Adapt-Qaeda: Analyzing the Relationship Between Ideology, Organizational Transformation, and the Exploitation of Information Technology

By Sandeep S. Chhabra
Cornell International Affairs Review
2011, Vol. 4 No. 2 | pg. 1/2 |

This paper traces and analyzes the organizational evolution of al-Qaeda from the late 1980s to the present day. It notes that al-Qaeda initially exhibited a hierarchical system and then adopted a hub network approach. Following 9/11 and the U.S assault in Afghanistan, the environment surrounding al-Qaeda was drastically altered, and thus organizational changes became necessary. Employing the concept of a "dune" organization to explain the unique and fluid organizational features al-Qaeda currently exhibits, this paper argues that al-Qaeda strategically chose to exploit the Internet and other information technologies in order to overcome its organizational and tactical limitations. This exploitation of information technology has led to the widespread and unfiltered transmission and reception of its ideological principles. Although recent cases demonstrate the emergence of "lone wolves" radicalized by al-Qaeda's Internet activities, the broader ramifications of al-Qaeda's exploitation of the Internet and other technologies for mass mobilization and operational considerations remain unclear.

Since the end of the Cold War, the world has witnessed the emergence of non-state actors as pivotal players in the international arena. These non-state actors include national and transnational criminal organizations, national and transnational non-governmental organizations concerned with human and minority rights, and netforces.1 The latter two groups consists of actors who are committed to the advancement of certain principles or ideologies and attempt —through rhetoric, litigation, violence, politics, reporting, propaganda, and other means — to compel other social actors (including other nonstate actors) to assist in or avoid obstructing the realization of these goals.

These actors act within certain geopolitical contexts and must respond to actions by other actors that either constrain or support their respective causes. Paralleling the emergence of these non-state actors is the rapid advancement and proliferation of information technologies that provide social actors with new avenues to further their cause. This paper will analyze the changing organizational structure of one such non-state actor, the terrorist network al-Qaeda, and then proceed to assess how al-Qaeda's current organizational structure influences its use of information technology (primarily the Internet) to spread its ideology, recruit, and attack its targets. It will conclude with a discussion of the implications of these findings for al-Qaeda's activities. Overview and Conceptualization of al-Qaeda's Organizational Transformations.

Al-Qaeda ("The Base") originated in the late 1980s with the expressed purpose of engaging in jihad (defined by al-Qaeda as the violent, theologically-driven struggle against anti-Islamic or un-Islamic forces) against Western influences that were regarded as polluting the ummah (the global Muslim community) and corrupting Muslim governments. Its ultimate goal was to restore the transnational Caliphate (Fishman 20). Al-Qaeda is the successor to the Services Office, which was "a clearinghouse for the international Muslim brigade opposed to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan."2

Osama bin Bin Laden and Dr. Abdullah alAzzam created the Services Office in order to facilitate the movement of Muslims who wished to engage in the struggle against the Soviets. Since its birth, al-Qaeda has been a multinational operation: the men often attributed with the creation of the organization, Osama Bin Laden and AlZawahiri, hail respectively from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The organization also exhibited a clear religious-orientation at its inception: "[i]ts "founding fathers" came to fight, under the banner of Islam, against a superpower determined to oppress an Islamic revolution. Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri arrived at the recruitment base of Peshawar located on the Afghan–Pakistan border, along with other socalled Arab Afghans, who streamed in from all over the Arab world to join this Jihad".3 It was this understanding of geopolitics that inspired bin Laden to form al-Qaeda and ensure the continuation of the "holy war" against other Western powers.4

This conception of Islam as endangered by a belligerent, heretic, foreign enemy—often termed as an inevitable and irresolvable clash of civilizations—persists to the present day and constitutes the dominant paradigm through which Islamic terrorist groups, especially transnational networks such as al-Qaeda, legitimize their existence and frame their efforts to recruit and attack targets.

Al-Qaeda's organizational features during its early years can be conceptualized as a hierarchical structure.5 A hierarchical organization exhibits the following characteristics: a well-defined, top-down system of communication; well-defined and rigid positions and responsibilities; a rigid command chain; and clear time horizons for operations. This organizational structure is conducive to stability because it hinders communication between members operating at the same level who may share grievances or seek to challenge the organization's leadership. Ideology is less important for hierarchical organizations because formal, explicit rules are employed to maintain organizational cohesion and bridge actors.

The emir (bin Laden) sat atop this pyramid and was able to control and monitor the activities of the organization's lower strata (see Schematic Drawing: al-Qaeda Organizational Structure at Overview of the Enemy, Staff Statement No. 15, National Commission on Terrorist Attacks). This hierarchical system, borrowed from the structure of the Services Office, allowed alQaeda to best respond to the threat posed by the Soviet forces and facilitate and control the movement of Muslim volunteers.

Al-Qaeda's decision to espouse new objectives that focused on a global understanding of jihad (as opposed to the more localized or specific conceptions espoused by organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas) required a significant organizational transformation towards a network structure. The hierarchical structure employed by the organization in its previous efforts was too rigid for and simply incompatible with the organization's desire to engage in multinational efforts against the perceived enemy.

An organization or group of organizations exhibits a network structure when "organizations constitute overlapping policy communities" and heterogeneity, rather than homogeneity, is present. Arquila and Rondfeldt conceptualize the network approach as "a set of diverse, dispersed nodes that share a set of ideas and interests and are arrayed to act in a fully intermitted ‘allchannel' manner." There are three "ideal types" of networks: chain networks, hub networks, and all-channel networks.6 For our purposes, it is only imperative to elaborate on the hub network approach. Mishal and Rosenthal characterize the hub network as a system in which "all orders come from the player located at the center, and all information must pass through that node.

Thus, one player sees the whole picture, while all other players are subordinated to that central player, at least in the sense of receiving and transferring information." Networks are also likely to employ new technologies and innovative tactics in preparing and executing their attacks and spreading their ideology. In contrast to the formal rules and rigidity of a hierarchical structure that create opportunities for certain actors within an organization or group of organizations to dominate and compel action by other actors in the organization, the network approach is much more fluid and supports bargaining between actors in the network and guidance.7

Despite this inherent flexibility, certain actors within the network are responsible for establishing and maintaining the health of the bonds that connect the different nodes within the network. These actors often use ideology to maintain the network's compatibility with certain beliefs and understandings. If the network is a hub network, then these actors are responsible for ensuring that the hub's ideology pervades throughout the organization.

A street scene in Peshawar, Pakistan, the recruitment base for Soviet jihad

A street scene in Peshawar, Pakistan, the recruitment base for Soviet jihad

Al-Qaeda exhibited a hub network approach from 1998 to September 11th, 2001. During this time period, bin Laden developed the "World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders," which was essentially a network of organizations that adhered to the jihadi cause. This network extends throughout the Muslim world, from terrorist groups in Egypt to organizations in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Bin Laden established bases in Sudan and Afghanistan in order to ensure that his chain of communication and commands was efficient and that his instructions were delivered by reliable agents (Mishal and Rosenthal 279). These bases also catered to the spread of the organization's ideology among the constituents of these countries.8 It is worth noting that both of these states were failed states: neither government was able to ensure the rule of law, maintain a monopoly on violence, or command the respect of their citizens.

Conflict plagued these states and war-lords, not democratically-elected politicians, maintained most of the power. The emergence of Taliban rule in 1996 provided bin Laden with a friendly, insulated territory that could serve as a base for his operations. This institutional presence and permanent base was crucial for the development and testing of long term, sophisticated attacks that relied on a multitude of actors with different expertise.

Did al-Qaeda's adoption of the network approach facilitate the translation of its violent vision into reality? Most commentators agree that it did and support their claims by noting that the preparation and execution of 9/11 were conducted under the network system. The linkages formed between al-Qaeda and other organizations allowed al-Qaeda to mobilize a vast array of resources that spanned the globe.

The terrorists responsible for executing 9/11 hailed from countries throughout the Muslim world and Europe and received training in several regions. Despite the numerous, geographically separate actors that participated in the attack, elites within al-Qaeda were able to coordinate the actions of these disparate elements and ensure the successful execution of an attack against the "head of the snake."

The success of al-Qaeda's network approach was also its downfall. Following 9/11, the U.S. retaliated against al-Qaeda and its affiliates with extreme force and precision. Much of al-Qaeda's leadership was decimated ("Al-Qaeda: The Many Faces of an Islamist Extremist Threat", p. 7). Those leaders that remain or new leaders that have emerged as replacements continue to constitute the primary focus of U.S. attacks.

Since these leaders were responsible for ensuring that the linkages between al-Qaeda and other organizations remained stable, the deaths of these leaders also meant the rapid erosion of the ties that bonded the distinct actors. The exchange of information and communication that made the network approach so profitable for al-Qaeda simply could not sustain these deaths. Despite this, it must not be forgotten that the adoption of the network organizational structure was a strategic decision that contributed significantly to the planning and execution of al-Qaeda's "crown jewel." From this perspective, the network approach served its purpose by fostering an environment in which al-Qaeda's members and ideologies could spread throughout the Muslim world and facilitate the execution of a large-scale attack.

The 9/11 attack drastically altered the international arena. Terrorism came to the forefront of most Western countries' political and social discourses. President George W. Bush announced the commencement of the U.S.'s "War on Terror." States throughout the world altered their institutional makeup, creating new agencies and redirecting resources towards counterterrorism activities. The media continuously reported on AlQaeda, bin Laden, and "the next attack."

How did al-Qaeda respond to these changes in the international arena and the constant barrage of attacks made by Coalition forces against all strata, but especially the elite, of its organization? Perhaps unsurprisingly, al-Qaeda responded by transforming its organizational structure. To persist in the same organizational pattern as it did prior to 9/11 and the U.S. assault would be simply impossible. Its leadership understood that the world's attention—and perhaps more importantly, the attention of the world's sole superpower—was squarely focused on al-Qaeda.

The organization's funding was disrupted and drastically reduced, which in turn reduced its tactical capabilities ("AlQaeda: The Many Faces of an Islamist Extremist Threat", p. 12; Bruno & Jeffreys). Its power to control the activity of other organizations within the network was also diminished. With its leaders either dead or hiding in the remote mountains on the Afghan border, the organization was incapable of dedicating itself to strategic planning against the West and the maintenance of the network. Taken together, these factors indicate that al-Qaeda today no longer resembles the al-Qaeda of yesterday.

The success of al-Qaeda's network approach was also its downfall.

Observers have had a tremendously difficult time categorizing and conceptualizing al-Qaeda's current organizational structure and what threat the organization presents, especially because of the two aforementioned traits and the decimation of its leadership and general membership.9 Indeed, some observers have declared that al-Qaeda is no longer a network, while others argue that the organization no longer constitutes a credible threat to the U.S. and its allies (Brachman 149; Robbins). Other commentators, however, feel that al-Qaeda remains a credible threat and that most observers have been incapable of adequately assessing and conceptualizing its organizational transformation (Hoffman;Bruno & Jeffreys). These observers have conceptualized alQaeda as "leaderless resistance," "phantom cell network," "autonomous leadership units," "autonomous cells," "a network of networks," and "lone wolves" that are engaged in "netwar."10

Evidently, even among those who agree that al-Qaeda persists as a threat to the U.S., conceptual clarity in regards to the organization's structure is disturbingly lacking. If al-Qaeda today cannot be conceptualized as a hierarchy or a network, how can (or The success of al-Qaeda's network approach was also its downfall. should) we conceptualize its organizational structure and the impact of that structure on its activities? In response to this question, Mishal and Rosenthal have presented a new organizational schema for understanding alQaeda's current status.

In its post-9/11 guise, al-Qaeda exhibits two unique characteristics: it no longer maintains a territorial base from which it conducts operations (although its leadership is concentrated in Pakistan11) and fluidity and speed in its engagement and disengagement with other organizations. Entitled the "dune" organizational structure, organizations that fall within this category are characterized by the following traits:

1. A lack of affiliation with any explicit territorial rational, thus rendering it difficult to monitor the organization's maneuvers. 2. No imminent institutional presence. In fact, an organizational reality is often built on its disappearance. 3. Dynamic activity that lacks adherence to any sequential reasoning regarding interaction with other organizations. 4. Command and communication chains that may be waived, intentionally fragmented, or severed at any point in time. 5. Consequent maneuverability among various interests and the attendant ability to align with different regional conflicts. 6. Adherence to a grand vision, such as global jihad, as a substitute for affiliation to a specific territory. (Misahl and Rosenthal p. 283).

The uniqueness of this organizational structure is clarified when compared to alQaeda's prior organizational features. AlQaeda no longer exhibits a rigid hierarchical or hub network structure through which its leaders can maintain the unity of the group's ideology and its tactical operations. The communication, command, and control chains present in those conceptualizations are simply nonexistent in today's al-Qaeda. Under the hierarchical and network approaches, bin Laden was able to approve and monitor all operations undertaken by al-Qaeda (National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States). Because of organization's current structural and tactical weaknesses, al-Qaeda is increasingly reliant on other organizations to further the jihadi cause.12

The "hub" within Al-Qaeda, however, can no longer stringently control the activities of its partners and thus allies with other organizations only when interests temporarily coincide. It provides financial, nominal, and tactical assistance to partner organizations, but does not attempt to foster long-term relationships with other organizations as it did while operating under the network model.

Al-Qaeda's relationship with Ansar al-Islam demonstrates the utility of the "dune" schema, especially in regards to alQaeda's entrepreneurial approach to other organizations.13 Ansar al-Islam operated in Iraq and sought to establish an Islamic state.14 Sometime after 1999, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi joined Ansar al-Islam and became the leader of its Arab division. Zarqawi had earlier operated a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, but never joined al-Qaeda because of his ideological differences with bin Laden.

Both men sought to restore the Caliphate, but their ideological congruence ended there. Bin Laden sought to restore the Caliphate by targeting Western states that supported heretical regimes in the Muslim world or polluted Muslims through their cultural influences. This focus on the "far enemy" clashed with Zarqawi's focus on the "near enemy," the "apostate cultural and political influence within the Islamic world" (the near enemy), which [was a] separate issue from U.S. governmental support [of Muslim states]" (Fishman 20).

This ideological clash also led to a divergence in how each leader viewed the "nonmobilized" Muslim population. Whereas the al-Qaeda elite sought to ingratiate themselves towards the general Muslim population and convince them of the righteousness of their cause, Zarqawi condemned them and believed that by isolating himself, the rest of the Muslim society would realize its erroneous ways and follow his heroic lead (Fishman 22). Despite these ideological differences, in 2004, 18 months after the U.S.'s invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi established a new organization, dubbed al-Qaeda in Iraq (also known as alQaeda in Mesopotamia).15

Why did Zarqawi "vow obedience" to bin Laden? The U.S. invasion of Iraq and its subsequent support of recreated Iraqi institutions conflated the "near enemy" and "far enemy," thus providing an incentive for both Zarqawi and bin Laden to join forces. This "alliance," however, was self-serving for each side and born out of convenience. It did not resemble the permanent ideological congruencies extant in al-Qaeda's network relations. The crippled al-Qaeda was able to associate itself with successful attacks by Zarqawi's forces and vicariously continue its struggle. Zarqawi was able to recruit under the al-Qaeda banner and received funding and tactical advice (Mishal 280; Fishman 21).

AlQaeda's inability to implement a hierarchical structure or hub network approach (which itself was the result of its failure to establish an institutional presence in Iraq) meant that Zarqawi was free to promote ideological views and tactics that contradicted those espoused by al-Qaeda. This combination of "subordinate's freedom" and ideological and tactical divergence led to the eventual deterioration of the relationship. Zarqawi's decision to plan and execute attacks against civilian and Shi'ite targets in the hopes of rousing a flood of violent sectarian sentiment was incompatible with al-Qaeda's focus on attacking the "far enemy" (Fishman 23). Despite criticism from al-Qaeda's Ayman alZawahiri, who protesteg that such tactics would harm the jihadi movement, al-Qaeda was unable to sufficiently pressure its affiliate to discontinue these attacks. Consequently, al-Qaeda disengaged with al-Qaeda in Iraq and sought other affiliates.

The paper now addresses the question of how al-Qaeda's current organizational structure impacts its capacity to spread its ideology, recruit, and execute attacks. To answer this question, the next section begins with a summary of the advantages information technology presents to organizations, and then proceeds to analyze al-Qaeda's use of information technology prior to and following 9/11. "Glocalizing" al-Qaeda: Dune on the Web

The importance of the Internet and other information technology to movements attempting to generate social change —–especially movements endangered by powerful enemies — has been welldocumented byyscholars and journalists.16.A few ofThe advantages presented by the Internet will be discussed. First, the Internet allows for the flowering of free speech and the discussion of culturally or politically taboo issues without the fear of censorship (Brachman 149). Anyone can set up a website and present their beliefs to the online community. Indeed, the emergence of online forums focused on specific themes has allowed website creators to foster a community of like-minded individuals who can present and debate arguments and provide support for one another on topics that would be considered non-mainstream.

Second, the Internet allows for the consumer of Internet products to access these goods anonymously. Consequently, governments and other institutions have a difficult time tracing who has accessed what websites, and thus consumers of illicit or otherwise maligned products are able to access these goods without fear of detection or reprisal..Third, the Internet is accessible in most states and media placed on the web can be accessed instantly. This means that a message posted by a single user in one location can be viewed instantly by millions of consumers who may reside in several distinct locations.

The ability of the Internet to amplify messages, especially the messages of disorganized, endangered, or fringe movements that lack (or are prevented from obtaining) the resources that would allow them to successfully voice their opinions through more traditional avenues, is truly astounding.17

Prior to 9/11, al-Qaeda employed the Internet primarily for operational communication. One of the architects 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, used chat software to communicate with hijackers. Telephone services on the web were also used to plan attacks, including 9/11 (Wilson 18). Websites discussing al-Qaeda's vision were also present prior to 9/11 (Brachman 153). Despite this usage of the Internet and other information technology, such exploitation was not of central importance to the al-Qaeda leadership prior to 9/11. The centralized nature of al-Qaeda and the ability of its leadership to further its ideological vision under the hierarchical and hub network approaches meant that violence was an appropriate avenue through which the organization could spread its "clash of civilizations" paradigm and accomplish other organizational goals, such as recruitment.

As noted above, the U.S. assault against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan led to drastic alterations in the international arena and within al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda was transformed into a "dune" organization that lacked the effective command and control and communication chain extant in its hierarchical and network incarnations. It was unable to maintain training camps or generate the high-impact, transnational violence that distinguished it from other terror groups. This organizational reconfiguration required a reconceptualization by al-Qaeda's leadership of the role "al-Qaeda the embattled organization" could play in securing al-Qaeda's ideological vision and a reassessment of the organization's tactics.

The result of this re-conceptualization was a reconsideration of the organization's exploitation of the Internet and other information technology for ideological and recruitment purposes. Abu Musab al-Suri, an "intellectual mentor" to bin Laden, is responsible for the organization's newfound appreciation for technology (Brachman 159). Al-Suri intended to: …transfer the training to each house of each district in the village of every Muslim… making appropriate training materials available to more than a billion Muslims… Taking advantage of information technology like the Internet, Suri contends that anyone interested can access military and ideological training in any language, at any time, anywhere.

Muslim homes, as envisioned by Suri', not only become the new training camps, where families can recruit, educate and train, but also serve as staging grounds from which ideological adherents are able to consolidate their strength and wage terrorism. Further complicating matters, Suri articulates expanded opportunities [for] participation in jihad for the large numbers of Muslims who may agree with the ideology he advances but are reluctant to engage in acts of violence. (Downing and Meese, emphasis add).

Al-Suri understood that the Internet provided the "dune" organization (which lacked any territorial institutional presence from which it could base its organizational operations) with the opportunity to continue recruitment at a global level, rediscover and re-network with the remnants of the organization that had survived, and "reconstitute [its] leadership" (Brachman 153). The Internet effectually provides alQaeda with an avenue through which it may overcome the organizational limitations it currently experiences and maintain its ideological integrity and present its worldview without the censorship associated with other forms of media. Lacking a secure territory, the Internet now serves as al-Qaeda's institutional base (Saltman 4).

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