Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The organisational economics of Al Qaeda

Craig Pirrong at the Streetwise Professor blog writes of the organisational structure of Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden:
There is a concerted effort underway to portray Bin Laden as exerting operational control over Al Qaeda, based on material collected during the raid on his compound. Color me skeptical.

First, it’s hard to imagine how he could exercise any control at anything but the broadest strategic and conceptual level while he was relying on couriers to communicate with subordinates. Second, this hierarchical model is contrary to virtually all that has been written about Al Qaeda going back to its early days: the organization has been consistently portrayed as networked and distributed rather than hierarchical. Indeed, the conventional characterization of Al Qaeda represents it as more of a franchise operation in which the franchisees have considerable autonomy.

But let’s assume for a moment that the organization was hierarchical, and that operational elements required direction and approval from Bin Laden to implement any attack. If that’s true, we may have actually done ourselves a disservice by killing Osama. For it would be almost trivially simple to get inside AQ’s OODA (“observe, orient, decide, and act”) loop and disrupt and destroy its operations. Even if we didn’t know what AQ was up to, we could disrupt their plans just by mixing (randomizing) our strategies, by unexpectedly changing up the way we do things. If response to such changes required the locals carrying out missions to report back to OBL via a painfully slow communications system, await a decision, and wait for the decision to be couriered back, they would be unable to do anything serious. In this case, killing OBL would free the locals to be more flexible and responsive–and hence more dangerous. It would permit AQ to become more of a network, less predictable, and more able to adapt to our moves.

Given these difficulties, I find it hard to believe–exceedingly hard–that AQ actually operated this way. Even if OBL wanted to play terrorist mastermind, how could he enforce decisions? Put different, if he was the principal, how could he overcome the agency problems that would bedevil his ability to impose his will on his subordinates?
It is hard to see Al Qaeda as a hierarchical organisation. The people on the ground have the best information about what is going on in their area and thus are the best people to make operational decisions. There is no advantage to in running a top-down organisation where information has to be sent to (and from) Bin Laden, via couriers, to get a decision on what actions to take. When local information is of such importance decentralising decision making just makes sense. Also having decentralised independent operators makes the job of countering Al Qaeda that much harder since taking out one group doesn't effect any other operation. There is not central control mechanism for the U.S. to destroy in an attempt to disrupt Al Qaeda operations.

1 comment:

Peter Metcalfe said...

I think the unspoken assumption is that Osama was an effective plotter. If he plotted ineffectively then there is no contradiction between his authority and Al Qaeda being a diffuse organization.