The Business Habits of Highly Effective Terrorists

Why Terror Masterminds Rely on Micro-Management

Al Qaeda's second-in-command speaks from an unknown location.
Al Qaeda's second-in-command speaks from an unknown location in this still image taken from video uploaded on a social media website, June 8, 2011. (Courtesy Reuters)

In addition to being a ruthless jihadist, Ayman al-Zawahiri long ago earned a reputation for being a terrible boss. When he took over al Qaeda in 2011, senior U.S. intelligence officials were already pointing out his penchant for micro-management. (In one instance in the 1990s, he reached out to operatives in Yemen to castigate them for buying a new fax machine when their old one was working just fine.) Reports that last week’s terror alert was triggered when Zawahiri reached out to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, his second-in-command and the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- a communication that Washington predictably managed to intercept -- only hardened the impression that he lacks the savvy to run a global terror organization. 

But few of Zawahiri’s many critics have paused to consider what the task of leading a terror organization actually entails. It is true that Zawahiri’s management style has made his organization vulnerable to foreign intelligence agencies and provoked disgruntlement among the terrorist rank and file, not to mention drawing last week’s drone strikes. But it is equally true that Zawahiri had few other options.

Given that terrorists are, by definition, engaged in criminal activity, you would think that they would place a premium on secrecy. But historically, many terrorist groups have been meticulous record keepers. Members of the Red Brigades, an Italian terrorist group active in the 1970s and early 1980s, report having spent more time accounting for their activities than actually training or preparing attacks. From 2005 through at least 2010, senior leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq kept spreadsheets detailing salary payments to hundreds of fighters, among many other forms of written records. And when the former military al Qaeda military commander Mohammed Atef had a dispute with Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, an explosives expert for the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, in the 1990s, one of his complaints was that Umar failed to turn in his receipts for a trip he took with his family. 

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