noman Benotman learned the ins and outs of organizations like al-Qaida as the former leader of the al-Qaida-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

“It's a normal structure for any single jihad group. Al-Qaida's just a copycat," said Benotman. He has since denounced the extremist ideology and challenges his former ways as a senior analyst at the British policy and research group, Quilliam.  

Benotman said organization is so important to a group’s survival that seminars are held on the topic for aspiring leaders of jihad.  "They believe in changing regimes through violence. So in a sense, they are revolutionary groups. So that said, you have to build a very good structure," he said.

Noman Benotman talks about his experience with Osama bin Laden in the early days of al-Qaida:



Central Control

Bin Laden’s charisma helped attract recruits from around the world.  But Jarret Brachman, the author of the book, Global Jihadism, said bin Laden never intended to create the broad-based network al-Qaida has become.

“For bin Laden, al-Qaida was always meant to be an elite, exclusive club. It was the vanguard organization that would differentiate itself from the broader, Muslim world,” he said. “I think it became, though, really the selfish creation of several individual men who wanted a cult personality and needed that external affirmation.”

But to maintain its popularity, Brachman said the core group had to “pretend to be an inclusive, broad-based organization.”

Former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Noman Benotman, talks about Osama bin Laden as a leader:

Recruiting

Hoffman said before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the group could draft recruits without many restrictions. "Al-Qaida pretty much had an open hand in recruitment because few people appreciated the threat they posed,” he said.

Experts estimate that during the 1990s, al-Qaida's training camps saw thousands of recruits. But Hoffman said that changed when al-Qaida made a name for itself by flying planes into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington.  Attacks that spurred the U.S. war in Afghanistan, where bin Laden was believed to be hiding.

"Obviously after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and the fighting throughout 2002, training became much more problematical,” said Hoffman. “Not least because al-Qaida had in essence created a state within a state in Afghanistan.  And the numbers, I think, dramatically fell to the hundreds, if not the scores or even the tens.” Since then, Hoffman said, training has been limited to smaller and much more modest training camps.

But al-Qaida has not let that limit it. Jarret Brachman, author of Global Jihadism, said around the same time, the group learned to embrace the power of the Internet. 

"For a long time, al-Qaida just viewed the Internet more as a library, a place where they could just kind of host their eulogies, their documents,” said Brachman.  “But then early 2000s, they began to realize that this was an online community where people would come and interact with each other and radicalize one another and potentially even self-radicalize."

Somali's are trained how to handle assault rifles at the Arbiska training camp just outside the Somali capital, Mogadishu (2006 file photo)
Somali's are trained how to handle assault rifles at the Arbiska training camp just outside the Somali capital, Mogadishu (2006 file photo)

Al-Qaida posts recruitment videos on the Web. And last year, al-Qaida in Yemen launched an online magazine called Inspire, gaining the most attention for the article, Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.

Don Rassler, an associate at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, said the Internet helps make al-Qaida accessible even to those who do not pledge their allegiance.  He noted one video of a Pakistani-Dane terrorist mixing explosives in his Copenhagen apartment.

"At least for someone like Hamad Khurshid, watching these videos helped to indoctrinate him, and to motivate him to want to act and to seek training, to link up with al-Qaida, and to come back after that experience to prepare for an attack,” said Rassler.

After bin Laden’s death, al-Qaida released a video of Zawahri calling on operatives to attack the West from wherever they are in the world. But even with a strong media campaign flooding the Internet, Zawahri does not have the same appeal to al-Qaida’s followers as bin Laden did.

Leah Farrall, author of All Things Counter Terrorism blog, discusses Zawahri's leadersip:

Fawaz Gerges, the director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, said Zawahri is a divisive figure.  

“The selection of Ayman al-Zawahri will likely bring about major defections within al-Qaida because he is not seen, he not on the same level in terms of unification,” said Gerges.  “He does not garner the same respect that Osama bin Laden did.”

Will Zawahri bring change?

With Zawahri now on top, Leah Farrall, a former Australian senior counter terrorism intelligence analyst and author of the All Things Counter Terrorism blog, said it is unlikely there will be any short term structural changes for al-Qaida. But she said if there is change, it would make the group more vulnerable.

“The rules and regulations that govern how the organization functions become more important if the people in that position are shuffling through more quickly,” said Farrall.  “So that’s one thing to bear in mind.  And the other thing, too, is it obviously works.”

But even the best laid plans can be disrupted by unforeseen events. Events like the seizure of bin Laden's hard drives and papers, which could aid counterterrorism efforts.

Fawaz Gerges, Director of the Middle East Center at LSA, talks about the crises al-Qaida faces:

Whatever the future maybe, al-Qaida faces challenges beyond that of getting used to a new leader. Gerges said the group is also grappling with financial issues as well as the existential threat of the Arab Spring, the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Al-Qaida also faces the threat of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, seemingly rejuvenated by the death of bin Laden and the troves of secrets taken from his compound. Still, analyst Bruce Hoffman said al-Qaida's corporate structure will help keep the group in business.

You May Like

Photogallery Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving With Feasts, Festivities

Holiday traditions include turkey dinners, 'turkey trots,' American-style football and New York parade with giant balloons More

Video For Obama, Ferguson Violence is a Personal Issue

With two years left in term, analysts say, president has less to lose by taking conversation on race further More

Video Italian Espresso Expands Into Space

When Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti headed for the ISS, her countrymen worried how she would survive six months drinking only instant coffee More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Community Kicks Off Thanksgiving With Paradei
X
Anush Avetisyan
November 26, 2014 10:57 PM
Thursday is Thanksgiving in the United States, a holiday whose roots go back to the country's earliest days as a British colony. One way Americans celebrate the occasion is with parades. Anush Avetisyan takes us to one such event on the day before Thanksgiving near Washington, where a community's diversity is on display. Joy Wagner narrates
Video

Video US Community Kicks Off Thanksgiving With Parade

Thursday is Thanksgiving in the United States, a holiday whose roots go back to the country's earliest days as a British colony. One way Americans celebrate the occasion is with parades. Anush Avetisyan takes us to one such event on the day before Thanksgiving near Washington, where a community's diversity is on display. Joy Wagner narrates
Video

Video For Obama, Ferguson Violence is a Personal Issue

Throughout the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, President Barack Obama has urged calm, restraint and respect for the rule of law. But the events in Ferguson have prompted him to call — more openly than he has before — for profound changes to end the racism and distrust that he believes still exists between whites and blacks in the United States. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Online Magazine Gets Kids Discussing Big Questions

Teen culture in America is often criticized for being superficial. But an online magazine has been encouraging some teenagers to explore deeper issues, and rewarding their efforts. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky went to this year’s Kidspirit awards ceremony in New York.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid