Learning from Al Qaeda

The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Learning from Al Qaeda


IN OCTOBER 2003, SOON AFTER he arrived in Iraq to head the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force, now-retired Army general Stanley A. McChrystal and his fellow commanders got out a whiteboard and started to map out the organizational structure of the recently founded Al Qaeda in Iraq. "By habit, we started mapping the organization in a traditional military structure, with tiers and rows. At the top was [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi, below him a cascade of lieutenants and foot soldiers." But the more information the U.S. commanders got, the less their whiteboard drawing made sense.

The structure of Al Qaeda in Iraq was defined "not by rank but on the basis of relationships and acquaintances, reputation and fame.... Who trained together in the pre-9/11 camps in Afghanistan? Who is married to whose sister?" That structure allowed Al Qaeda in Iraq to grow quickly and recover swiftly from losses. A young Iraqi militant could start fighting, build a reputation, and be easily integrated into the network. One of the greatest advantages Al Qaeda in Iraq had was the "alarming" speed at which it could operate.

The U.S. military was the opposite of nimble. McChrystal sketched out the shape of the U.S. organization between Baghdad (headquarters) and a team in Mosul (commanded by David Petraeus, then a major general): an hourglass. "They met at just one narrow point"--a few antennas on top of a trailer in which the special operations forces worked. The antennas were incapable of transmitting classified information "with any timeliness. …

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