In the latest revelation from the documents seized at Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, the AP is reporting today that bin Laden considered changing al-Qaeda's name to something that would remind Muslims that they were in a holy war with the U.S., since the shortening of his group's full name--al-Qaeda al-Jihad (the Base of Holy War)--was allowing the West to "claim deceptively that they are not at war with Islam." Bin Laden, who also worried that al-Qaeda's image had been tarnished by attacks that killed Muslims, apparently considered alternatives like Taifat al-Tawhed Wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad Group) and Jama'at I'Adat al-Khilafat al-Rashida (Restoration of the Caliphate Group).
The news is fascinating, but equally interesting is the fact that the AP chose to report it in the language of the private sector. Bin Laden, the AP writes, believed al-Qaeda was "suffering from a marketing problem" and the West was "winning the public relations fight." The article continues:
Faced with these challenges, bin Laden, who hated the United States and decried capitalism, considered a most American of business strategies. Like Blackwater, ValuJet and Philip Morris, perhaps what al-Qaida really needed was a fresh start under a new name ... The documents portray bin Laden as a terrorist chief executive, struggling to sell holy war for a company in crisis.
In fact, casting bin Laden as the chief executive of a corporation has actually become quite popular since the U.S. raid on his compound (we're no exception). In an article on bin Laden's obsession with record-keeping in May, NPR discussed al-Qaeda's "corporate structure," noting how fighters enjoyed "excellent HR benefits" but had to submit receipts for even the most trivial expenses (terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman even likened the group to a "multinational"). Earlier this month, the AP asserted that communications between al-Qaeda's leaders read "like an email chain" rife with "office politics" like "back-stabbing" and struggles to capture the "boss' attention"--a description that had The Daily Mail making references to The Office. Middle East expert Daniel Byman, citing former GE CEO Jack Welch, has characterized al-Qaeda as a "learning organization," while The Telegraph, citing Western officials, has portrayed bin Laden as a "ranting chief executive" and micromanager leading a "bureaucratic" and "hierarchical" organization. Voice of America, drawing on documents seized by the U.S. before the bin Laden raid, goes into even greater depth:
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.
So what explains all the corporate analogies? Perhaps news outlets are trying to describe al-Qaeda in terms they and their readers understand and identify with. Or perhaps al-Qaeda really doesn't function like a typical terrorist organization. Bin Laden, after all, received an undergraduate degree in economics and public administration and worked for his Saudi family's multi-billion dollar construction company. As The New Yorker's Lawrence Wright explains in The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, "In the same way that he ran multiple businesses under a single corporate tent, bin Laden sought to merge all Islamic terrorist groups into one multinational consortium, with common training and economies of scale and departments devoted to everything from personnel to policy-making."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.