A Human Resources History of Al Qaeda

The terrorists have an "excellent" benefits package, plenty of management headaches

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The search of Osama bin Laden's Pakistani compound has turned up more than porn and evidence that the al-Qaeda leader used a thumb drive-toting courier to send e-mails. Today, NPR tells us that the seized documents also confirm that bin Laden, who received an undergraduate degree in economics and public administration, ran his sprawling al-Qaeda network like a multinational corporation. Fighters, for example, had to submit receipts for everything from car rentals to floppy disks (it's unclear if bin Laden required manager's approval) and enjoyed "excellent HR benefits," according to records uncovered in 2001. Married al-Qaeda members earned a salary of $108 a month (more if they had multiple wives) and could take seven days of vacation for every three weeks of work, while bachelors received a smaller salary and got five vacation days per month.

Before we nominate al-Qaeda as one of the best places to work, however, it's worth asking: Were al-Qaeda's benefits really that great? NPR itself concedes that it's unclear whether the cash-strapped, internationally squeezed organization is as generous an employer as it once was. The historical record suggests there are other reasons to be skeptical as well:

  • Bureaucracy: A 2006 West Point study of al-Qaeda revealed that operatives had to request vacation a healthy 10 weeks in advance. According to CNN, the researchers also learned that al-Qaeda members received 15 sick days per year, and that al-Qaeda's "corporate culture" featured the "same inherent personality conflicts, intra-organizational disputes and arguments over allocating resources of any corporation."
  • Health Benefits: In 2010, bin Laden's former pilot testified that he left al-Qaeda after the group refused to pay his pregnant wife's medical bills. At an earlier trial in 2001, he said he approached al-Qaeda about covering the expense after learning that his wife was begging on the streets to pay for her $500 c-section at a Sudanese hospital. The New York Times also reported last year that members of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia were stealing blood for wounded fighters from Iraqi blood banks and hospitals to avoid the risk of sending those fighters to medical facilities. One al-Qaeda member told the Times that the insurgents had also established their own clinics staffed by doctors and nurses.
  • Workplace Discrimination: After the al-Qaeda-linked Somali group al-Shabaab (pictured above) claimed responsibility for bombings in Uganda last year, the White House argued that al-Qaeda was racist. "Al-Qaeda leadership specifically targets and recruits black Africans to become suicide bombers because they believe that poor economic and social conditions make them more susceptible to recruitment than Arabs," an administration official told ABC News. "Al-Qaeda is a racist organization that treats black Africans like cannon fodder and does not value human life."

When al-Qaeda first set up shop in the late 1980s, however, it appears to have devoted more resources to recruitment and retention. In The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, The New Yorker's Lawrence Wright explains how new recruits, in return for filling out forms in triplicate and pledging secrecy and loyalty to bin Laden, received salaries of $1,000-$1,500 per month, a round-trip ticket home each year, a month of vacation, a health-care plan, and a buyout option of $2,400. "From the beginning," Wright wrote, "al-Qaeda presented itself as an attractive employment opportunity for men whose education and careers had been curtailed by jihad."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.