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This would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. It’s a eye-opening piece by Jacob Shapiro for Foreign Affairs, on the petty-minded, nit-picking mindset of your typical terrorist supremo:

  • “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.)”

An over-zealous approach to cost control may be the least of al-Zawahiri’s faults, but it is of relevance to the war on terror:

  • “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…
  • “Placing calls, sending e-mails, keeping spreadsheets, and having members request reimbursements all create opportunities for intelligence agencies to learn what terrorists are up to and then disrupt them. In that way, Zawahiri’s failures are not just a reflection of his personal weaknesses but a case study in the inherent limits that all terror groups face.”

Shapiro argues that terrorist groups have no choice but to be bureaucratically-minded:

  • “…managers of terrorist organizations face the same basic challenges as the managers of any large organization. What is true for Walmart is true for al Qaeda: Managers need to keep tabs on what their people are doing and devote resources to motivate their underlings to pursue the organization’s aims. In fact, terrorist managers face a much tougher challenge. Whereas most businesses have the blunt goal of maximizing profits, terrorists’ aims are more precisely calibrated: An attack that is too violent can be just as damaging to the cause as an attack that is not violent enough.”

Terror bosses face some tricky personnel management issues too:

  • “…as the alleged chief of the Palestinian group Black September wrote in his memoir, ‘diehard extremists are either imbeciles or traitors.’”

Contrary to what one might imagine, disciplinary options are limited:

  • “When Walmart managers want to deal with an unruly employee or a supplier who is defaulting on a contract, they can turn to formal legal procedures. Terrorists have no such option. David Ervine, a deceased Irish Unionist politician and onetime bomb maker for the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), neatly described this dilemma to me in 2006. “We had some very heinous and counterproductive activities being carried out that the leadership didn’t punish because they had to maintain the hearts and minds within the organization,” he said…”

Therefore, with staff you can neither easily trust nor punish, top-down micromanagement is the only way to keep things under control.

Of course, there is another explanation for why terror-bosses tend to be such control-freaks – which is that they enjoy it.  Most terrorists are totalitarians, and totalitarianism and bureaucracy go hand in hand. From Joseph Stalin to Adolf Eichmann, history's greatest monsters do like a spot of paperwork. 

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