What is the optimal size of a global terror organization?

It looks like leaders of global terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda could benefit from lessons in organizational theory and on the theory of the firm. As William McCants argues in Foreign Affairs, it looks like al-Qaeda may have expanded too fast under its current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, thereby resulting in the HQ’s loss of control over its subsidiaries, franchises and affiliates in the Middle East, Somalia and the Maghreb.  

As the political scientist Jacob Shapiro observes in his new book, The Terrorist’s Dilemma, all terrorist groups suffer from infighting for one basic reason. If they want to achieve their goals and to avoid being captured or killed, leaders of secretive violent organizations have to give their commanders in the field some measure of autonomy. When the field commanders become too independent, the leadership attempts to rein them in through various bureaucratic measures.

Without a doubt, Zawahiri is trying to rein in his unruly affiliates. What is striking is that Zawahiri created much of the problem himself by trying to expand al Qaeda too broadly. The one affiliate that Zawahiri did not push into a new arena of jihad, the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has, unsurprisingly, avoided infighting. Zawahiri has now allegedly appointed AQAP’s leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, as al Qaeda’s ”general manager” and thus his eventual successor. Zawahiri had little choice but to promote from the ranks of AQAP, given the current disarray across the rest of al Qaeda.

But the organizational woes of al-Qaeda and affiliates should not give comfort to the global community. As McCants reminds us in his conclusion, dealing with a centralized terror group with an address (or quasi address) is better than trying to fend off lots of competing franchises [see here]: 

Zawahiri’s knack for creating factions and his unwillingness to part with them when they misbehave could help al Qaeda’s opponents blame the entire organization for the atrocities committed in its name. Over time, perhaps the bloody collage will dampen enthusiasm for joining al Qaeda and even horrify its members. But in the near term, Zawahiri’s poor management is not necessarily a boon to the United States and its allies. The various factions of a once-unified al Qaeda could compete with one another over which group can mount the biggest attack on the West. Whatever the case may be, Zawahiri’s inability to manage al Qaeda’s sprawling organization offers a preview of the infighting to come after his inevitable death.

Anyone know a good paper with a principal-agent analysis of terror organizations? 

Office Politics in Terror Organizations

Anyone who has done consulting work knows how much it sucks to do the paperwork for the accounts people (Oh, and by the way, It’s worse if you are a “resident alien”).

Apparently, terrorists don’t like writing expense reports too as is shown in this very fascinating AP story about the leader of a Sahara terror group Moktar Belmoktar (who may, or may not, be dead). The piece delves into the rivalries and intrigues that we know to be present in normal business establishments. It is a must read. 

The employee, international terrorist Moktar Belmoktar, responded the way talented employees with bruised egos have in corporations the world over: He quit and formed his own competing group. And within months, he carried out two lethal operations that killed 101 people in all: one of the largest hostage-takings in history at a BP-operated gas plant in Algeria in January, and simultaneous bombings at a military base and a French uranium mine in Niger just last week.

In a letter found by AP in Mali, Moktar Belmoktar’s superiors complained that:

He would not take their phone calls. He refused to send administrative and financial reports. He ignored a meeting in Timbuktu, calling it “useless.” He even ordered his men to refuse to meet with al-Qaida emissaries. And he aired the organization’s dirty laundry in online jihadist forums, even while refusing to communicate with the chapter via the Internet, claiming it was insecure.

For more on the management of terror organizations check out this paper (H/T Monkeycage Blog)

What Obama’s re-election means for US Africa Policy

On the 14th of June this year President Obama outlined his policy for Sub-Saharan Africa. Included in the policy statement were four key strategic objectives: (1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security; and (4) promote opportunity and development.

In my view, of the four aspirational goals the one that will receive the most attention in the near future will be the third (especially security).

US strategic security interests in Africa mainly involve two key concerns: (1) China’s growing economic presence in the region and (2) the spread of Al-Qaeda linked groups in the region, stretching from Somalia to Mauritania (This is why Mali featured more prominently than the EU in the Presidential foreign policy debate). Before talking about China, here are my thoughts on the US campaign against  al-Qaeda in Africa.

While I don’t foresee any success in the creation of an African base for AFRICOM, the US will continue to cooperate with AU member states in fighting Islamist extremism in the region. The “successful” AU mission in Somalia could provide a blueprint for future operations against potential terror groups. The biggest lesson from Somalia is that the US cannot just pick one nation (in this case Ethiopia) to fight its wars in the region, and that a collaborative effort with the blessing of the regional umbrella organization (the AU) and others such as IGAD can deliver results.

Having helped (both directly and indirectly) in the ouster of Al-Shabaab from strategic locations in Somalia, the next big task will be dealing with the mushrooming Islamist extremism in the Sahel (especially in northern Mali but also in Niger and Nigeria).

The problem of extremism in the Sahel is further compounded by the link of some of the groups to the drug trade flowing from Latin America and into Europe. There is significant evidence that drug money has financed the activities of separatist groups in northern Mali. The fight against these groups will necessarily involve dealing with this crucial source of finance. This means that for the operation to succeed the US will have to engage in capacity building and the strengthening (and clean-up) of security institutions (especially the armies) in states like Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, South Africa, Kenya, among others, in which officials in the security sector have been implicated in the drug trade.

The Sahelian challenge might yet prove more formidable than Somalia. The latter case had relatively stable neighbors that served to contain the anarchy. The Sahel (Sahelistan, if you will) is much larger and includes some of the least governed spaces on the planet.

On China, the US (and for that matter, the rest of the West) has to change its present approach of total freak-out overt suspicion over Chinese involvement in Africa. Africans need protection from China only as much as they need protection from the West. China is not out to “exploit” Africa any more than the West has. Nobody should expect China to engage Africa more benevolently than the West did for the better part of the last 60 years (Mobutu and Bokassa were not that different from Bashir and Mugabe).

A constructive approach ought to include policies designed to strengthen African states so that they can engage China on their own terms. It is ultimately African leaders who mortgage their resources and sovereignty to China (or the West). Instead of focusing too much on China, a better approach might be one that creates strong regional organizations (like the SADC or the EAC) that can improve the bargaining power of African states.

The other policy objectives outlined by Obama appear to fall in the business-as-usual category. Democracy promotion will not yield much in the face of other more pressing priorities (notice how security has triumphed over democracy in Mali). And unless the US is willing to get involved in massive infrastructure projects like China has (last time I checked they were in 35 African states), I don’t see how it can help spur economic growth in the region (AGOA was great, but Africa needs something better). Plus the US continues to be hampered in its development-promotion efforts by its aversion to state industrial policy. It’s about time Foggy Bottom realized that it is really hard to have a thriving private sector and American-style free enterprise in places with bad roads, very few (and bad) schools, and governments that are run by personalist dictators. In these instances some corruption-laden developmental state policies may be the best way to go.

Kismayu Falls, Potential for Consolidation of Gains Still Unclear

Kismayu, the southern Somalia town that was the last holdout of Al-Shabaab has fallen. Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) took control of the town early Friday. It is still unclear what happened to many of the fighters that had dug in to defend the town from KDF and AMISOM.

Somalia recently elected a new president and has shown signs of getting its act together after more than two decades of anarchy.

I hope that AMISOM will consolidate the recent gains and that Somali politicians will seize this opportunity to lay the groundwork for peace and stability moving forward.

I also hope that for KDF’s troubles Somali townspeople in Kismayu, Mogadishu and elsewhere will soon get to enjoy the services and products of Equity, KCB, Uchumi, Nakumatt, among other Kenyan companies. Economic integration of Somalia into the EAC, and similarly South Sudan and Eastern DRC, will be one of the key ways of guaranteeing a lasting peace in these trouble spots and in the wider Eastern Africa region.

More on the developing story here and here. You can also follow updates from the al-Shabaab’s twitter handle @HSMPress.

Photo credit.

Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, is dead at 57

The BBC reports:

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has died at the age of 57, state media say, after weeks of illness. A government spokesman said Mr Meles had died in a hospital abroad – but did not say exactly where or give details of his ailment. Speculation about his health mounted when he missed an African Union summit in Addis Ababa last month.

Mr. Zenawi is believed to have died in a Belgian hospital – the Saint-Luc University Hospital in Brussels (where he was allegedly receiving treatment for an acute case of hematologic cancer). The last time he was seen in public was on the 19th of June 2012 at the G20 summit in Mexico.

For now the leadership transition in Ethiopia, Sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous country, appears to have gone smoothly. According to the BBC report, the deputy Premier - Hailemariam Desalegn – will take over.

Mr. Desalegn is from the south of Ethiopia, away from the political centre of gravity of the country, which for centuries has been to the north – in Tigray and Amhara dominated areas.  

It is not yet clear if the smooth transition will stick. As the Economist reported a couple of weeks ago:

“power [in Ethiopia] has still rested with a clutch of Mr Meles’s comrades from his home area of Tigray in northern Ethiopia, many of them once members of a Marxist-Leninist group that used to admire Albania’s long-serving Communist leader, the late Enver Hoxha. This hard core, including the army’s chief of staff, General Samora Younis, retains a “paranoid and secretive leadership style”, according to a former American ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn. Were Mr Meles to leave in a hurry, relations between the young modernisers and the powerful old guard might fray.”

Under Mr. Zenawi (May 1991- Aug. 2012) Ethiopia was a mixed bag. His rule was characterized by one of the worst human rights records in the world. But he also brought some semblance of stability following the misguided and murderous Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of the Derg under Mengistu Haile Mariam; and presided over an economy with one of the fastest growth rates on the Continent.

It is also under Meles Zenawi that Ethiopia invaded Somalia to rid it of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which was beginning to spread Somalia’s chaos into Ethiopia’s Ogaden region (it helped that the U.S. also wanted the ICU ousted from Mogadishu because of their alleged links of al-Qaeda).

A recent profile in the Atlantic summarizes it all:

“for every Muammar Qaddafi there’s a Meles Zenawi, the shrewd, technocratic Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Inside of the country, he’s known for imprisoning his political opponents, withholding development assistance from restive areas, stealing elections, and cracking down on civil society NGOs. In the rest of the world, he’s often praised for his impressive economic record, though not for his human rights. Zenawi has attracted Western support by being a responsible steward of aid money, a security partner in a rough region, and a G20 summit invitee.”

I remain cautiously optimistic that the Ethiopian ruling elite will pull through the rocky transition period. The next elections are due in 2015. In the current parliament the ruling party, the EPRDF, and its allies control nearly all of the 547 seats.

Beyond Ethiopia’s borders, the absence of Mr. Zenawi will certainly be felt in Somalia (which is presently struggling to get on its feet after decades of total anarchy and whose government partly depends on Ethiopian troops for security) and South Sudan (where Addis Ababa has been a broker in past conflicts between Khartoum and Juba). Ethiopia’s hostile relationship with Eritrea might also experience some change, most likely for the worse as whichever faction emerges victorious in Addis engages in sabre rattling in an attempt to prove their hold on power.