Bureaucracy of Terror
The problem with terrorists.


In December, the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq published a multipart series of articles on the inner workings of the al Qaeda network. The articles were based on documents taken from a computer found in Kabul that belonged to Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man and the intellectual pillar of the al Qaeda movement. The documents are an interesting study in the day-to-day administration of an international terrorist network, as well as the managerial challenges of running an information-age conglomerate with no fixed structure, rebellious middle managers, and the enduring enmity of the United States and dozens of other countries.

Zawahiri had fled Egypt in the 1980s and joined bin Laden in Afghanistan sometime in the 1990s. He ran his terrorist operation from abroad, masterminding the 1997 Luxor Massacre, which fomented a brutal terrorist crackdown inside Egypt. The terrorists who remained behind switched tactics from armed struggle to political activity, chiefly because of the effectiveness of Egyptian counterterrorism. Zawahiri called this tantamount to surrender, but it was easy for him to say from the safety of Afghanistan. After the 1998 African-embassy bombings, the United States and its European allies managed to roll up many terrorist networks then operating in European cities. A large number were arrested in Albania and deported to Cairo for trial. Muntasir al-Zayyat, a lawyer for the terrorists, prudently distanced his clients from Zawahiri’s persistent calls for violence at home and abroad. Zawahiri denounced Zayyat, and a letter from the lawyer (to another lawyer in London) stated that his credibility was being questioned by fools. Ultimately, Zayyat was able successfully to defend many of his clients, while Zawahiri and his brother Mohammed “the Engineer” were sentenced to death in absentia.

Zawahiri plunged into building a global terrorist cartel with all the enthusiasm of late-90s merger mania. The 1998 fatwa establishing the World Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders formally unified the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Egyptian Islamic Group (among others) with al Qaeda. However, the alliance did not sit well with everyone. Few of Zawahiri’s followers back in Egypt approved, and even those who wanted the union did not trust Osama bin Laden. Most of the disapproval centered on the core al Qaeda strategy; the dissenters did not think it was wise to go head to head with a global superpower. A tense meeting followed in Afghanistan, in which al Zawahiri resorted to the old trick of threatening to resign. He told his followers that this was a deal they could not pass up. Sure, bin Laden had broken promises before, but he could feel that Osama was now a changed man. “My honest opinion is that this is a great opportunity for us,” he stated. Famous last words of every CEO pursuing a bad deal.

Zawahiri did not resign, but many of his followers did. Some did not want a piece of the hurt he and bin Laden were going to bring down on them. Others quit for financial reasons. The movement was not paying top dollar to attract the kind of talent it needed to fill its management slots. Zawahiri was a well-known ascetic, a “comforts be damned” visionary, but this made him ill equipped to understand the financial requirements of a career terrorist executive. He was reduced to borrowing from Osama bin Laden to cover the expenses of his corporate component, and at the same time rebuked followers whom he felt were squandering resources.

Rebukes are one thing, but practical control another. The documents give insights into the problems of enforcing order on a multimillion-dollar international conglomerate with no SEC standards and accounting practices that would make Arthur Anderson look virtuous, if it still existed. The network employed internal auditors who conducted investigations of financial or other irregularities. For example, a terrorist working out of London was accused of extravagant spending on office equipment and furnishings. (No matter what bureaucracy you work in, somehow it will always come down to desks.) However, conducting this type of investigation is extremely difficult in the terrorist milieu. One of the investigators, a sharia judge named Abu al-Hasan, complained of various impediments to completing his assignment:

Terrorists are hard to find; they move around, use multiple identities, give false addresses and phone numbers as a matter of course, so it’s hard to locate an individual even if he isn’t trying to hide from the investigator;
Terror networks are highly dispersed and the need for the investigator to travel long distances also contributes to these difficulties, especially when multiple parties are involved;
Long-distance communication is expensive;
Terrorists, because of cell structures necessary for security, do not all know each other, and Hasan did not know any of them, so it was difficult to understand the relationships to build a case;
Witnesses kept introducing details unrelated to the core investigation;
The accused keep accusing the accusers — in one case the person being investigated kept maintaining he was in fact the plaintiff;
The accused tend to be very slow in responding or completely non-responsive, and it is very difficult to assemble a complete case.

One might also add that, given the fact that they are career criminals, they probably have basic problems with following rules and telling the truth.

A more-sinister side to internal discipline is counterintelligence. Subversive groups need to maintain strong internal-security mechanisms to keep out infiltrators and detect and punish renegades. So in addition to the auditors, al Qaeda maintained a security committee with the task of being the organization’s immune system. One set of documents discusses the case of Abu Ibrahim al-Masri, colorfully known as “the traitor.” He was operating out of Yemen and sold out to Yemeni security, but an al Qaeda sympathizer in the state security service informed his terrorist leaders. He was caught, escaped, caught again, interrogated, and confessed. A prolonged debate ensued as to his fate, and in the end, remarkably, he was set free. It was believed that “his shame before the rest of the organization was sufficient,” and other terror groups were cautioned against having any dealings with him. Masri wandered about before winding up in Afghanistan, a religious teacher at a school for the children of “Arab Afghans” (i.e., members of al Qaeda in Afghanistan). It was reported last month that he was in fact an Egyptian double agent, who had fed back key information from the terrorist stronghold. Looks like shame didn’t bring about those hoped-for changes.

Finally, a May, 2001 letter promoting the coming attacks on the United States is noteworthy — it is written entirely in code and reads like a business-plan promotion. Zawahiri refers to the Umar Brothers Company (Mullah Omar’s Afghanistan) having opened the market to traders (provided training camps to Mujahedin) in order to fight the foreign investors (the U.S.) and standardize trade (armed action) in the region. The Contracting Company (al Qaeda) seeks to move business (armed struggle) to the stage of multinational corporations (taking the attack to the U.S.). He asks that interested parties fax their thoughts to a number in Pakistan after 8 PM, with “Attn: Mansur” in the subject line. Bin Laden’s code name was “The Contractor.” Zawahiri liked to be called “The Professor.”

But in the end, Egyptian Islamic Jihad fell victim to the same sort of corporate mismanagement that fed the dot-com boom and bust. Both were based chiefly on enthusiasm, a surfeit of vision over practicality. The members of Zawahiri’s board who counseled caution in signing on with al Qaeda proved to be wiser, at least in that they saw the obvious. Competing with the United States in an area in which the Americans had clear market dominance was a losing strategy. It set the entire structure up for a hostile takeover. Emphasis on hostile.

James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.