11 January 2010

A Follow-up to "Al Qaeda: Franchise or Conglomerate?" Comments

I originally wrote this as a comment to my post yesterday. It was too large for Blogspot to accept in even two comments, so I'm publishing another post instead of trying to break it up. This is not the full follow-up I mentioned yesterday. That will have to wait until after I finish my MBA homework for the week. Rest assured, I'll get it on here before the week's up.

Mr. Ronfeldt,
I really appreciate your input and challenge to my theory. Bear with me through my response, as it may seem partially disjointed. Before I dig in, I have to add that I feel the utilization of a business paradigm is easy for the average person to understand, and there is a tremendous amount of previously conducted research available that can provide key targeting insights if you approach the problem with the correct model. As my colleague Pat Ryan previously wrote back in December, “Their structure, as shown above, gives us insight into how they operate.” No one model will be perfect; my attempts are merely to provide what I see as a “best” fit for AQ at this time. Has it and will it again change? Absolutely. Now, for the sake of discourse to what we obviously both see as important, I’ll attempt to poke holes in your argument through analysis of another AQ affiliate, subordinate, whatever you want to call it: AQI. If I missed something that you feel was critical to your argument, shoot back.

Another couple of definitions to help the post along:
Network - an association of individuals having a common interest, formed to provide mutual assistance, helpful information, or the like: a network of recent college graduates.
Confederation - A group of confederates, especially of states or nations, united for a common purpose; a league.
Tribe - A group of people sharing an occupation, interest, or habit: a tribe of graduate students.

Certainly subordinate groups and AQ Central Leadership have some tenets of both tribal and network models. Where I take issue with a tribal paradigm is that a tribe (historically) typically relied on a council of elders to make decisions. The tribal elders had equal votes and were approachable by anyone in the tribe. I do not believe there is any evidence of a council format for the approval of AQ’s strategic decisions. Correct me if I’m wrong. In terms of religion, I’m hesitant to travel down this path. I simply do not have the academic background of Islamism to do myself any justice here. I recommend you read DP’s “Emerging Role of the Analyst” piece from November (here) if you haven’t already and guide religion discussions toward him, his knowledge of Islam far surpasses my own. You’ll likely recognize a few of the names in the comments section of that post. That said, I don’t think a conglomerate has to be a secular paradigm. AQI’s Sharia Emirs and judges fit quite well into a hierarchical structure in Mosul. If I’m off base here, feel free to rein me back in.

In a network, you see a “flattened” method for decision making, communication and execution. Persons inside a network can come and go as they please, and can connect freely with anyone else inside that network. Networked entities come together for specific projects (or in this case: operations) and then flow back to what they were doing before they were mobilized.

If you go back and take a look at this post from Pat (click here), you will see AQI’s operational design in Mosul (at least) up through when we left in early 2009. The framework was replicated across Iraq, only seeing tweaks for varying geographic distinctions in other cities and regions of Iraq (the NE, SE, SE, NW format was obviously different in Kirkuk, Baghdad, Anbar, etc).

A few points that should help solidify my conglomerate theory vs a “tribal network”:
- On the slide presented by Pat in his post, each position held certain responsibilities and expectations, and ineffective personnel were replaced with someone who could do the job.
- Targets picked up by our task force were replaced by senior leadership with another personality into the same position.
- Lower tier members of AQI have little to no knowledge of attacks across Iraq. There is definitely compartmentalization of intelligence and operations planning.
- Senior leadership in Mosul was successfully targeted repeatedly by Coalition Forces. We saw Mosul’s top tier leadership change from foreign fighters to AQ members from Baghdad and surrounding areas to al Afri (from Tal Afar). Someone had to be pulling the trigger and making executive decisions to move key personnel around like that.
- AQI maintained detailed ledgers of personnel, finances and logistics. An example of this would be the Sinjar Records (accessible on West Point’s CTC webpage).
- Specific personalities were intermediaries between AQI and AQCL. Lower tiered members do not have access to AQCL.

Confederation. This framework also has credence. From my original post, I would like to offer two counter-points: 1) Propaganda videos like HSM’s 2008 communiqué praise OBL as “our Sheikh and Emir”; 2) Hamas’ attempts to join AQ are being snubbed. The first point highlights at least some kind of acceptance of a subordinate status for HSM, even if it is just in a more spiritual sense. The second point, about Hamas, could go either way between confederation and conglomerate depending on how you argue it. My thought about the snubbing by AQCL (with potentially OBL himself providing the final verdict or decision?), is that there is a more established hierarchy than a confederation lends itself to. I’ll use NATO as my analogy. For a nation to get into NATO, its “application” is voted on by the entire confederation. The US may play a leading role in NATO, but we don’t always get what we want…just look at the lobbying the US did for ISAF troop level increases from European nations recently. I doubt Hamas’ denial into the ranks of AQ was voted on by all affiliated groups. I could be wrong, but something tells me there was no conference call.

I also came across this yesterday, which in my opinion lends direct support to my argument of a conglomerate vice anything else (click here):

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
Bay’ah (Oath of Allegiance) to Osama bin Laden
Translated by the Jamestown Foundation
Dec. 16, 2004
“It should bring great joy to the people of Islam, especially those on the front lines, and it was with good tidings of support during this blessed month that Tawhid wal-Jihad’s leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (God protect him) and his followers announced their allegiance to the Sheikh al-Mujahideen of our time, Abu Abdullah Osama bin Laden, God protect him…”

Osama bin Laden
Endorsement of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
Audio tape broadcast on Al-Jazeera
Dec. 27, 2004
“We, in al Qaeda organization, welcome him joining forces with us, a great welcome and this will be a great step towards unifying the mujahedeen’s efforts in establishing the nation of justice and destroying the nation of evil. We ask God to accept this unity and bless it and for all to know, the dear mujahed brother Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is the prince of al Qaeda in Iraq, so we ask all our organization brethren to listen to him and obey him in his good deeds.”

On the issue of propaganda, specifically to DP and Mr. Ronfeldt, I think Pat’s reference (in his comment) to the CIA Khost attack is also critical to my argument. The fact that three elements made separate claims lends credence to either a conglomerate or confederation framework, I could see it going both ways. DP, you wrote, “I think it worthy to add the element of franchise in order to understand how AQ propagandize: They have to project one message in order to find success in failure.” I do think there is a single overarching message, which is obviously something anti-West in nature, but the Khost attack again highlights that there are situations where there is not one message provided by the “franchise”.

Looking forward to the next round.


  1. What about the words that Abu Musab al-Suri wrote "Nizam la tanzim" ... Al Qaïda as a system !!! I believe that's still the best description for now.

  2. I believe the correct translation is "system, not organization". I also believe that statement was written as a critique of, and warning against, al Qaeda's hierarchical model, believing there was an over-emphasis on structured financial support, bases, etc. Abu Musab al Suri was also advocating a fully decentralized network where no individual or small group knew what the other was doing, and there was no "higher" element for reporting or accountability. Essentially, he recommended a fully decentralized network where individuals plugged in as desired, were self-learning, and financed themselves. He also recommended breaking the "stranglehold" AQ had on the Salafi-Jihadist global movement.

    This concept helps somewhat explain the "lone wolf" concept that DP covers extensively on this blog. Where I believe al Suri was most successful in the long run, was to instill the personal belief that individuals and small groups could wreak havoc in the West. Nidal Hassan is a prime example of this type of self-radicalized individual who very well may have read and studied al Suri's teachings.

    If you're discussing AQ in a context of "system of systems" or something along those lines, then yes I agree more with you somewhat more than before. I don't think this is what you were inferring, but I'll finish my thought anyway. If you were inferring that there are certain organizational models, attack methods, common procedures for logistical efforts, etc., being used across multiple regions, this is great analysis. This is not what al Suri was getting at through his writing.

    To bring it back to the post you commented on, I recommend you re-read the post, and also read Pat's post here: http://al-sahwa.blogspot.com/2009/12/aqi-in-mosul-dont-count-them-out.html. Believe what you want, but personal experience and the wealth of knowledge available online suggest that there is a lot more structure than you choose to believe.

    If AQI is not enough, let's take a look at HSM. HSM has separate regional military emirs and units. Those emirs take their guidance from higher operational leadership. A recent article on Garowe Online (http://www.garoweonline.com/artman2/publish/Somalia_27/Somalia_Al-Shabaab_s_Encirclement_Strategy_Intelligence_Brief.shtml) highlights an operational design for locking up Mogadishu. This, along with moving massed formations of mujahideen in battle against Hizb ul Islam or the TFG, does not just randomly come together. It takes structure.

    HSM has established fully functioning (in Somali terms) local governments throughout Southern Somalia. HSM also has a central leadership structure in place, a media outlet, and their own version of public affairs officers.

    I'd enjoy your comments about how this open system "best description" you provide supports anything I just covered.

  3. McLaughlin nailed it. Abu Musab al Suri was a huge advocate of fourth generation warfare theory and incorporated those concepts into his teachings. As far as "al qaida" goes, in the West we tend to label any group participating in the global Takfiri movement as AQ affiliated.

  4. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 01/12/2010 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  5. oh gosh, i just meant to offer a passing comment, not to “challenge” anyone. now i feel challenged to elaborate. for the moment, i leave my notions about tribes and confederations to the side and observe the following:

    it is surely worthwhile to ask what kinds of business models may help analysts and strategists understand AQ et al. if answering such a question is limited to looking at franchises and conglomerates as the most relevant models, then trends may indeed be evolving in the direction you emphasize. AQI, acc to the depiction you point to, has/had more formal structure than i’m used to seeing.

    yet, doesn't the notion of a conglomerate fit iran’s IRGC a lot better than AQ and affiliates? if so, those are two hugely different entities. perhaps a conglomerate is AQ’s aspiration, even for the core of a caliphate. at least i’d wonder about that. but AQ’s conglomerate aspects seem only nascent today (tho in saying this, i hasten to admit that i’m no longer up to speed and sit on the sidelines on such matters these days).

    even so, the literature on business models includes more than franchises and conglomerates. while i’m not very familiar with this literature, it now identifies a lot of innovative new designs that are viewed as “networks” and that don’t quite fit franchise, much less conglomerate, or other standard corporate models. the larger networks (in silicon valley? in northern italy?) have firms that act as key hubs, and the overall network is multi-hub. individual firms may be structured formally, not unlike the hierarchical AQI design you noted. but the network as a whole is not like that — it is not centrally planned and commanded, though there may be efforts at a kind of centralized coordination and communication. similar networks are also emerging among activist civil-society NGOS as well. wouldn’t this kind of business model be more apt for thinking about AQ et al.?

    the “cartel” is another business model that should maybe be on the table too. any other models? but, hasn’t all this been looked at before??

    p.s.: apropos the comment that “Abu Musab al Suri was a huge advocate of fourth generation warfare theory”: does 4GW seem like an appropriate way of war for conglomerates? maybe it’s possible, but that's not been my impression.

    in any case, i'm impressed by your thoughts about all this, and i certainly don't mean to be all that critical. onward.

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  7. Dr. Ronfeldt,
    No attack intended, I'm simply itching to challenge this framework to see what kind of sea legs it does or does not have. It is vital for me to be challenged by someone with a background like yours.

    I don't think the entire IRGC necessarily fits the mold necessarily, but potentially the Quds Force. QF runs Iran's proxy fight (Hezbollah, Houthi Rebels, JaM-SG), so the framework may fit there. I don't have a background in the Shi'a problem set, and don't devote my limited research time to it, so my comments may not be worthwhile. That said I'll dig into QF & IRGC this weekend because I'm now curious. I also need to dig into the multi-hub concept you mentioned. Again, I'm vaguely familiar with the concept, but not to the level I need to be to accurately assess the concept's pros and cons. The only thing I will offer is that conglomerates don’t necessarily have to fit one set structure; there are inherent structural and operational differences between business conglomerates as well.

    Thanks for your comments, they've been mentally challenging and have helped fine tune my original argument.

    Stay tuned, more to follow.