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Why terrorists make lousy bosses

Much hilarity greeted the revelation, back in May, that al-Qaida requires its operatives to submit expense reports. Our fear of terrorists leads us to imagine them as superhuman; it’s a relief to learn that even they can’t escape bureaucratic hassles. And those expense reports are no exception, judging by Jacob Shapiro’s new book The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organisations. (Shapiro’s a political scientist; despite the subtitle, this isn’t a how-to guide.)

There’s a long tradition of trying to draw lessons in business from criminals: see, for example, Mob Rules: What The Mafia Can Teach The Legitimate Businessman, by former Gambino mobster Louis Ferrante, or a recent Businessweek article entitled Breaking Bad’s Management Lessons. Shapiro avoids that trap: terror groups, in his analysis, are so annoying you’d never want to work for one, even if you had no scruples about terrorism. To me and you, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri may be the personification of evil. But to the militants he once scolded for buying a new fax machine when the old one still worked, he’s the micromanager from hell.

The terror leader’s basic headache, Shapiro shows, is about control. You must recruit hot-headed young men, ready to murder innocents for their beliefs – yet these are the people least likely to submit to your authority. You can’t give them too much independence, or they’ll go too far and hurt the cause. (The Omagh bombing is an example: considered purely strategically, it was a major misstep by the Real IRA.) So you establish bureaucracy: expense reports, salary spreadsheets and holiday policies, all of which al-Qaida has used. Yet these systems, which hold your organisation together, sow the seeds of its undoing: the authorities can find them, then use them to track down your people and foil your plots. The dilemma is the same one facing The Wire’s Stringer Bell, a fan of mainstream business practices until he catches one underling recording the minutes of a meeting: “Is you taking notes on a criminal fucking conspiracy?”

The lesson for the non-criminal world is that control always involves trade-offs. Too little undermines your goals, but too much creates vulnerability: law-abiding firms may not care about leaving a paper trail, but there’s still the risk of inflexibility, and of failing to capitalise on the talents of those lower down the ranks. “Loose monitoring” of employees, according to Harvard Business School research, makes for higher profits as well as happier workplaces: casinos make more money when their frontline staff get autonomy in dispensing freebies and discounts. Terror groups are inherently limited in their impact partly because they can’t afford to grant such freedom, Shapiro argues.

Ferrante, the ex-mafioso, thinks success is about loyalty. (Stay loyal to your employer’s mission, he writes, “or you might be the first to get whacked during the layoffs”.) The more mundane possibility is that handling bureaucracy well – striking the right balance between autonomy and control – might be not a distraction from, but rather the essence of, being a good manager. Terror bosses can’t ever shine at it, because of the nature of their business. Merely terrible bosses don’t have the same excuse.



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