Monday, February 11, 2008

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There's hope for the war on terror after all

Kevin Whitelaw wrote a fascinating piece in U.S. News and World Report suggesting that Al Qaeda is confronting a more powerful than the United States government: organizational pathology:

More than 600 captured personnel files of foreigners who joined the terrorist group known as Al Qaeda in Iraq tell the individual stories of Muslim extremists who made the difficult journey to Iraq—and most likely died or were captured there....

But the records, which were analyzed and released by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, also point out a trait that has been unique to al Qaeda and many of its offshoots: They are surprisingly bureaucratic. "Al Qaeda is different from any other terror group in history because it was so large and had such a sophisticated logistical structure," says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorist groups who teaches at Georgetown University. "It's a bureaucratic pathology."

The personnel records are unusually formal, typed on letterhead that reads "Islamic State of Iraq," one of the aliases for al Qaeda in Iraq.

Foreign fighters were asked to provide basic biographical details, such as birth date, address, and telephone number, as well as questions aimed at double-checking who referred them to the organization. One Algerian fighter named Aydir describes three coordinators he met in Syria before he was smuggled into Iraq. The first was "tall and strong," the second was "tall and hunchbacked," and the other was "tan and weak."

Part of it is simply about logistics. "When you're moving people across international borders, you want to make sure you're keeping track of them," says Hoffman. "But it is also part of a hubris that this is more of an organization than it actually is and to impress the recruits in this martyrdom pipeline that they really are part of something bigger than they are."....

For intelligence agencies, there are also some potential opportunities to be exploited. Bureaucracy implies a higher level of leadership structure. "The more hierarchical these organizations are, the easier they are to take apart," says Seth Jones, a terrorism expert at Rand Corp., a think tank. "When they become diffuse, you can't really remove one single link and expect the organization to fall."

Already, researchers have been trying to trace back the telephone numbers included in the records, as well as the names of intermediaries in Syria. "Just the fact that they had these records was a big security risk," says Felter. "We're hoping it will be useful in stemming the tide from their home countries." ....

After U.S. forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, a trove of al Qaeda documents surfaced that showed just how bureaucratic the organization had become, from detailed weapons logs to a complex system of vouchers that allowed fighters to stay at government-run hotels free of charge. "When they were in Afghanistan, al Qaeda really prided itself on its H.R.," says Hoffman. "It gave people annual leave and even a death benefits plan."

Here's a link to a longer analysis of the recovered documents.

UPDATE: Over at The Monkey Cage, Henry Farrell suggests that post-2002, Al Qaeda "traded operational control and financial efficiencies for security and organizational survival" as one research article puts it. This was my sense of the literature as well, which was why I found Whitelaw's story so intriguing. It should be noted, however, that this is not necessaarily inconsistent with the above report -- which is about Al Qaeda in Iraq's organization at the national level. From an anti-terrorism perspective, the best outcome might very well be decentralization at the international level but bureaucratization at the national level.

posted by Dan on 02.11.08 at 08:49 AM


Is the moral here that we are supposed to be relieved that al Qaeda is organizationally sophisticated and actually keeps track of where their weapons are?

Killing the #3 ranking officer every time he respawns doesn't seem to be helping us much.

posted by: Arr-squared on 02.11.08 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

This is hardly surprising. Al-Qaeda has been bureaucratic since its inception. The very name al-qaeda is a shortened form of the term for "database" in Arabic.

posted by: priscianus jr on 02.11.08 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

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