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Al-Qaida in Action and Learning:

A Systems Approach

Chuck Lutes

ELP 12

The George Washington University

In Fulfillment of Course Requirements for

HRD 380: Organizational Learning (Fall 2001)


Dr. David Schwandt



December 2001



Usama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist group can be described as a loosely coupled, highly adaptive networked organization. Its initial failure to topple the World Trade Center in 1993 was followed by chilling success in 2001. The ability of al-Qaida and its affiliates to conduct increasingly larger and more audacious terror operations through the intervening years suggests an enhanced pattern of organizational learning. The extent to which al-Qaida is able to sustain itself as a learning organization may determine their ability to survive and conduct further terrorist acts despite a sustained global anti-terror campaign by the United States.

In this paper, three models are used to describe the al-Qaida system. The first, a traditional military approach, treats the organization through a static lens. In the second, Parsons’ general theory of action is used to describe the multiple actions of the various cells and individuals that make-up the al-Qaida network. Finally, Parsons’ action frame of reference is further refined using the Organizational Learning Systems Model (OLSM) to describe al-Qaida’s ability to learn and adapt. The aim of this paper is to provide recommendations for denying al-Qaida’s ability to carry out further action and for inhibiting al-Qaida’s learning processes to ensure it cannot adapt to actions against it.

Al-Qaida in Action and Learning: A Systems Approach

"Almighty God also says ‘So lose no heart, nor fall into despair. For ye must gain mastery if ye are true in faith.’"

Usama bin Laden, et al (1998) in a fatwah issued against Americans

On February 26, 1993, a 1,200-pound explosive device contained in a rented Ryder van was detonated in a parking garage underneath one of New York City’s World Trade Center towers. As a result, six people died and more than 1,000 were injured (Reeve, 1999). The heinous crime was soon determined to be a terrorist act attributed to a loosely connected group of fundamentalist Islamic radicals. After a two-year search, the investigation netted the alleged mastermind of the plot. Ramzi Yousef, a British-educated Islamic extremist with ties to a little known Saudi-born financier named Usama bin Laden, was arrested and convicted for the bombings. Following his initial arrest in Pakistan, Yousef was secreted back to the United States in a military aircraft and transferred in handcuffs to a Sikorsky S-76A helicopter for a short flight to the FBI’s New York office. An FBI agent, Special Agent Bill Gavin, sat across from Yousef as they passed over Manhattan at 600 feet. Gavin pointed to the stalwart twin towers and remarked: "They’re still standing." Yousef, in defiance, icily replied, "They wouldn’t be if I had enough money and explosives" (Reeve, 1999, p. 109). On September 11, 2001, Yousef’s words echoed loudly above the explosion of two airliners as they crashed into the two towers of the World Trade Center, collapsing them under the weight of eight years of unchecked terrorist activity by bin Laden’s organization known as al-Qaida (‘The Base’) (Bergen, 2001).

What happened during the intervening time from the "failed" 1993 attempt to the ultimate terrorist success of 2001 will be a question that occupies the United States for many years to come. Undoubtedly, many pathologies will focus on failures within the U.S. government, from intelligence to surveillance to diplomatic. Perhaps a more useful analysis might be to instead consider what contributed to al-Qaida’s success during that time, particularly as the U.S. and its allies attempt to eliminate the effectiveness of al-Qaida as a terrorist organization in the future. This paper begins with the premise that al-Qaida succeeded on September 11 because it was able to learn from its previous experiences. Because of this, it is useful to consider al-Qaida from an organizational cognition frame of reference to yield valuable insights on how it may adapt in the future.

Newtonian physics suggests that a particle can be described by its position, its change in position over time (velocity), and its change in velocity over time (acceleration). An organization can be viewed in a similar vein. Static systems models describe an organization, particularly its structure, at a given point of time. Dynamic models, such as Parsons’(2001) theory of action, describe how an organization changes over time through action. Learning models, such as Schwandt and Marquardt’s (2000) Organizational Learning Systems Model, describe how the capacity for change occurs over time. In this paper, all three perspectives will be applied to the al-Qaida organization to determine the value of such a Newtonian description.

Following a brief background and history of the al-Qaida network, this paper applies three alternative models for viewing al-Qaida as a system. In the first, a traditional military view provides a static description of the organization. In the second, Parsons’ General Theory of Action (Parsons and Shils, 2001) will be used to model the subsystems of the organization. Finally, turning to more specific literature concerning learning and cognitive processes, this paper will use Schwandt and Marquardt’s (2000) Organizational Learning Systems Model (OLSM) for analysis of al-Qaida’s capability for organizational learning. Theories of loosely coupled, adaptive networks will also be considered to complete the description. In conclusion, this paper will examine the implications of the action and cognitive frames of analysis for countering terrorist organizations.

Al-Qaida: Chronology of Terror

Al-Qaida serves as the informal organizational structure for a loose confederation of extremist Islamic fundamentalists and supporters in some 55 countries. It originated from a network of Afghani mujahadeen (freedom fighters) that fought to expel the Soviet Union following its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. The original group, known as Mekhtab al Khidemat (MAK), took on a more international flavor in 1989 and emerged as al-Qaida. Currently, it exists as an international terrorist network heavily funded and led by Usama bin Laden. This loosely knit network is itself comprised of dozens of terrorist organizations worldwide. Its operations serve to carry out bin Laden’s declared jihad (holy war) to all corners of the globe. Bin Laden’s goal is to establish a pan-Islamic Caliphate throughout the world by working with allied Islamic extremist groups to overthrow regimes it deems "non-Islamic" and expelling Westerners and non-Muslims from Muslim countries (Alexander & Swetnam, 2001; Bergen, 2001; Reeve, 1999; U.S. Department of State [DoS], 2001a-e).

The U.S. Department of State (2001e) attributes a variety of terrorist acts to al-Qaida since 1992. In its first known acts of violence, the group claims to have conducted three bombings that targeted U.S. troops in Aden, Yemen, in December 1992. Additionally, al-Qaida has claimed to have shot down U.S. helicopters and killed U.S. servicemen in Somalia in 1993, in support of Farah Adid. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was carried out by operatives affiliated with bin Laden and al-Qaida (Reeve, 1999). The United States has provided legal evidence that al-Qaida conducted the bombings in August 1998 of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that killed at least 301 persons and injured more than 5,000 others (U.S. v. bin Laden, 2001). More recently, the United States holds evidence against al-Qaida for the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden, Yemen in October, 2000, as well as the devastating September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (Bergen, 2001; DoS, 2001a). The U.S. has also linked al-Qaida to the following plans that were not carried out: to assassinate Pope John Paul II during his visit to Manila in late 1994; simultaneous bombings of the U.S. and Israeli Embassies in Manila and other Asian capitals in late 1994; the midair bombing of a dozen U.S. trans-Pacific flights in 1995; and a plot to kill President Clinton during a visit to the Philippines in early 1995. It also plotted to carry out terrorist operations against U.S. and Israeli tourists visiting Jordan for millennial celebrations. (Jordanian authorities thwarted the planned attacks and put 28 suspects on trial.)

From this chronology, it is apparent that al-Qaida operations experienced a mixture of early failures and successes, with an increasing frequency of success over the last three years. This suggests a pattern of organizational learning that has enabled the network’s ability to carry out increasingly more complex operations. To gain a better understanding of al-Qaida’s ability to learn and coordinate action, this paper turns to three models of analysis, beginning with a static systems view.

Al-Qaida as a System: A Static View

At least since world war two, military planners have understood the value of describing their enemies as systems (Rinaldi, 1996). The most successful application of such a view occurred in the air campaign of Desert Storm (Reynolds, 1995; Mann, 1995). In designing that campaign, Air Force Colonel John Warden developed a systems model of warfare that is still in vogue among military planners today (Rinaldi, 1996). Figure 1 shows the "five-rings model" that Warden maintains can be used to represent any type of organization that operates autonomously, whether it be a human body, a drug cartel, an electrical grid, a terrorist organization, or an enemy nation (Warden, 1995).

Warden rings

As the name implies, this model portrays an enemy system as a set of five concentric rings (Warden, 1995; Rinaldi, 1996). To explain this model, Warden uses the human body as a simple example. The innermost ring represents the central leadership or direction of the system, which Warden equates to the brains of the human system. In this ring are the most crucial functions for normal operation of the enemy. The next most critical ring, organic essentials, contains key production (military and nonmilitary), energy sources, and other vital resources. In the human system, this would equate to resources obtained from the external environment and necessary for survival, such as food, water, and oxygen; and those organs required for processing them: the heart, lungs and liver. The third ring encompasses the infrastructure of the system—its transportation networks, factories, and so forth. In the body, this ring would include bone, blood vessels, and muscles. The fourth ring contains the population and the food sources of the enemy system, similar to the millions of cells that make up the human body and transport food and oxygen. The outermost ring represents the fighting mechanism or fielded enemy forces. In humans, these defense mechanisms include specialized cells such as white blood cells designed to fight off viruses and bacteria. In applying this model militarily, Warden suggests that because the innermost rings are more essential for survival, effective military action would target leadership and organic essentials to cause paralysis within the entire system.

The "five-rings model" provides a simplified picture of al-Qaida as a system. In the first ring, Usama bin Laden is the most widely recognized leader of the al-Qaida organization (Alexander & Swetnam, 2001; Bergen, 2001). In fact, before the notoriety of the September 11 attacks, al-Qaida was rarely mentioned in name and referred to simply as "the bin Laden network" (Arquilla, Ronfeldt, & Zanini, 1999). He is supported by a loose command and control structure, which includes a maijlis al shura (consultation council) that considers, discusses, and approves major policies and actions (Alexander & Swetnam, 2001). The group also has a military committee, that considers and approves terrorist actions; a business committee, that oversees al-Qaida front businesses and financial matters; a fatwah or religious committee, that deliberates religious rulings; a media committee that prints information and interfaces with foreign news organizations; and even a travel office (DoS, 2001b). Within this defined committee structure, the leadership provides broad policy guidance and allows a high-degree of autonomy to its affiliated sub-organizations. Leadership functions are well-dispersed and key individuals difficult to identify and easily replaced (Callard, 2001). This flat structure, without rigid command and control, makes al-Qaida highly resilient to attacks against its leadership (Reeve, 1999; Callard, 2001). Simply removing bin Laden from the organization would likely have little effect on its operational capability (Byman & Pollack, 2001).

Organic essentials (the second ring) include finances, safe haven from state sponsors, and religious support. Al-Qaida’s financial support comes from bin Laden’s personal family fortune estimated to be $270-$300 million; an extensive business organization with companies dealing in finance, construction, and agriculture; and contributions from sympathetic Islamic nations, businesses, and charitable organizations (Alexander & Swetnam, 2001, p. 29; DoS, 2001e). Safe haven and other material support is provided by friendly governments in Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and other locations (Reeve, 1999). Finally, al-Qaida and other Islamic terrorist organizations are sustained by ideological support of religious clerics and mullahs, which gives them legitimacy among the population (Stern, 1999).

An amorphous, ill-defined infrastructure (third ring) gives al-Qaida an adaptive capability (Lesser et al., 1999). Bergen (2001) describes al-Qaida as a sort of multi-national holding company, headquartered in Afghanistan, under the chairmanship of bin Laden, with subsidiary militant organizations in Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Kashmir—and links to cells in over 55 countries worldwide (Alexander & Swetnam, 2001). This network provides a high degree of structural autonomy (Burt, 1992) and enhances survivability. The population of the fourth ring consists of thousands of young militant volunteers providing support through recruiting, training, and resources (Bergen, 2001). A blurred line of distinction between the terrorists themselves and the population within which they operate is a unique characteristic of terrorist organizations (Callard, 2001). At al-Qaida’s front lines are the terrorists themselves (fifth ring), well-educated, worldly, clandestine, and willing to die for their cause (Finn, 2001). Among individual terrorists, ad hoc groups can be formed quickly, need no headquarters, and have no recognized leaders; making them more difficult to track and apprehend (Stern, 1999).

While Warden’s "five-rings model" provides a useful snapshot of the al-Qaida organization, it has a number of drawbacks. First, it does not capture the fluid and dynamic structure of the terrorist organization (Callard, 2001). More specifically, it does not address the dynamic interchanges that occur among elements of the system. Second, this model has an inherent bias to hierarchical structures and does not adequately deal with diffused networked systems (Rinaldi, 1996). Finally, Warden’s model assumes layered communication between and across various levels of the systems (Rinaldi, 1996). The loosely coupled nature of the various groups in the al-Qaida conglomerate are not linearly tied to a single command and control structure (Callard, 2001). To address these flaws, a more dynamic model is required to describe al-Qaida’s actions over time.

Al-Qaida as an Action System

Lesser et al. (1999, define international terrorism as: "encompassing those acts in which the terrorists crossed national frontiers to carry out attacks, or attacked foreign targets at home such as embassies or international lines of commerce as in airline hijackings." By this definition, it is clear that terrorist groups are organized for specific action, and that action may traverse numerous spatial, environmental, and organizational boundaries. This leads to the search for an action-oriented model as an alternative to view the al-Qaida organization.

Parsons discusses the conditions that must be met in order for an action system to persist, calling them functional prerequisites (Parsons & Shils, 2001). He defines them in terms of their external or internal orientation and identifies them as problems of allocation or integration. Relating these conditions yields four prerequisite functions that enable an action system to survive (Schwandt & Marquardt, 2000). The first, adaptation, is the series of exchange mechanisms between the system and its external environment. The second, goal attainment, is the series of actions that manages resources to attain goals and gratification. Integration, the third prerequisite, maintains coordination between parts. Finally, pattern maintenance, stores and distributes energy in the form of motivation. Schwandt and Marquardt (2000, p.48) graphically depict the relationship of these functions as shown in Figure 2. The dynamic nature of this model exists in its description of action within the system and external to the system. Parsons defines the exchanges between these subsystems as the medium of interchange. This continual circulation of resources describes the dynamic nature of the system. A look at al-Qaida through a Parsonian lens requires an analysis of each functional prerequisite and the interactions between them. These must be carried out or the organization cannot survive (Schwandt & Marquardt, 2000, p. 48).












Figure 2. Parson’s Four Functional Prerequisites (Schwandt & Marquardt, 1999)



In Parsons’ theory, the external allocation problem involves the allocation of attention among different possible goal and means objects so that all the demands of the situation will be met (Parsons & Shils, 2001). By allocating functions (or resources) to its various units, the system adapts to its environment. The adaptation function provides the means through which the collective is able to survive a changing environment and is the primary mechanism for external interaction (Parsons, 1960; Durkheim, 1895; Schwandt & Marquardt, 2000). Adaptation enables the organization to bring in resources necessary for system survival, and to outwardly shape its own environment. These resources are the primary exchange media with the other subsystems.

For al-Qaida, the adaptation function enables it to gather resources to carry out its terrorist actions. Its primary means of resources come from Usama bin Laden’s vast personal fortune. Bin Ladin, son of a billionaire Saudi family, is said to have inherited approximately $300 million that he uses to finance the group (DoS, 2001e). This inherent resource capability gives al-Qaida a unique adaptive capability in that it maintains an internally generated capacity for resources, enabling it to minimize external interaction when necessary. That said, Al-Qaida also maintains moneymaking front organizations, solicits donations from like-minded supporters, and illicitly siphons funds from donations to Muslim charitable organizations. These external resource generators are more susceptible to intervention from international authorities and pose some risk to al-Qaida. Finally, support from friendly governments in Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and elsewhere provides safe haven, sanctuary and material needed for training, recruitment, and terrorist actions (Alexander & Swetnam, 2001). For instance, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan has provided bin Laden with safe haven in which to operate and has allowed him to establish terrorist camps within its borders. In return for active support, the Taliban allow al-Qaida to operate freely, including planning, training, and preparing for terrorist activity. In addition, the Taliban provide security for the stockpiles of drugs, which are jointly exploited as a source of income ("The Case against Osama bin Laden," 2001). United States military actions against the Taliban are likely to weaken al-Qaida’s link to its environment and resource capabilities. Although difficult to sever, this exchange medium may be the easiest to identify and target.

Goal Attainment

Parsons sees the external integration problems as primarily cognitive (Parsons & Shils, 2001). Problems of this nature can be solved by actions that change the perception or cognition of the situation. Goal definition and attainment are means for resolving conflicts between cognized facts by explicitly re-organizing these perceived facts. The goal attainment function serves to define the goals of the system and manage the resources and effort needed to attain these goals and subsequent system gratification (Schwandt & Marquardt, 2000). For this prerequisite, power becomes the primary exchange medium with other subsystems.

In the al Qaida organization, goals are clearly articulated through public pronouncements as the issuance of jihads and fatwahs. Bin Ladin outlines his decrees as goals for all Muslims to "fight jihad and the cleanse land from these Crusader occupiers;" "to expel the enemies out of the sanctities of Islam;" and to "launch an attack on the American soldiers of Satan." ("The Case against Osama bin Laden," 2001). This clear articulation of the organizational goals serves as a call to action for Muslims to join al-Qaida in its efforts. Conducted through public fora, these statements provide external integration by forming public perception of the purposes for al Qaida’s actions. According to British evidence: "Since 1989, Osama bin Laden has conducted financial and business transactions on behalf of al-Qaida and in pursuit of its goals" ("The Case against Osama bin Laden," 2001). These goals provide the organization power and leverage for garnering resources to conduct its actions. This power also enables the internal allocation and integration processes by providing vision and clarity of purpose.

Pattern Maintenance

Parsons describes the internal allocation problem primarily as the allocation of functions and time to various need-dispositions so that all the requirements of the system will be met (Parsons & Shils, 2001). According to Schwandt and Marquardt (2000), pattern maintenance is the complex of actions that establish control, inhibit deviancies, maintain coordination between parts, and avoid serious disturbances. For this function, commitment is the primary medium of interchange with other subsystems.

Al-Qaida’s primary vehicle for attaining steadfast commitment is through its adherence to a radical fundamentalist Islamic ideology. Furthermore, disparate groups of Islamic militants rally behind bin Laden’s central goal of eliminating Western influence in the region. The power derived from the goal attainment subsystem directly enables the commitment of these organizations. Bin Laden is able to harness these groups, despite widely differing aims, into a broad coalition due to their commitment to the central objective of attacking the West (Reeve, 2001, p. 224).

Although difficult to counter in the short-term, this subsystem may be the most vulnerable. Disillusionment with violent tactics and strategy coupled with an oppressive societal structure may lead to decay in widespread commitment in the future. American actions should, over the long-term, be designed to hasten this decay by enhancing public perception of the West, strengthening moderate Islamics, and reinforcing traditional Islamic values of peaceful enterprise.


In Parsons’ General Theory of Action, social integration is attained through both the internalization of common values by the members of the collective and also the enunciation of prescriptive or prohibitory role expectations by occupants of responsible roles (Parsons & Shils, 2001). The integration function is the series of actions that accumulates and distributes energy in the form of motivation. Rocher (as cited in Schwandt & Marquardt, 2001) describes this as the point of contact between systems of action and the symbolic and cultural universe. For this function, influence is the primary medium of interchange with other subsystems.

In al-Qaida, bin Laden’s personal resources, his power, and the commitment of members to his cause gives him enormous influence both within the organizations and with its affiliated groups. According to Reeve (1999, p. 263), "the terrorists are more like members of a cult, receiving religious motivation and broad instructions via radio broadcasts, satellite television or, increasingly, via the Internet. Osama bin Laden can call on Islamic revolutionaries to attack America and Britain, and zealous young Muslims rise to the call." Through an extensive network of training camps, al-Qaida’s influence extends worldwide (Kelley, 2001). Destruction of these camps, and of al-Qaida’s other means of communication, would not likely diminish bin Laden’s influence in the short term. In fact, even bin Laden’s death may galvanize his support and continue to be a binding factor among his followers (Khalaf & Thornhill, 2001). Bynam and Pollack (2001) suggest that bin Laden’s greatest skill may be his organizational ability, and this accomplishment will long survive him. The possibility of sleeper agents, members in deep cover designated to initiate attacks following bin Laden’s death ("Watching for ‘Sleepers’ to Awake, 2001; Reeve, 2001), indicate the difficulty in disrupting this robust subsystem.

The analysis of the action system indicates the myriad of problems in attacking the al-Qaida organization. Traditional vulnerabilities from the five-ring model are not easily targeted. Parsons’ model suggests a longer-term approach, focused on destroying commitment to militant Islam. According to Reeve (2001), "unless the root causes of what drives them are defined and addressed, hate-filled young men from across the world will continue to learn the finer points of guerilla warfare and apply them." This indicates that analysis from a learning perspective may be useful in completing the picture of the al-Qaida organization.

Al-Qaida as a Learning System

Lesser et al (1999, p. 25) suggest that terrorist organizations such as al Qaida have an inherent capacity for learning:

An almost Darwinian principle of natural selection thus seems to affect terrorist organizations, whereby every new terrorist generation learns from its predecessors—becoming smarter, tougher, and more difficult to capture or eliminate. Terrorists often analyze the mistakes made by former comrades who have been killed or apprehended.

Parsons describes learning as "the acquisition or extinction of orientation and action tendencies"(Parsons & Shils, 2001, p. 125). In defeating a terrorist organization, one approach might be to hasten the extinction of these orientation and action tendencies. To do so requires an understanding of the organization’s learning processes.

Parsons and Shils (2001) suggest that there are two kinds of systematic changes occurring within a system. First, there are changes in performance processes that do not alter the structure of the system itself. In the second, changes in the structure or pattern of the system itself involve learning processes.

Schwandt and Marquardt’s (2000) Organizational Learning Systems Model (OLSM) is based on Parsons General Theory of Action as applied to these learning processes. The functional prerequisites of the OLSM provide the ability to describe the learning system in terms of concrete organizational actions associates with Parsons’ Action Theory (see Figure 3). The environmental interface subsystem represents the adaptation function and describes how information enters the learning system. The action/reflection subsystem represents the goal attainment function and describes the learning needs of the system. The dissemination and diffusion subsystem represents the integration function and describes the coordination within the learning system. Finally, the meaning and memory subsystem represents the pattern maintenance function and describes the maintenance of the general learning system’s pattern of action. In the case of al-Qaida, the changes in learning processes can be viewed through each of these subsystems in order to provide unique insight to the organization’s capability to adapt as its survival is threatened.











Figure 3. Organizational Learning Subsystems (Schwandt & Marquardt, 1999)


Environmental Interface

Schwandt and Marquardt (2000) describe the environmental interface subsystem as the portal for new information. In a learning system, new information is the "energy" required by an organization for survival. This new information becomes the interchange media that relates the environmental interface subsystem with the other subsystems in the organization. To understand al-Qaida, it is useful to understand the means and processes by which it acquires this "info-energy" from the outside world.

Huber (1991) discusses five processes of knowledge acquisition: congenital learning, experiential learning, vicarious learning, grafting, and searching. Of these, al-Qaida exhibits primarily experiential and vicarious learning as well as searching. Terrorist networks exhibit properties of experimental organizations through which experiential learning occurs. Lesser et al (1999) see strong evidence of adaptation of lethal means ranging from fertilizer bombs on the low end of the technological spectrum to chemical and biological capabilities at the higher end. The recent novel approach of using hi-jacked airliners as weapons of mass destruction further highlights the adaptive capability that is hallmark of experimental organizations. Reeve (1999) suggests evidence of vicarious learning by al-Qaida operatives that allegedly visited the site of Oklahoma City Federal building soon after its 1995 bombing by Timothy McVeigh. At a more tactical level, individual cells use scanning and noticing extensively in planning terrorist operations (Reeve 1999 & 2001; Bergen, 2001; Finn, 2001).

These highly adaptive and covert mechanisms of knowledge acquisition make the scanning process relatively impervious to disruption by outside forces. Levinthal and March’s (1993) discussion of adaptation among multiple actors offers an alternative to direct action against al-Qaida’s knowledge acquisition capability. They suggest that rapid adaptation by one party reduces the need for, and likelihood of, adaptation by another. The ability of U.S. forces to adapt through rapid information processing can slow the adaptation of the more primitive al-Qaida network. If new information captured in this subsystem can be made irrelevant by the time it is diffused to the other subsystems, sensemaking and enactment will collapse. Without relevant environmental information, the ability to link knowledge to action in the action/reflection subsystem would be seriously degraded.


The nexus of knowledge and action occurs in the action/reflection subsystem (Schwandt & Marquardt, 2000). Here the organization examines those actions that enable it to assign meaning to new information, thus creating goal reference knowledge. Daft and Weick (1984) describe this process of giving meaning to data as interpretation.

Once data is collected through the scanning process, interpretation is used to give meaning to the information. Daft and Weick (1984) outline four modes of interpretation: enacting, discovering, conditioned viewing, and undirected viewing. Of these, al-Qaida primarily exhibits enacting as its mode of interpretation. Weick (1979) describes enactment as the means by which organizations construct their own environment. They experiment, test, and simulate and they ignore precedent, rules, and traditional expectations. Stern (1999) suggests that terrorism inherently defies traditional expectations, thus enhancing the probability of success of terrorist acts. Usama bin Laden’s appearance in a videotape that surfaced on October 7th,2001 (Bergen, 2001) is an example of al-Qaida’s enactment of the events following September 11th by providing controlled images to the media. The war in Afghanistan has limited bin Laden’s ability to enact his environment directly, but al-Qaida cells in other countries, acting on bin Laden’s general instructions, may surface to influence the world stage through subsequent terrorist actions (Reeve, 2001).

Levinthal and March (1993) suggest that there is a limit to enactment. The classic tension between social construction of reality and the intervention of other reality process causes organizations to create simplified mental models. Through unpredictable global action, U.S. and other world governments can break down al-Qaida’s reality models and inhibit its ability to enact its environment. Such action would also have severe repercussions to the organization’s sensemaking ability, the primary output of the meaning and memory subsystem.

Meaning and Memory

The essence of the learning system is its meaning and memory subsystem from which the other subsystems draw guidance and control (Schwandt & Marquardt, 2000). It defines the ability of an organization to make sense of what is happening to it and remember the knowledge that is critical to its survival. This subsystem is made up of interpretative assumptions that are intrinsically linked to the organization’s culture. The subsystem also contains a series of storage mechanisms each with its own retrieval schema. Sensemaking is the primary interchange medium with the other subsystems and is represented by language and symbols.

Walsh and Ungson (1991) describe six storage bins that comprise most organizational retention facilities: individuals, culture, transformations, structures, ecology, and external archives. Memory systems within al-Qaida are primarily culturally aligned and not very robust. Some transformational memory can be observed through the extensive network of training camps (Kelley, 2001, November 26) and its rudimentary training manuals (Glasser, 2001). Individual memory storage is unreliable since participants in terrorist acts have a low survival rate. The primitive nature of the al-Qaida memory systems does not seem to significantly hamper its capacity for learning. Because it are rooted in the culture, this portion of the subsystem does not appear susceptible to short-term disruption. A more likely course exists in inhibiting the organization’s ability to derive meaning from its actions.

Weick (2001) describes sensemaking as the process of assigning meaning to organizational actions. He lists seven properties that distinguish it from other explanatory processes such as interpretation (described earlier). For Weick, sensemaking is: grounded in identity construction; retrospective; enactive of sensible environment; social; ongoing; focused on and by extracted cues; and driven by plausibility rather than accuracy. Weick’s application of the sensemaking construct to highly critical situations provides insight for disrupting al-Qaida operations. In analyzing forest fire fighting, Weick (1993) describes the breakdown of sensemaking in organizations. He describes a phenomena called a "cosmology episode" in which individuals are unable to sense the universe as orderly and rational, with a debilitating side effect that they lose touch with the organization. The constant bombardment of Taliban and al-Qaida positions by U.S. forces seems to have had such an effect on the al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Some evidence indicates that American airpower’s efficacy in Afghanistan lies not in its destructive force, but rather in its psychological effectiveness to shock and isolate the opposing force (Kelley, 2001, December 10). To affect sensemaking throughout the organization, a series of synchronized should be conducted by U.S. and friendly governments. Military bombardment in Afghanistan should be linked to simultaneous financial, political, and law enforcement actions worldwide. As the organization suffers multiple attacks in a variety of locations from a variety of unexpected means, sensemaking will begin to unravel. Weick also indicates that breakdowns in sensemaking are soon followed by collapses in structure. This links to the dissemination and diffusion subsystem and affects the structural integrity of the system.

Dissemination and Diffusion

Dissemination and diffusion is the primary subsystem for moving, transferring, retrieving, and capturing information and knowledge (Schwandt & Marquardt, 2000). It includes acts of communication, networking, management, coordination, and the implementation roles supporting the norms associated with the movement of information or knowledge. These means may be either formal or informal. The output produced from this subsystem for interchange is a dynamic structuring that integrates organizational structures, roles, norms, processes, and objects. Giddens (1979) describes "structuration" as the production and reproduction of social systems through the application of generative rules and resources. Thus, structuration is more than functional relationships; it also incorporated interactions within the system. This dynamic interaction enables the dissemination and diffusion subsystem to integrate the other three subsystems. For al-Qaida, its networked and loosely coupled nature is related to this structuration process.

The networked structure provides control, authority, and communication with lateral rather than vertical direction of communication (Burns & Stalker, 1961). Terrorist networks correspond to what Gerlach (1987) calls a "segmented, polycentric, ideologically integrated network" (SPIN):

By segmentary I mean that it is cellular, composed of many different groups … By polycentric I mean that it has many different leaders or centers of direction … By networked I mean that the segments and the leaders are integrated into reticulated systems or networks through various structural, personal, and ideological ties. Networks are usually unbounded and expanding … This acronym (SPIN) helps us picture this organization as a fluid, dynamic, expanding one, spinning out into mainstream society (p. 115).

An "all-channel" network design is increasingly in use among terrorist organizations, providing the advantages of decentralized decision-making and operations (Lesser et al, 1999). The network as a whole has little to no hierarchy and there may be multiple leaders. As discussed previously, this lack of single, central leadership, command or headquarters leaves no precise heart or head that can be targeted. Lesser et al (1999) suggest that this type of design may depend on dense communication of functional information. However, for al-Qaida, this vulnerability is compensated for by its loosely coupled nature.

Orton and Weick (1990) define loose coupling as a situation in which elements are responsive, but retain evidence of separate identity. Weick (2001, p. 384) suggests that systems with high differentiation and low integration, (as in the case of al-Qaida), may appear ineffective when judged by efficiency, but may be more successful in flexibility, ability to improvise, and capability for self-design. For al-Qaida, loose coupling is a social and cognitive solution to constant environmental change, to the impossibility of knowing another mind, and to limited information processing capacities (p. 401). Furthermore, a loosely coupled system need not be a vulnerable system (p. 385).

Al-Qaida’s loosely coupled, networked structure makes it adaptable and hard to target directly. In a tightly coupled network, disruption of communication and information flow could easily incapacitate the system. Yet as Weick (2001) suggests, feedback between action and consequence is slow and unreliable, thus instantaneous information is not central to action. Loose coupling enables al-Qaida to show stability in the presence of environmental change. Attempts to change that environment must be coordinated and synchronized to cause disruption in multiple nodes throughout the system. Such actions make vulnerable the sensemaking and enacting properties of the al-Qaida network, and thus show the most promise for systemic collapse.

Summary and Implications

This cursory analysis of the al-Qaida terrorist organization offered three analytic viewpoints with different implications for attacking the al-Qaida system. Warden’s five-ring model provided a simplified static systems description that proves inadequate for networked organizations. Its emphasis on leadership as a central node belies a traditional approach in the face of a non-traditional adversary. Through Parsons’ theories, a more dynamic analysis was used as an alternative. The model of an action system allowed for a deeper understanding of the manner in which al-Qaida is organized for action. Islamic militancy was determined to be a root cause of al-Qaida’s actions and offers a point of emphasis for long-term action to avoid re-creation of similar organizations in the future. Viewing al-Qaida as a learning system yielded additional insight for countering the network’s ability to adapt to U.S. actions against it. The Organizational Learning Systems Model suggests that multiple, synchronized, simultaneous actions against cells worldwide might be effective in collapsing al-Qaida’s sensemaking and enacting properties. Its unique, loosely coupled, networked structure makes traditional vulnerabilities difficult to attack.

The three levels of analysis provided unique reference points that must be accounted for in future actions against al-Qaida. The learning systems approach offered several added dimensions to the analysis that would not have been uncovered through more traditional approaches. The vulnerabilities of sensemaking and enacting were apparent, as was the difficulty in attacking leadership and structure. By virtue its dynamic nature, the cognitive frame of analysis pointed to systemic processes as potential areas for focus vice the more traditional static targets.

The challenge for the United States is to determine the best methods for disrupting action and learning processes. Military means are most effective against concrete objects and well-defined enemies. The initial focus on Afghanistan and its Taliban regime play to these traditional strengths. In opposing the concepts, hidden processes, and cultures that comprise the rest of the al-Qaida network, non-traditional approaches are required. So too is a well-defined sense of our own vulnerabilities from similar frames of reference. Future research should apply the cognitive approach to the U.S. system to understand our own vulnerabilities. Such an approach may also yield clues as to why the U.S. government failed to learn from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing as well as numerous terrorist acts in the intervening years.


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