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Al Qaeda's Innovative Middle Managers

Fighting terrorism requires more than targeting leaders

AFP/Getty Images

Editor’s Note:  Terrorist groups typically rely on tried and true tactics such as shootings, bombings, and of course suicide attacks. These and a handful of other methods represent the vast majority of terrorist attacks as many groups are loath to risk failure by trying something new. Because defenses focus on foiling these tactics, innovation can be tremendously effective, allowing a terrorist group to kill more people, grab headlines around the world, or otherwise advance its cause. Assaf Moghadam, an associate professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, and one of the premier scholars on Al Qaeda, explores these exceptions in his post below, identifying sources of innovation and offering suggestions on how to better counter it. 

Terrorist groups are not created equal. Many of the most notorious and effective terrorist groups in history have stood out in their ability to innovate. This ability is a known hallmark of Al Qaeda, whose brazen attacks on 9/11 were the first successfully executed operations involving the hijacking of multiple aircraft that were crashed into targets on the ground.

But how do terrorist groups actually innovate? The meager literature on the subject suggests that innovation in terrorist groups is exclusively a top-down phenomenon: a process driven by the senior leadership of the organization. Scholars cite the key role played by Shoko Asahara in pushing Aum Shinrikyo’s development of nerve gas and point to Brazilian revolutionary Carlos Marighela’s central role in devising the strategy of diplomatic kidnapping. Wadie Haddad’s influence on the adoption of airline hijacking by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is considered critical, as is Ahmed Jibril’s role in pushing development of a number of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command’s innovative tactics, including the adoption of barometric pressure devices used to detonate aircraft and using motorized hang-gliders to penetrate enemy territory.

Neglected but vital are “bottom-up” processes of terrorist innovation, i.e., the role that middle managers and other subordinates play in the generation and implementation of innovative ideas. What makes this neglect all the more surprising is that the far more developed body of literature on military innovation has long recognized that innovation in the armed forces can originate both from the top of the military and/or civilian hierarchy as well as from units on the ground forced to improvise in the midst of battle. For example, recent counterinsurgency campaigns in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces in Iraq displayed multiple signs of bottom-up innovation that had the overall effect of strengthening the core competencies of the counterinsurgency forces. These bottom-up innovations included the adoption of new digital technologies; novel organizational models that streamlined the exchange of information; and innovative learning methods. Theo Farrell described similar bottom-up innovation processes developed in the course of British counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

To determine whether bottom-up processes do in fact play a role in terrorist innovation, I conducted an in-depth examination of the innovation processes behind the attacks of September 11, 2001. Published in a recent issue of ­the journal Security Studies, my findings show that the 9/11 attacks bore multi-directional drivers of innovation. One of the most prominent top-down drivers was the leadership acumen of then-Al Qaeda emir Osama bin Laden, who approved and funded the operation, selected members of the team, and maintained a singular focus on carrying out the operation despite mounting objections from fellow Al Qaeda members and the group’s Taliban hosts alike. Bin Laden displayed a remarkable level of pragmatism that turned a megalomaniacal vision into a feasible plan. Organizational factors, such as goals, strategy, and ideology, are another area of top-down innovation.  These elements help explain why the United States in particular was attacked; why the group selected highly symbolic targets such as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; and why it strove to maximize the killing of civilians using shocking delivery methods. Al Qaeda’s obsession with martyrdom operations and with targeting the airline industry propelled Al Qaeda’s decision to conduct suicide operations in which four airliners were transformed into massive incendiary devices.

But the most fatal terrorist strike on the United States would have never occurred were it not also for innovation driven from the bottom up. For years, 9/11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Muhammad (KSM) and his nephew Ramzi Youssef worked on refining their plans for spectacular and innovative strikes against multiple airliners. The pair conducted various trials to improve their technique, even setting off a test device on one aircraft, killing a Japanese passenger in the process. The fact that KSM was not even a formal member of Al Qaeda when he concocted the so-called “Bojinka plot”—or when he first approached Al Qaeda about the “planes operation” that would become the 9/11 attacks—underscores the bottom-up nature of this process.

However, my study also questions the validity of the parsimonious classification of innovation drivers into top-down and bottom-up processes of innovation. As the 9/11 case study reveals, at least two processes critical for the preparation of the 9/11 attacks were co-dependent upon both top-down and bottom-up forces. They are best understood as “integrative” drivers of innovation.

Al Qaeda’s receptivity to innovative ideas for terrorist strikes was both vital and unusual for a terrorist group. Bin Laden’s willingness to receive proposals for terrorist attacks—an early form of terrorist crowdsourcing—enabled KSM to approach bin Laden with his proposal for a “planes operation” in the first place. What makes this process integrative is that the philosophy of seeking out proposals for terrorist strikes was devised from the top down, but its success was conditional upon individuals approaching Al Qaeda from the bottom with innovative and feasible proposals. In other words, while Al Qaeda’s organizational principle was erected from the top down, its successful implementation was dependent on innovation from the bottom up.

A similar conclusion can be reached regarding Al Qaeda’s philosophy of managing terrorist activity. Known as “centralization of decision and decentralization of execution,” this philosophy is the terrorist equivalent to mission command (Auftragstaktik) in military parlance. According to this principle, the decision to conduct terrorist operations relies on executive decision-making, but its execution is delegated to highly skilled mid- and lower-level operatives—in the case of the 9/11 attacks, these included KSM and field commander and lead hijacker Muhammad Atta. Al Qaeda’s philosophy of managing terrorist activity was a doctrine imposed from the top down. Its successful execution, however, depended on the ability of highly skilled terrorist operatives who were capable of improvising and, if necessary, innovating from the bottom up. It was an integrative driver of innovation, i.e., a mechanism designed to spur innovation that is dependent on both top-down and bottom-up processes in order to generate innovation. Top-down and bottom-up drivers were necessary, but not independently sufficient, in producing innovation.

These findings help identify the center of gravity in terrorist learning. In modern combat, which centers on a “learning competition” between insurgents and counterinsurgents, such insights are critical.

Counterterrorism strategies should focus on containing threats at various levels of the organization, including both the terrorist leadership as well as middle-ranked managers that are the hubs of innovation. The study also underscores the growing importance of independent terrorist entrepreneurs à la KSM, to whom organizational affiliation matters less than the opportunity to inflict grave harm. The fact that these independent terrorist entrepreneurs are less concerned with strict organizational affiliations means that counterterrorism and counterinsurgency professionals need to do more than assemble intelligence on specific terrorist or insurgent groups. A group-focused approach alone runs the risk of failing to identify dangerous and innovative terrorist entrepreneurs active on the margins of established groups or in even more remote areas within the larger universe of terrorist activity. The rise of independent terrorist entrepreneurs—an issue that deserves greater attention than it has received—is a problem that is best addressed through a combination of painstaking intelligence work and international cooperation on such matters as intelligence sharing and extradition laws.

This story was cross-posted at Lawfare. Assaf Moghadam is Associate Professor and Director of the MA Program in Government at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC). He is also Director of Academic Affairs at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at IDC, and a Fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, where he previously served as Director of Terrorism Studies.