Al-Qaeda's Middle-Manager Problem

Recent U.S. airstrikes have targeted leaders in two separate al-Qaeda affiliates. Their biographies help illuminate the terrorist group’s organizational model—and its weaknesses.

The flag of a local al-Qaeda affiliate painted on a hill in Yemen (Mohamed al-Sayaghi / Reuters)

Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, is now the second major jihadist figure since the weekend to be reported killed. News of his death in a Friday airstrike in Yemen surfaced on Monday, following weekend airstrikes in Libya that reportedly killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian terrorist affiliated with al-Qaeda in North Africa. U.S. officials have confirmed Wuhayshi’s death but not that of Belmokhtar, who has been falsely reported killed several times in the past.

The two men, and the power they wielded in their local domains far from al-Qaeda’s original base in South Asia, embody the strengths and weaknesses of the group’s organizational model of relying on partially autonomous local franchises to carry out operations. The result can be deadly creativity and innovation as in Yemen, whose local affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has been described by U.S. officials as al-Qaeda’s most dangerous branch, and which is known for its sophisticated bomb-making. Or the result can be infighting and factionalism as in the group’s North African affiliate al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Belmokhtar’s smuggling and kidnapping operations helped establish AQIM as al-Qaeda’s wealthiest branch by 2012, but the affiliate split over management disputes later that year.

How al-Qaeda’s franchises behave can come down to people like Wuhayshi and Belmokhtar. Wuhayshi, who in 2009 announced the merger of al-Qaeda’s Saudi and Yemeni branches into the unified al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, rose in the central hierarchy to be appointed al-Qaeda’s “general manager” in 2013, a job that involved coordination and communication among the group’s far-flung affiliates. Belmokhtar, by contrast, appears to have been more of a problem employee—a bureaucratic infighter who chafed at authority and quit when challenged. In an October 2012 letter found in Mali by Rukmini Callimachi, then of the Associated Press, AQIM’s leaders said Belmokhtar ignored management’s phone calls, failed to turn in expense reports, and skipped meetings. “The employee,” Callimachi wrote, “responded the way talented employees with bruised egos have in corporations the world over: He quit and formed his own competing group.”

It was through that new organization that Belmokhtar achieved a new level of international infamy in January 2013 when he claimed responsibility for one of the largest hostage-taking operations in history, at a gas plant near In Amenas, Algeria. His fighters held hundreds of foreign and local workers for four days; 38 of them died. In a video message claiming responsibility for the In Amenas attack on behalf of his new group, “Those Who Sign in Blood,” he said, “We did it for al-Qaeda.” As Callimachi pointed out on Twitter Sunday night, Belmokhtar—who named his son after Osama bin Laden—went out of his way to emphasize his loyalty to al-Qaeda central, repeatedly pledging fealty to leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Apparently, he just didn’t want to deal with the local middle management.

Belmokhtar’s story demonstrates that a split organization doesn’t necessarily mean a weakened or less violent one. Indeed, it was another problem al-Qaeda employee who helped develop and spread the brutal tactics that have since become a hallmark of ISIS, the al-Qaeda affiliate turned competitor. The savagery of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who led al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) until his death in 2006, was famously chided by al-Qaeda’s now-leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, then Osama bin Laden’s deputy, who urged him to restrain himself. ISIS, the successor of AQI, also emerged from what in essence was another management dispute, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of what was then the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), attempted to absorb al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Zawahiri told him he couldn’t; Baghdadi struck out on his own. That was in 2013. A year later, his new organization swept into the Iraqi city of Mosul and declared itself a caliphate. The organization is now openly fighting al-Qaeda affiliates across multiple fronts, including in Syria and Libya.

America’s success in killing al-Qaeda leaders has the potential to reproduce these kinds of disputes as successors compete for position within the local affiliate and the larger organization. The United States has more than once killed leaders of al-Qaeda’s Somali affiliate, al-Shabab, which has continued to stage spectacular attacks—achieving its highest death toll yet in an attack on Kenya’s Garissa University College this year that killed 147 people. AQAP itself, which has lost several senior leaders in addition to Wuhayshi this year, has at the same time expanded the territory it holds in Yemen.

If al-Qaeda has indeed lost two loyal operatives in recent days, that will likely further inhibit Zawahiri’s ability to influence al-Qaeda affiliates at the local level. But it’s precisely the local power of those franchises that will determine whether or not that’s a good thing for the United States.