The al Qaeda metaphor search

Mark Drapeau:

On a recent "Meet the Press," National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell discussed the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which described increased terror threats due to al Qaeda's reconstituted attack strength and leadership capabilities. Tim Russert pressed him for a comparison to the earlier April 2006 NIE statement:

"We assess that the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent global strategy, and is becoming more diffuse." (emphasis added)

Mr. Russert began from the premise that making al Qaeda less centralized would subsequently lead to a reduced terror threat from it and similar groups. The premise is demonstrably faulty, because of one critical and unmentioned assumption: They are just like us.

Most large institutions are organized hierarchically with centralized leadership. Corporations have CEOs, armies have generals, countries have presidents. When competing against centralized organizations, promoting diffusion and disrupting cohesion are considered progressive.

However, al Qaeda has a constantly mutating, horizontal structure composed of an inspirational catalyst in the form of Osama bin Laden and other central figures joined with numerous small groups brought together not by orders but ideology. Here, lack of structure is a strength. Little thought is given, however, to how such a decentralized terrorist network structure affects the strategy for combating it.

"The Starfish and the Spider," a new book about corporate strategy written for a business audience, has a wider application — combating terrorism — and sheds light on this issue.

A powerful biological metaphor is used to describe two categories of organizational structure — The "Starfish" and the "Spider." Hierarchical Spider organizations, as described above, have a central command and control (head), and dependent parts (legs). Although relatively strong, it is easy to devise a strategy for attacking and destroying a Spider; survival is futile without a head.

Starfish organizations, on the other hand, have little central command and control. They typically have an inspirational leader — a catalyst — and a decentralized, hypermutable, amorphous organizational structure. Because of this, despite superficially appearing like a spider each "leg" is somewhat autonomous. In nature, when a leg is cut off a starfish, the base will regenerate the leg, and the leg can grow into a new starfish. The same holds true for Starfish organizations.

Highly successful decentralized organizations like Craigslist (advertising), eMule (music), Skype (telecommunications), Wikipedia (information), and Alcoholics Anonymous (support) promote small contributions by the masses sharing an overall goal. Collective knowledge is diffusively stored throughout the system, making adaptation easy and destruction difficult.

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This is similar to the argument made by John Robb in Brave New War, The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization. I find the case a bit over drawn. Al Qaeda is more diffused and decentralized because they had to survive. It has hurt their command and control and they are not as effective an organization as they were before they lost their base in Afghanistan and their top commanders.

A better analogy to describe al Qaeda is found in its parasitic nature. It is not just parasitic in tactics and weapons, but also in strategy.It needs a host organization to feed off of. In Afghanistan it had the Taliban, In Somalia recently it had the Islamic Courts and in Iraq it made up a host organization because it had alienated its previous allies in Iraq. Its strategy has been fairly consistent in all three countries. Create chaos and then put the Islamist forward as an answer to that chaos. In Afghanistan and Somalia where it had the most success the chaos was fed by the lack of a central government and the fighting among war lords. In Iraq it tried to create the chaos through a "sectarian civil war." In all cases it hopes to feed off a host who will take responsibility for the government while it continues to prepare for the next phase of its war.

Once you recognize the parasitic nature of the enemy it gives you a better understanding of how to fight and destroy him. You separate him from the host and you clean up his food supply. That is what we are doing very effectively in Iraq right now with the surge which separates him from the people and any support bases.

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