The Five Habits of Highly Effective Terrorist Organizations

Management lessons for al Qaeda’s new boss.

On paper, Egyptian jihadist Ayman al-Zawahiri, who just formally filled Osama bin Ladin's shoes as al Qaeda's emir, seems a perfect replacement for the late Saudi terrorist. Zawahiri formed his own terrorist group as a teenager, and ever since he has fought autocratic Muslim regimes and the United States with both tenacity and intelligence. As bin Ladin's number two, he learned at the feet of the master, and by some accounts taught his boss much of what he knew about how to run an underground organization.

But whereas bin Laden was an inspirational organizer who helped unify jihadists as he created and grew al Qaeda, the general consensus is that Zawahiri is banal, divisive, and in most ways a lesser leader. U.S. officials greeted the announcement with scorn. One senior counterterrorism official declared that Zawahiri had not "demonstrated strong leadership or organizational skills" and that "alienation and dissention" is likely to plague the terrorist group.

Let's hope the predictions are true. But, as former GE CEO Jack Welch once wrote, "An organization's ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage." And al Qaeda, for all its faults, is a learning organization. But does Zawahiri have the chops to lead and transform the ailing terrorist network? If he can learn from the organization's past mistakes, he could make al Qaeda even more formidable than it was under bin Ladin.

In the spirit, then, of the Harvard Business School extension campus in Waziristan, here are five lessons that Zawahiri and other terrorist groups often fail to heed.

Lesson One: Put People First

In the canon of management advice, emphasizing an organization's people is perhaps the most common. Many organizations repeat this mantra without really understanding it and in practice honor it only in the breach. Terrorist groups, which eagerly sacrifice some of their best to war and suicide bombings, may seem an exception -- but they are not. Many terrorist groups collapse in their first year (not unlike fusion restaurants and literary journals), and stories abound of would-be suicide bombers blowing themselves and their buddies up with prematurely detonated homemade bombs. At times, the results are more comical than frightening. In 2007, a car that terrorists had rigged to blow up near a London nightclub was towed because it was parked illegally.

Picking the right people -- and training and educating them -- is as necessary for a terrorist group as it is for a top corporation. Al Qaeda has relatively few Mohammad Attas, the steely 9/11 leader who saw that plot through to its deadly fruition. Good organizations must attract smart people and then train them for violence, both of which are difficult.

Lesson Two: Smaller Can Be Beautiful

As leader of the most deadly terrorist group in history, it will be a temptation to try to expand its numbers endlessly. And, indeed, al Qaeda's recent franchises in Yemen, the Maghreb, Iraq, and elsewhere are good moves for the organization. Too much expansion, however, can backfire: take a look at Starbucks. Getting too big makes getting and training the right people (see: Lesson One) harder. Equally important, big organizations often lose their sense of mission. Local jihadists can help the fight, but they also have their own agendas. This may drag al Qaeda into local disputes it would rather avoid. Even more important, local jihadists can tar al Qaeda with their brush when they mess up. Which leads to …

Lesson Three: One Bad Operation Can Undo Ten Good Ones

"Terrorism," as the American analyst Brian Jenkins remarked many years ago, "is theater." The show terrorists put on, however, can alienate as well as impress. In Saudi Arabia, the al Qaeda franchise initially slaughtered Muslim civilians as well as Westerners. That's bad for business. They learned their lesson and became more focused in their attacks, but their early mistakes enabled the regime to paint the jihadists as murderous thugs, not holy warriors. The Saudi people turned against them after these strikes.

The American military has a concept called the "strategic corporal" -- in American wars, even a low-level soldier can, through a mishap, cause a disaster that, magnified by the media, discredits an entire operation. Terrorists have a different audience, but they too have a sense of what is right and wrong, and terrorists forget that at their peril.

Lesson Four: Exploit Openings, Don't Force Them

In addition to fomenting an uprising in Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda groups have tried to create an Islamic state in Iraq -- and are now attempting to do the same in Yemen and Pakistan. They have done better, however, when they work with the locals rather than try to impose their will on them. Often, al Qaeda fighters are welcomed for their experience, weapons, money, and the training they provide -- not their broader agenda of creating a caliphate. When al Qaeda imposes its puritanical teachings and brutal ways, the locals turn against them, as happened in Iraq.

Over time, however, foreign jihadists can change the local cause. Their sacrifices, and the education and teaching efforts they provide, can give local fighters a more jihadist and international agenda. And war itself, with its slaughter and brutality, can radicalize fighters. Time can be a terrorist's friend.

Lesson Five: Trust Is Not Virtual

The amazing spread of information technology makes it tempting to try to recruit, fundraise, and even train via the Internet. Some of this, of course, can be done, and one of al Qaeda's greatest successes since 9/11 is the expansion of its media operations. But online, no one knows if you're a dog. A lack of face-to-face contact is a nightmare for operational security, and even when Western spies are not virtually present an Internet chat room (or hacking Inspire magazine with cupcake recipes), it's no substitute for the bonding that years of fighting and sacrifice create. Al Qaeda needs the training camps in Pakistan and elsewhere: such bases made it formidable in the past, and their continuance today keeps the organization dangerous. So Zawahiri shouldn't count on Anwar al-Awliki to save him.

This list, while done with tongue firmly in cheek, does have some value for U.S. counterterrorism officials. As the above lessons suggest, al Qaeda is an organization prone to divisions, and Zawahiri will have his hands full keeping it even semi-unified in this time of crisis. Efforts like the drone campaign in Pakistan are vital because they kill skilled leaders, which are in short supply these days. U.S. information operations must take advantage of al Qaeda's blunders, making the terrorists defend their mistakes rather than gloat about their successes. And if the United States and its allies can decrease the number and scope of terrorist havens, it will be harder for them to form the in-person bonds they need to trust one another.

With bin Laden now resting on the floor of the Arabian Sea and what seems to be a lesser leader at the helm, keeping an eye on what makes organizations tick will help the United States make life for al Qaeda's new boss even harder.

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Saudi Arabia's No Good, Very Bad Year

Riyadh's royals are having a rough time.

Saudi Arabia -- the spiritual center of the Islamic world, the world's leading oil exporter, and the leader of the Arab world -- is used to being the center of attention. But this year will be remembered as the moment when the world finally looked elsewhere for leadership.

It's hard to imagine a more disastrous year for Saudi foreign policy. In January, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled from riotous mobs to exile in the Saudi port city of Jeddah. Now the new regime in Tunis wants him back to put him on trial. In February, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime Saudi ally, was forced from office. In the space of days, Washington went from words of support for Mubarak to saying it was time to go. Then in March, after Bahrain looked as if it may concede the principle of a government ruled through the will of the people, Saudi riot-control forces backed by tanks poured across the causeway to the island.

In Riyadh and other Gulf Arab capitals, princes and sheikhs were left wondering how solid U.S. support would be for them. Last month, they got their answer, when President Barack Obama slammed Bahrain for its handling of demonstrations in his major May 19 foreign-policy address on the Middle East. To emphasize the point, when the island kingdom's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, visited Washington this month, his meeting with Obama was reduced to a "drop-by," and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn't extend the courtesy of a joint press conference after their meeting.

Even Saudi dominance of international oil markets, by virtue of the country's leadership within OPEC, is under threat. Last week's gathering of OPEC oil ministers in Vienna ended in discord, with Saudi representative Ali al-Naimi describing it as "one of the worst meetings we have ever had." Naimi had, a little late perhaps, been leading a ploy to increase production quotas in order to ease high oil prices, which have been threatening the world's economic recovery. But Iran led a bloc of OPEC members that disagreed, preferring high revenues. It's not clear who has whom over a barrel -- but the Saudi response is predicted to be a unilateral increase in production. This might help U.S. gas prices, but it means that Saudi Arabia will "go it alone" instead of exhibiting world energy leadership.

Meanwhile, with 88-year-old King Abdullah and other senior princes in wheelchairs or hobbling around on sticks, Saudi palaces could be mistaken for luxurious old-age homes. Crown Prince Sultan, 87, is just a smiling shadow of his former self and may be heading back to New York City for more cancer treatment. Prince Nayef, 78, and third in line for the throne, has just returned from more than a month away in Switzerland, believed to be for medical reasons. Somewhere in the background is Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was most recently trying to recruit Muslim mercenaries from Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia to defend the kingdom and the more vulnerable members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The Saudi-led plan to expand the GCC -- a motley collection of sheikhdoms that also includes Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman -- also smacks of desperation. Eschewing the democratic trends of the Arab Spring, the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco were reported last month to be under consideration to join the club. King Abdullah had apparently received a letter from King Abdullah II of Jordan requesting membership and, thinking it sounded like a good idea, declared it a reality. Yet the first Morocco knew of it, according to a Gulf minister, was when its foreign minister was telephoned by his UAE counterpart.

If the GCC expansion is a Saudi project to bolster monarchies and reassert leadership over an Arab world that seems rudderless, it is surely not yet working. This week, the Jordanian king's motorcade was attacked with stones and bottles as it passed through a town in the southern part of the country. More importantly, the Saudi monarch can't seem to decide whether the end of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to whom he is related by marriage, would mark a strategic defeat for Iran, its archenemy, or would be the next domino to fall in a line that eventually leads to his own kingdom.

Matters have only been made worse for Saudi Arabia by the arrival of the houseguest from hell, Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh. After weeks of trying to secure his departure from Sanaa, a mysterious explosion in the mosque of Saleh's presidential palace prompted the rapid medical evacuation of a badly injured Saleh and half of his cabinet to hospital beds in Riyadh. The Saudis like to meddle in Sanaa, but they don't like Yemen's troubles coming to Riyadh. And Yemen's rapid descent into chaos is liable to increase al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's room to operate in the country, with potentially destabilizing consequences for Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, across the waters of the Gulf, Iran looms menacingly -- a strategic competitor in both regional and religious terms. Saudi Arabia's leadership has seen no reason to revise its firmly held suspicions, often supported by fact, that Tehran is a force for mischief and subversion in the region and aspires to nuclear weapon status as well. Iran's leadership of the Shiite world is as central to its identity as Saudi Arabia's role in the more populous Sunni community. In a game timed in terms of centuries, Riyadh is increasingly worried that Tehran has control of the ball and has taken the play into its rival's territory.

And then there's the Israel-Palestine mess. Prince Turki al-Faisal -- who is celebrated in the U.S. media for being the former intelligence chief and former ambassador to Washington, though he was fired from the first job and sidelined from the second -- recently waded into this dire situation. In a Washington Post op-ed on June 12, he beat the drum for the Palestinians, writing, "U.S. domestic politics and Israeli intransigence cannot be allowed to stand in the way of Palestinians' right to a future with a decent quality of life and opportunities similar to those living in unoccupied countries." Saudi Arabia, he declared, would use its "considerable diplomatic might" to support the Palestinians' bid for international recognition at the United Nations in September.

As Saudi Arabia's political world crumbles around it, Prince Turki's focus on the Palestinian issue is likely an attempt to seize on the one remaining lever of power available to the kingdom. But Turki, "a man of little charm" according to a June 15 Washington Post op-ed, was really beating the drum of his father, King Faisal, who enjoys a stature in Saudi Arabia that his son will never match. "My greatest wish before I die is to pray in Jerusalem," the late king said in 1974 (never mind that he never bothered to pray there in the years when Jordan controlled the Old City before 1967).

In his column, Turki reminded the world of the so-called 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which offered peace to Israel in return for total withdrawal from occupied Palestinian and Syrian territories, including East Jerusalem, and a mutually agreed solution of the refugee issue. Although often seen as a deliberate ploy to distract world attention from Saudi involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the proposal also suffered from Saudi reluctance to follow through on its diplomatic initiative. But especially compared with the muddle of today, it may be remembered as the pinnacle of Saudi foreign policy.  

Diplomats often describe their role as searching for the pulse of the countries that they visit. But when it comes to the gerontocracy that is Riyadh, that maxim contains another grim, underlying truth.

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