Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting al-Qa'ida's Organizational Vulnerabilities

This study, conducted by the faculty and research fellows of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point, serves multiple purposes, the most important of which is contributing to the depth of knowledge about the al-Qa'ida movement. Evidence supporting the conclusions and recommendations provided in this report is drawn from a collection of newly-released al-Qa'ida documents captured during recent operations in support of the Global War on Terror and maintained in the Department of Defense's Harmony database. In the text of these documents, readers will see how explicit al-Qa'ida has been in its internal discussions covering a range of organizational issues, particularly regarding the internal structure and functioning of the movement as well as with tensions that emerged within the leadership.

In the first part of the report, we provide a theoretical framework, drawing on scholarly approaches including organization and agency theory, to predict where we should expect terrorist groups to face their greatest challenges in conducting operations. The framework is informed as much as possible by the captured documents, and provides a foundation upon which scholars can build as more of these documents are declassified and released to the public.

Our analysis stresses that, by their nature, terrorist organizations such as al-Qa'ida face difficulties in almost any operational environment, particularly in terms of maintaining situational awareness, controlling the use of violence to achieve specified political ends, and of course, preventing local authorities from degrading the group's capabilities. But they also face problems common to other types of organizations, including private firms, political parties, and traditional insurgencies. For example, political and ideological leaders--the principals--must delegate certain duties to middlemen or low-level operatives, their agents. However, differences in personal preferences between the leadership and their operatives in areas such as finances and tactics make this difficult and give rise to classic agency problems.

Agency problems created by the divergent preferences among terrorist group members present operational challenges for these organizations, challenges which can be exploited as part of a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy. Thus, the theoretical framework described in this report helps us identify where and under what conditions organizations can expect the greatest challenges in pursuing their goals and interests. Understanding a terrorist organization's internal challenges and vulnerabilities is key to developing effective--and efficient--responses to the threats they pose and to degrade these groups' ability to kill. The captured al Qa'ida documents contribute significantly to this type of understanding.

Our analysis emphasizes that effective strategies to combat threats posed by al-Qa'ida will create and exacerbate schisms within its membership. Members have different goals and objectives, and preferred strategies for achieving these ends. Preferences and commitment level vary across specific roles performed within the organization and among sub-group leaders. Defining and exploiting existing fissures within al-Qa'ida as a broadly defined organization must reflect this intra-organizational variation in preferences and commitment in order to efficiently bring all available resources to bear in degrading its potential threat. While capture-kill options may be most effective for certain individuals--e.g., operational commanders--we identify a number of non-lethal prescriptions that take into account differences in al-Qa'ida members' preferences and commitment to the cause. Many of our prescriptions are intended to induce debilitating agency problems that increase existing organizational dysfunction and reduce al-Qa'ida's potential for political impact.

To achieve long-term success in degrading the broader movement driving terrorist violence, however, the CTC believes the United States must begin aggressively digesting the body of work that comprises jihadi macro-strategy. We therefore also seek to apply our model to the ideological dimension of al-Qa'ida revealed in numerous instances in these documents, the goal being to identify ways to facilitate the ideational collapse of this body of thought. The included documents provide insights into the points of strategic dissonance and intersection among senior leaders that must be better understood in order to be exploited.

In sum, this theoretically informed analysis, along with assessments of the individual captured documents themselves, contributes to existing bodies of research on al-Qa'ida. It provides several tools for identifying and exacerbating existing fissures as well as locating new insertion points for counterterrorism operations. It presents an analytical model that we hope lays the foundation for a more intellectually informed approach to counterterrorism. And perhaps, most importantly, this assessment demonstrates the integral role that scholars can play in understanding the nature of this movement and in generating smarter, more effective ways to impede its growth and nurture the means for its eventual disintegration.