Once upon a time, I firmly believed that al-Qaeda was a decentralized network that self-synchronized to accomplish tasks. I placed stock in the idea that the “lone wolf” was the next wave of terrorist threat. Then I read the work of analysts like Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Leah Farall explaining al-Qaeda’s structure, strategy, and organization. By the time they had both convinced me of the error of my ways, the Bin Laden raid documents put paid to the notion of al-Qaeda post-2001 as an idea rather than a movement capable of exercising strategic direction.
So why do some analysts, as J.M. Berger ruefully tweeted, still believe in a decentralized and lone wolf-heavy al-Qaeda? Answering this question requires a detour through complexity science theory and the nuances of recent analysis on al-Qaeda’s command, control, and organization.
In their work on complex adaptive systems, John H. Miller and Scott E. Page make a distinction between “disorganized” complexity and “organized” complexity. Disorganized complexity involves large systems in which the features, rank, and organization of components is not important, and their interactions do not pose problems for statistical predictability. A casino, Miller and Page explain, may lose money from a single roulette spin of the roulette wheel, but the casino’s earnings will converge towards a predictable percentage over a large number of spins. The size of the system cancels out the impact of individual variations and smoothes them into predictable results.
But what if there is variation, meaningful interaction, and hierarchy in the system? Modeling the formation of a slum requires consideration of households, developers, and local politicians. The lower layer of the simulation features a bargaining process between households and developers, and the upper layer concerns political control over electoral wards that the real estate is located in. Both levels interface with each other, but each component of the system is unique and interactions create feedback loops leading to sometimes surprising results. This is called “organized complexity.” Each part of this large, differentiated, and ranked system may be independent in the short run, but in the long run it is also heavily affected by the interactions of the other parts.
The “leaderless jihad” analysis that Gartenstein-Ross and Berger criticize suggests al-Qaeda in its present state is analogous to a “disorganized” system like a cloud of gas. In the abstract, a world where al-Qaeda is anomic and leaderless—as is often posited by lone wolf-centric theories—might be the terrorism equivalent of Miller and Page’s “disorganized” casino. Each individual role of the dice or spin of the wheel might lead to the “house” losing, but a casino makes money because the odds ultimately are stacked against the player. In other words, “strategically defeated” al-Qaeda looks much like a gambler in Las Vegas. Sure, individual operatives or groups will get lucky, but in the long run the success or failure of individual plots and the fortunes of disjointed jihadis do not affect al-Qaeda’s overall dismal strategic outcome.
The evidence that Gartenstein-Ross and Farall cite suggests al-Qaeda exhibits organized complexity. Are there not qualitative distinctions between the respective building blocks that form al-Qaeda? Certainly the commonly noted differentiation between al-Qaeda Central and other al-Qaeda organizations implies different scales of organization, interaction, and ranking. However, a careful student of complexity may caution that “organized complexity” alone does not necessarily imply al-Qaeda is a centralized terrorist organization.
Centralization denotes more than just the fact that a system of interest has distinctive (and interacting) sub-parts. Both China and a forest are structures with hierarchy and could be mapped as a tree-like descending graph of systems and subordinate subsystems. But China is a political system with a president, a party, and police. Unless you are talking about Tolkein’s Tree-Ents, it would be a big stretch to imply China and a forest are equivalent simply because they are both “organized” in their complexity.
The concept of organized complexity, however, does suggest that what we consider “centralized” and “decentralized” ought to be re-examined. At one end of the centralization-decentralization scale is an assembly line that characterized al-Qaeda by the automatic execution of orders and rote scheduling characteristic of an early twentieth century automobile factory. At the other end is Marc Sageman’s concept of individual kin and friendship networks driving radicalization in a leaderless jihad without coherence and organization. But the evidence Farall and Gartenstein-Ross cites points toward a form of centralization distinguished by a core command group, branches, and franchises.
As Farall observes, al-Qaeda’s core exercises centralized authority on a broad level in order to ensure coordination of organizational actions and propaganda. A branch, like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was founded by al-Qaeda leadership and thus reliably follows direction. A franchise is another group that has sworn fealty to al-Qaeda, but may not follow every single command or suggestion. The chief task of the core is to regulate and approve matters concerning subsidiary areas of operation, attack templates, and relationships with other groups. Farall and Gartenstein-Ross observe that the core also encourages certain actions and can offer operational advice.
As Farall implies, centralized—albeit inefficient—direction does exist within al-Qaeda. A core leader lacks the smooth political-military planning apparatus that could pull together something as complicated and dangerous, for instance, as the Obama administration’s Bin Laden raid. Lines of authority are not always clear and the autonomy of individual organizational components can vary by type and contextual situation. But the command, control, precision, and professionalism of a wealthy Western military force are not the standard against which a covert terrorist organization with forces ranging from Africa to the Hindu Kush should be measured.
Instead, compare al-Qaeda to the typical combatant force on today’s battlefields. A factional leader fighting a modern civil war can expect varying degrees of loyalty, competence, and cooperation from the militias, guerrillas, soldiers, and partisan fighting units that make up his force on paper. He possesses a preponderance of power and influence, but not a monopoly. Given the needs of secrecy, his lack of resources, the political diversity of his group, and the dispersion of some of his units behind enemy lines, he is equipped to influence and supervise his subordinate formations, but not to control them.
Seen in this light, al-Qaeda is an “organized” complex system consisting of nested components and subcomponents. Its interacting parts can be understood as building blocks of the overall system. The center can certainly exercise broad strategic direction and control over the system, but the interactions of the semi-independent subparts may produce novel overall strategic outcomes not strictly planned by the leadership.
Our understanding of al-Qaeda’s organization and functioning is still uncertain, as is our assessment of its strategic progress. But we can observe that al-Qaeda survived the wrath of a superpower. It is responsive to local opportunities and (as seen with al-Qaeda in Iraq) can recover from defeat. Such flexibility and resilience certainly can be attributed to a substantial delegation of authority. But al-Qaeda’s wolves—even if they might hunt across the globe—always listen intently for the sound of one distinct howl. They may not all hunt together, but these wolves are far from alone. Some haven’t met him, and some never will, but all wolves follow the leader of the pack.
Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University and a columnist at War on the Rocks. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.
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