Learning from the organizational structure of al-Qaida

Studying organizations is hot today and here is some real-world evidence: US Special Operations forces were aided in their search for terrorists by mimicking al-Qaida’s structure.

One of the greatest ironies of the 9/11 Era: while politicians, generals and journalists lined up to denounce al-Qaida as a brutal band of fanatics, one commander thought its organizational structure was kind of brilliant. He set to work rebuilding an obscure military entity into a lethal, agile, secretive and highly networked command — essentially, the U.S.’ very own al-Qaida. It became the most potent weapon the U.S. has against another terrorist attack.

That was the work of Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal is best known as the general who lost his command in Afghanistan after his staff shit-talked the Obama administration to Rolling Stone. Inescapable as that public profile may be, it doesn’t begin to capture the impact he made on the military. McChrystal’s fingerprints are all over the Joint Special Operations Command, the elite force that eventually killed Osama bin Laden. As the war on terrorism evolves into a series of global shadow wars, JSOC and its partners — the network McChrystal painstakingly constructed — are the ones who wage it.

Very interesting. This story suggests that factors manpower, equipment, and even charismatic leadership can only go so far: an organization’s structure is vital to its outcome.

Several Weberian thoughts that I have:
1. If this course of action is now considered a success, would the rest of the Armed Forces (and even other organizations) be willing to change their organizational structures? Is this the end of bureaucracy in the Armed Forces or could there be other global situations or battlefields where a traditional bureaucratic structure works better?

2. The article places a lot of emphasis on General McChrystal and his finer and lesser moments. Is McChrystal a classic example of a “charismatic authority” and if so, can his work be routinized? In his forthcoming book, will McChrystal put himself at the center of the story? Since it sounds like JSOC has moved on without him with his ideas, was McChrystal’s ultimate role to introduce these ideas and then bow out? And if McChrystal is good at solving such problems, where could he be put to best serve?

A final thought: how would the American public respond to this idea that adopting al-Qaida’s ideas is what can make America (and its military) great? Is this American pragmatism at work?

0 thoughts on “Learning from the organizational structure of al-Qaida

  1. I worked at the bayonet-end of this theory during my second deployment for a task force under McChrystal. Our motto was “it takes a network to defeat a network.”

    And it works. And it was the most fulfilling time I had in the military. I’ve never had so much flexibility, freedom, and authority within my own lane as a relatively junior guy. Instead of being segregated by job like a normal army unit, all our desks were in one central area in a “fusion cell.” I developed my own targets by tapping into the resources and knowledge of the group, and if one of my targets was active RIGHT NOW, instead of passing a report down a chain where the guy on the business end gets it two hours later and moves on it an hour after that, I could literally run out of the office, jump into the vehicles with my guys, be there, and nab his ass within twenty minutes.

    The rest of the military will not adopt this model. The bureaucratic turf wars generally take precedence over the mission, to include down into the trenches of conventional COIN as it is happening right now on the ground (or was in 2009 when I was still in that world.) The problem is this obviates the necessity of a horde of staffers that are in mid-career someplace and exercise a great deal of influence. Most generals came from this pool and they continue to pick people like themselves to be generals. Petraeus had to FORCE the army to promote innovators like McMaster and Gian.

    To play the other side, frankly, part of the reason is that JSOC is one of the few commands in which the level of professionalism from top to bottom is high enough where you can actually trust everyone to get the job done if you take all the leashes off.

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    • This article reminded me of a video clip that I show my Intro students when talking about bureaucratic structures vs. more flattened structures. The clip shows IDEO, a well-known design firm, designing a shopping cart in a way that most companies would not pursue. But as you suggest, it requires that everyone be an expert in their own area before being part of collaborative teams.

      Here is the 8:13 clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M66ZU2PCIcM

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