Security April 2003

The Leadership Secrets of Osama bin Laden

The terrorist as CEO
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Al Qaeda is clearly weaker than it was at the formal commencement of the war on terrorism, on October 7, 2001. It has been deprived of operational bases and training camps in Afghanistan. Its command-and-control capabilities have been disrupted. Its headquarters have been destroyed. Its leaders and fighters have been forcibly dispersed, and they are now consumed as much by providing for their own security as by planning and executing attacks. Communication and coordination among the disparate parts of al Qaeda's global network are more inconvenient—if not necessarily less effective—than ever before. These setbacks have forced al Qaeda to alter its targeting patterns. Displaced and harried, its operatives must now rely on local groups to carry out their plans and, as a result, have focused on "softer," more accessible targets, in places as diverse as Tunisia, Pakistan, Jordan, Indonesia, Kuwait, the Philippines, Yemen, and Kenya. These have included German, Australian, and Israeli tourists; French engineers and a French oil tanker; and such long-standing targets as U.S. diplomats and servicemen.

But not everything has changed, of course; al Qaeda remains a powerful threat. The organization has continued to use suicide bombing, both at sea and on land, and commercial aviation remains a focus—as was made clear in December of 2001, when the shoe bomber Richard Reid attempted to blow up an American Airlines plane en route from Paris to Miami, and then eleven months later, when a group in Kenya with links to al Qaeda tried to shoot down an Israeli charter flight using a hand-held surface-to-air missile.

Al Qaeda has, in fact, proved to be remarkably nimble and adaptive—and the group's strength derives precisely from its flexibility. The loss of Afghanistan may thus, in the long run, have little effect on al Qaeda's ability to harm us. Some of al Qaeda's biggest plots—among them Ramzi Yousef's 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and his subsequent failed plot to bomb twelve U.S. commercial aircraft over the Pacific—predate the group's strong presence in Afghanistan, which for al Qaeda was important mainly as a base from which to prosecute a conventional civil war against the late Ahmad Shah Massoud's Northern Alliance. This conflict required arms dumps, training camps, staging areas, and networks of forward and rear headquarters—but none of these specific facilities are necessary to an ongoing international terrorism campaign.

Al Qaeda's core leadership is still alive and at large—perhaps only a third of its leaders are now dead or captured. Moreover, the two most important figures in al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, are both widely believed to be alive. Its activities are therefore probably still centralized, and controlled by top leaders, to some degree. Pakistan, for example, remains crucially important in al Qaeda operations today, serving as something of a clearinghouse for operatives and would-be recruits on both the individual and the group level. The process may be less organized and more fractured than it was in Afghanistan, but the looseness of control is not necessarily a liability.

Al Qaeda can still fill its mid-level operational command positions—perhaps in part because of the vast reservoir of fighters and operatives (some 70,000) that the group trained during the 1990s, in camps in Sudan, Yemen, and Afghanistan. But what makes al Qaeda strong is its continuing ability to recruit and mobilize fighters, supporters, and sympathizers worldwide.

Osama bin Laden is perhaps best viewed as a terrorist CEO. He has essentially applied the techniques of business administration and modern management, which he learned both at university and in his family's construction business, to the running of a transnational terrorist organization. In the 1990s he did what the executives of transnational companies did throughout much of the industrialized world—namely, design and implement a flexible new organizational framework and strategy incorporating multiple levels and both top-down and bottom-up approaches. In his top-down mode bin Laden has defined specific goals, issued orders, and ensured that they are carried out. This is generally the way al Qaeda organizes its "spectaculars": high-visibility, usually high-casualty operations such as the September 11 attacks, the bombing of the USS Cole, and the East Africa embassy bombings. But he has also operated as a venture capitalist, soliciting ideas from below, encouraging creative approaches, and funding proposals he finds promising. Unlike many other terrorist organizations, therefore, al Qaeda has no single modus operandi—and it is all the more formidable as a result.

At least four al Qaeda levels of operation can be identified.

1. Professional cadres. This is the most dedicated element of al Qaeda: the people entrusted with the spectaculars. These teams are carefully selected, provided with very specific instructions, and generously funded (during the days preceding the September 11 attacks, for example, Mohammed Atta and his confederates were sending surplus money back to their paymasters in the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere).

2. Trained amateurs. An exemplar of this category is Ahmed Ressam, who was arrested in December of 1999, at Port Angeles, Washington, shortly after entering the United States from Canada with explosive materials in the trunk of his car. Ressam had some background in terrorism, having belonged to Algeria's Armed Islamic Group. After being recruited into al Qaeda he was given a modicum of basic training in Afghanistan. Unlike the professional cadres, however, Ressam was given only open-ended instructions before being dispatched to North America—he and the members of the terrorist cell to which he had been assigned in Afghanistan had themselves decided to attack an airport or foreign consulate in the United States. He received $12,000 in seed money and was expected to raise the rest of his operational funds through petty thievery—by swiping money, credit cards, passports, traveler's checks, and computers from tourists, for example. He was told to recruit members for his terrorist cell from among the Muslim expatriate communities in Canada. Ressam, of course, panicked when he was confronted by a U.S. Customs agent immediately upon entering the United States—a demonstration that he lacked the resolve and presence of mind characteristic of the professional cadres. Nevertheless, as ill-prepared and as inept as the trained amateurs may be (Richard Reid is another example), their ability to succeed once, and thereby to inflict pain and destruction, should not be dismissed.

3. Local walk-ins. These are groups of Islamic radicals who come up with terrorist-attack ideas on their own and then attempt to obtain funding from al Qaeda. One example is the group of Islamic radicals in Jordan who, observing that American and Israeli tourists often stayed at the Radisson in Amman, proposed to attack the hotel on the eve of the millennium. (They received funding from al Qaeda, but were arrested before they could execute their plan.) Another is the cell of Islamic militants who were arrested in Milan in April of 2001, after wiretaps revealed plans to attack American targets in Italy. A more disquieting example, however, is the group of Islamic radicals —associated with but not formally a part of al Qaeda—who plotted to attack the American and Israeli embassies and the British and Australian high commissions in Singapore, along with a subway stop used by U.S. sailors taking shore leave in that city. The Singapore plotters, who were arrested before they could carry out their intentions, spent at least four years planning their attacks, conducting the kind of detailed and meticulous reconnaissance—including extensive videotaping, with detailed voice-over discussions of potential targets—that is emblematic of al Qaeda spectaculars.

4. Like-minded guerrillas and terrorists. This level embraces existing insurgent or terrorist groups that have benefited over the years from either bin Laden's largesse or his spiritual guidance; that have received al Qaeda training in Afghanistan or elsewhere; or that the organization has provided with arms, materiel, and other assistance in order to further the cause of global jihad. Among the recipients of this "revolutionary philanthropy" have been insurgent forces in Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Chechnya, the Philippines, Bosnia, and Kashmir. Such philanthropy is designed not only to harness the energy of geographically scattered, disparate movements but also to ensure that al Qaeda operatives can, in turn, call on these local groups for logistical services and manpower.

Underpinning all of this is bin Laden's vision—a self-perpetuating mythology that he has crafted carefully and communicates skillfully. His message is simple: The United States is a hegemonic power, opposing change and propping up Israel and corrupt and reprobate regimes that would not exist but for American backing. But the United States cannot bear the pain or the losses inflicted by terrorist attacks—as became clear when it withdrew from Lebanon after the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks, and again when it withdrew from Somalia following the deaths of eighteen U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force commandos, in 1993. In bin Laden's view, terrorism against the United States—and allied Western countries—therefore works.

Despite the destruction of the Taliban and the liberation of Afghanistan during this first phase of the war against terrorism, bin Laden very probably still clings to that assessment. In his view, the United States is now more than ever committed to preserving the status quo (in the guise of "global stability") and ensuring the longevity of morally bankrupt regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere. He reasons that the defeat of the Taliban was accomplished mostly by the Northern Alliance, not by the United States. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, bin Laden and his followers probably still regard the United States as a "paper tiger" (a favorite phrase of his) that can be toppled if al Qaeda survives the current onslaught in Afghanistan and elsewhere —which it almost certainly can. For bin Laden and al Qaeda, as for guerrillas and terrorists everywhere, not losing is winning.

The operations of al Qaeda have had a seismic effect on the United States and the entire world; bin Laden is one of few people alive who can claim to have fundamentally changed the course of history. And the epic battle that he has launched is not over yet: the multi-year planning period of all previous al Qaeda spectaculars suggests that some monumental new operation may have been set in motion before September 11. Now, because of the destruction of the Taliban and because of what al Qaeda sees as America's global "war on Islam," the organization's sense of commitment and purpose is surely greater than ever.

Bruce Hoffman is the director of the Rand Corporation's Washington, D.C., office and the author of Inside Terrorism (1999).
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