Redefining Counterterrorism

The Terrorist Leader as CEO

By Bruce Hoffman

Bruce Hoffman, director of RAND’s Washington office and acting director of the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy, is among the world’s foremost authorities on terrorism.

Indonesians praying

Indonesians pray for the victims at the site of the Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta on Aug. 9, 2003, four days after the suicide car bombing by the al Qaeda-linked group Jemaah Islamiyah killed 11 people.

Killing Osama bin Laden will not quash the terrorist threat from al Qaeda, because the group sees the war it started as an epic struggle lasting years if not decades. The group has shown itself to have a deeper"bench" than was previously thought and to have some form of"corporate succession" plan. In fact, the closest organizational relative to al Qaeda is perhaps a private multinational corporation. And bin Laden himself is perhaps best viewed as a terrorist CEO.

He has applied business administration and modern management techniques learned both at the university and in the family’s construction business to the running of a transnational terrorist organization. He obtained a degree in economics and public administration in 1981 from Saudi Arabia’s prestigious King Abdul Aziz University. He then cut his teeth in the family business, honing the management and organizational skills that later enabled him to transform al Qaeda into the world’s preeminent terrorist movement.

He has implemented for al Qaeda the same type of effective organizational framework adopted by many corporate executives throughout much of the industrialized world over the past decade. Just as large, multinational business conglomerates moved during the 1990s to flatter, networked structures, bin Laden did the same with al Qaeda.

He defined a flexible strategy for the group that functions at multiple levels, using both top-down and bottom-up approaches. On the one hand, he has functioned like the president or CEO of a large multinational corporation by defining specific goals, issuing orders, and ensuring their implementation. This function applies mostly to the al Qaeda"spectaculars"—those high-visibility, usually high-value, and high-casualty operations like 9/11, the attack on the USS Cole, and the 1998 east Africa embassy bombings.

On the other hand, he has operated as a venture capitalist by soliciting ideas from below, by encouraging creative approaches and out-of-the-box thinking, and by providing funding to those proposals he finds promising. Several attacks by groups affiliated with al Qaeda attest to this approach. The attacks include those staged by Jemaah Islamiyah in Bali in October 2002 and Jakarta in August 2003; by al-Assiriyat al-Moustaqim in Morocco in May 2003; and by the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders Front in Turkey in November 2003.

Al Qaeda deliberately has no single, set modus operandi—which makes the group all the more resilient and formidable. Instead, bin Laden built a movement that actively encourages subsidiary groups fighting under the corporate banner to mix and match approaches, employing different tactics and varying means of attack and operational styles in a number of locales.

Even in the post 9/11 era, when al Qaeda has been relentlessly tracked, harassed, and weakened, the corporate succession plan seems to have functioned. The group appears to retain at least some depth in numbers as evidenced by its replenishment abilities to produce successor echelons for the mid-level operational commanders who have been killed or captured.

The U.S. Congress has put the number of persons trained at al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, Sudan, and Yemen at some 70,000–120,000 worldwide. Even if this figure is grossly exaggerated, the potential pool of even a few thousand well-trained and battle-hardened fighters ensures a sufficiently deep well of expertise from which to continue to draw.

In terms of al Qaeda’s finances, sufficient monetary reserves likely still exist. According to one estimate, some $130 million of identifiable al Qaeda assets have been seized or frozen to date. Given that bin Laden amassed a war chest of as yet undetermined dimensions, ample funds may still be at the disposal of his minions.

At one point, bin Laden was reputed to own or control some 80 companies around the world. In Sudan alone, he owned the country’s most profitable businesses, including construction, manufacturing, currency trading, import-export, and agricultural enterprises. Not only did many of these regularly turn a profit, but the profit was then funneled to al Qaeda cells that operated largely as self-sufficient, self-reliant terrorist entities in the countries within which they operated.

Al Qaeda’s resiliency and longevity are predicated not on the total number of jihadists that it might have trained in the past but on its continued ability to recruit, to mobilize, and to animate both actual and would-be fighters, supporters, and sympathizers. It is significant that, despite the punishment meted out to al Qaeda over the past 30 months, it remains a potent terrorist threat and destabilizing force in world affairs.

Underpinning al Qaeda’s worldwide operations is bin Laden’s vision, self-perpetuating mythology, and skilled acumen at effective communications. His message is simple. According to his propaganda, the United States is a hegemonic, status quo power that opposes change and props up corrupt and reprobate regimes that would not exist but for American backing.

There is no doubt that the United States and other governments have made significant progress in the war against global terrorism in recent months. Airports and planes are far better protected. Likely targets are surrounded by new barriers and other security measures. Many terrorists are in prison or in graves as a result of counterterrorism work by the United States and its allies.

But all that al Qaeda needs is one new successful attack. Governments appear to be only as good as their last failure. No matter how many attacks are prevented, no matter how many people are not killed daily by terrorists, what is remembered is the small number of attacks that succeed.

The epic battle launched by bin Laden is not over. If anything, because of what al Qaeda sees as America’s global war on Islam (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and as America’s commitment to ensuring the longevity of morally bankrupt regimes (in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere), al Qaeda’s commitment and sense of purpose today are arguably greater than ever. The group’s stock has evidently not plummeted among its investors. These factors point to a long struggle ahead in the war against al Qaeda’s brand of corporate terrorism.

Related Reading


Al Qaeda, Trends in Terrorism and Future Potentialities: An Assessment, Bruce Hoffman, RAND/P-8078, 2003, 19 pp., $15.00.

“The Leadership Secrets of Osama Bin Laden: The Terrorist as CEO,” The Atlantic Monthly, April 2003, Vol. 291, No. 3, pp. 26–27, Bruce Hoffman.

Lessons of 9/11, Bruce Hoffman, RAND/CT-201, 2002, 28 pp., $5.00.

"Tomorrow’s Threat: A Terror Expert Discusses How to Fight Groups Like Al Qaeda—and What They Could Do Next," Newsweek, online interview with Bruce Hoffman, Jan. 23, 2004, http://msnbc.msn.com/id/4044937/.

"What Can We Learn from the Terrorists?" Global Agenda, 2004, pp. 32–34, Bruce Hoffman.