What al Qaeda and AIG Have in Common

Papers show Osama bin Laden faced leadership challenges similar to a CEO's.

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Its image was suffering. Quality was down. Affiliates around the world were getting a different message than headquarters intended to send.

[Photo gallery: One Year After Osama bin Laden's Death.]

It sounds like the kind of strategic dilemma faced by troubled companies such as Resarch in Motion, Sears, Yahoo, or Sony. But these weren't the concerns of a CEO. They were the worries of Osama bin Laden, as expressed in documents snatched from his Pakistani compound after Navy SEALs killed the al Qaeda leader last year. A small portion of those documents have now been synthesized in a report published by a government counterterrorism center.

The report explains that al Qaeda went through a kind of spontaneous expansion after the 9-11 attackes, which it orchestrated. "It was in 2003 that the branding of al Qaeda took off," the report says. Terrorist groups in the Middle East, Africa, and other parts of the world basically began adopting the al Qaeda name, hoping to capitalize on its renown. Some of those groups identified with bin Laden's cause, even if they had no formal connection to the group he led.

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Bin Laden faced the kinds of challenges many business leaders confront at key junctures for their companies. He couldn't sue for copyright violations, and he was reluctant to deliberately "franchise" al Qaeda (his word, according to the government report). Yet he also sought ways to leverage events such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the "Arab Spring" revolutions for al Qaeda's benefit. The trick was achieving what business leaders might call "smart growth": carefully targeted expansions that don't create unmanageable overhead or cause grief for the parent organization. As in many companies, there was internal pushback against some of bin Laden's strategic decisions.

As more terrorist groups adopted the al Qaeda name, it created the ominous impression that al Qaeda was aggressively expanding. But the bin Laden documents suggest it was a fractious arrangement that was never likely to gel. One jihadist in Indonesia, for instance, described his group's relationship with al Qaeda as similar to that of a "business affiliate." "We can ask them for an opinion but they have no authority over us," he wrote in a letter, according to the government report. "We are independent, like Australia and the U.S. But when it comes to an operation we can join together."

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Any business leader knows that an autonomous, free-wheeling division can go rogue and generate lots of headaches. The textbook case is probably AIG's Financial Products division, a small London-based unit that made most of the huge and ruinous deals several years ago that ultimately wrecked the worlds's biggest insurance company. AIGFP, as it was known, was ultimately shuttered.

Bin Laden apparently had similar concerns about his own affiliates. He personally disapproved of suicide bombings and other terrorist operations that killed innocent Muslims, worrying that they could sully al Qaeda's image when carried out in its name. He tried to centralize control over all operations carried out by any branch of al Qaeda, but failed to rein them in. "The tone in several letters authored by Bin Laden makes it clear that he was struggling to exercise even a minimal influence over them," according to the government report.

Bin Laden also tried to coordinate a coherent messaging strategy among the various affiliates. "The importance of having a sophisticated and coherent media strategy was critical for Bin Laden," according to the report. Successful companies like Apple and IBM would surely agree with the importance of having a unified message, delivered with discipline. But bin Laden couldn't pull that off, either.

Bin Laden's death may have opened the door to the kind of franchise arrangements that others in the organization apparently sought. Nine months after his death, the new leaders of al Qaeda announced an enhanced union with a prominent terrorist group in Somalia. Other such alliances may follow. Watch the wires for updates on al Qaeda's new globalization strategy.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.