Streetwise Professor

May 9, 2011

Is it True? and Do We Want it to Be?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 4:15 pm

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?

Which is why I’ll go with my original analysis: that OBL was primarily a symbolic figure, and operationally irrelevant.  No doubt the various minions tried to humor the old man, and to feed his belief that he was in control of the war against the Great Satan.  But there’s an intent to deceive behind the “OBL was in operational control” narrative too.  It is an attempt to make the achievement bigger than it truly is, and perhaps, to justify an Obama pivot on a variety of issues–Afghanistan and the military-law enforcement mix of anti-terror policy come to mind.  It was indeed important, but we would be harming ourselves by exaggerating that importance.

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  1. […] of organizational structure, here’s former O&M guest blogger Craig Pirrong on Al Qaeda: There is a concerted effort underway to portray Bin Laden as exerting operational […]

    Pingback by The Organizational Structure of Al Qaeda « Organizations and Markets — May 9, 2011 @ 4:30 pm

  2. Why do you want to go to both extremes? OBL may not be in operational control, but he may serve as an exchange for ideas (or a library for AQ) in which case, he is not totally irrelevant either.

    Further, this is one issue I think about a lot – control. Are we too obsessed with control? You know the first thing IT did, it reduced the decision-making power at the grass-roots and channelled it upwards. Can we think of organization without “strict” control or loosely controlled? May be in direction but not through micro-management. This was the intent of vision-mission concept that we lost due to swathes of micro-managing bosses.

    Comment by Rahul Deodhar — May 9, 2011 @ 9:45 pm

  3. It reminds me of the operation to take down Yamamoto in WW2. His strategic value to Japan was marginal, but given his prominence in the planning of the treacherous attack of 12/7/1941, nobody was about to pass up the chance of liquidating him.

    Admiral Nagumo would have been a much tougher call. He remains the only admiral in history to lose four aircraft carriers in a day…on two separate occasions. It would have been a mortal shame to have wasted him after the first time.

    Comment by Green as Grass — May 10, 2011 @ 7:38 am

  4. @Rahul–who do you mean by “you”? I was responding to the labored efforts of the administration and its water boys and girls in the media who are trying to paint the OBL liquidation as something bigger than it was. And if he was a library, it’s a damn inefficient one. Hell, Abraham Lincoln walked miles to go to the library–and the journey to and fro between, I don’t know, Yemen, and Abbottabad puts that to shame–esp. considering the need to take a circuitous route to shake potential tails. By the time you get there and back, the information is likely to be stale–that point from the analysis of the OODA loop holds true even under your interpretation. And besides, it’s likely you’d owe overdue fines!

    Re your other point, it’s a big one that is the obsession of a lot of management and org econ types. What’s the right distribution of decision making rights in an organization? How does that vary based on informational considerations? I agree that typically there is too little delegation, but there are complicated considerations here. Overall, however, my main point is that it would be foolish for AQ to try to maintain control given the slow communications. That’s why if it were indeed the case that’s how they were trying to operate (which I find unlikely, and which is inconsistent with the entire literature on how it operates), we would be doing them a favor (and ourselves a disservice) by doing something (killing OBL) that would likely lead them to adopt a more efficient governance mechanism.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 10, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

  5. My limited understanding is that “Al Qaeda” is not a coherent organization. Much of Al Qaeda is as The Professor described it – fairly autonomous cells loosely affiliated with Bin Laden as a figurehead that acts almost exclusively locally in Yemen or Iraq or wherever. But there is a “core” Al Qaeda that directly reported to Bin Landen that attempted to pull off direct attacks in the US. These attacks generally required long term planning, siginificant resources (relatively for AQ), and tended to be “high concept.” That’s a lot different than the brushfire AQ cells that set off some IEDs or shoot AK-47s at local soldiers. If so, while Bin Laden might not have been involved in planning and carrying out the operations, he had to serve some kind of purpose. Since it is that direct attack in the US that we are really concerned about, this has to be disruptive.

    Comment by Chris Durnell — May 10, 2011 @ 5:21 pm

  6. @Professor – I should have used “we” rather than you (which I used in a generic sort of way) Apologize if it came across as accusatory.

    I agree with you about control in AQ. It is definitely not with OBL. That is why OBL is not an information hub (like a telephone exchange or internet switch) – it would be painfully slow if he was. However, it is unlikely that OBL is only symbolic in importance. The reality, I presume, will be somewhere in between.

    Comment by Rahul Deodhar — May 10, 2011 @ 9:13 pm

  7. […] Recomendaciones Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, by Craig Pirrong […]

    Pingback by Recomendaciones « intelib — May 11, 2011 @ 9:08 am

  8. @Rahul–no need to apologize. Just wanted to clarify. Thanks for your comment.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — May 11, 2011 @ 9:36 am

  9. Al Qaeda = Pakistani ISI’s group S, with Saudis providing the cash. But that is the truth that dare not speak its name in D.C. as our elites are joined at the hip with the Saudis even more than the German elites are with the Russians.

    Comment by Mr. X — May 11, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

  10. But on another thread, if the Professor is looking for an explanation as to why BP would accept such a seemingly one sided deal, besides saving face for Sechin and Dudley, perhaps he may want to look at how much British government debt the Russians own. The bailout of British deposit holders in Iceland, for example, was really a Russian bailout of British banks with the Icelandic distressed banks as the intermediary. Look to Londongrad, SWP, they have to keep the price of Belgravia real estate in the ionosphere.

    Comment by Mr. X — May 11, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

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