Dark side of the force

first_imgDark side of the forceOn 1 Mar 2002 in Personnel Today Previous Article Next Article Comments are closed. Osama bin Laden – charismatic but no role model – achieved his objectives byacquiring all the skills of a “true chief executive officer”,according to terrorism analyst Peter L Bergen. An apparently consummate leader,bin Laden motivated thousands of young men worldwide to lay down everything forhim. Then, he organised them into cells whose diabolical actions took on themight of the world’s only super power. By Helen Rowe Bin Laden’s leadership potential was far less evident in his 20s. In hisbook – significantly entitled Holy War Inc – Bergen compares professor AbdullahAzzam, who taught bin Laden. Those who knew Azzam described him as eloquent andcharismatic, possibly a leader in the making. The younger bin Laden, bycontrast, was regarded as sincere and honest but not a potential leader. Rahul Bedi, who covers South Asia for Jane’s Defence Weekly, believes binLaden owes much of his ultimate success as a leader and motivator to hisperipatetic upbringing. “Bin Laden spent much of his childhood travelling around,” hesays. “He travelled all over the world. He became very adaptable, a realchameleon. If he was in your drawing room, he would have been very polished. “He knew the ways of the West and the ways of the East. He couldoperate in his own society and also in Europe and North America. In that sensehe had an inherent advantage because the reverse – westerners trying to operatein the east – does not work so well.” Bin Laden’s journey from ideologue to leader began in the early 1980s duringthe Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. A graduate in economics and publicadministration, he was also an expert in demolition as a result of time spentworking at his family’s construction business in Saudi Arabia. Horrified at the Soviets’ invasion of a Muslim nation, he began to importtonnes of construction equipment into Afghanistan to help the Mujahideen fightthe Russians. According to Bedi, it was during this time that bin Laden began todemonstrate two skills common to all leaders: an ability to innovate and tolead by example. Having turned his back on the luxury lifestyle that was hisbirthright, he adopted the spartan existence of his followers, living in cavesand simple mud-built houses in Afghanistan. “He was a survivor and innovated as he went along, like theTaliban,” says Bedi. “He was also similar to those old-timecommunists who lived what they preached. He was not preaching abstinence on theone hand while doing something different. He walked the talk. He lived what hepreached and, in that sense, I think he was fairly sincere.” Throughout the 1980s, bin Laden recruited Arabs to fight a jihad, or holywar, in Afghanistan. Although the Soviets withdrew in 1989, bin Laden continuedto recruit manpower while soliciting financial support for the expandingal-Qaeda organisation. Substantial funds were channelled by bin Laden to provide practical supporton the ground. Bridges were built, underground bunkers constructed and anetwork of refugee camps was set up in Pakistan to support the millions ofAfghans driven out of their homeland by the fighting. At the same time, cashwas made available for the maintenance and training of cell members worldwide. Bin Laden used the latest western technology. An al-Qaeda CD-Rom provideddetailed information on weapons and instructions on how to build a bomb andcarry out terrorist attacks. A recruitment video showing bin Laden firing anautomatic rifle was widely circulated and made available on the Internet. Thevideo was made available in DVD format to make it easy to copy. Bin Laden invested in training, using his formidable organisational skillsto make sure operatives were always given the back-up they needed. An extensivenetwork of training camps provided operatives with training in the use ofhigh-tech explosives. Cell members received advice on how to change theiridentities using stolen or forged documents. For those who retained their ownidentities, training focused on how to by-pass immigration regulations andtravel without attracting the attention of officials. Bergen says bin Laden ran al-Qaeda like a “sort of multinationalholding company” with subsidiary militant organisations in countriesincluding India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Some recruits – such as the elite operatives destined to carry out theattacks in East Africa and the US – were specially chosen for their ability toblend in and not arouse suspicions as they prepared to carry out theirmissions. But many were just cannon fodder. None, however, knew the broader picture. Bin Laden did not share strategywith everyone. A system of specialist committees meant tasks were delegated. Asa result, many of those further down the chain of command never actually mettheir leader. When tasks were assigned, so-called ‘cell management’ ensured theindividuals involved were unaware of how their role fitted into bin Laden’soverall objective. Each member knew only as much as he needed to, therebypreventing lapses of security that might have endangered entire operations. The operatives’ commitment and belief in their leader is clear from theirwillingness to carry out bin Laden’s carefully laid plans without question ordeviation. It was also crucial to the eventual success of their missions. Jay Easwaran, a New Delhi-based HR director, says the way bin Laden operateddemonstrates the power of indoctrination – and also its limitations. “It all reminds me of Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. Lineslike ‘Theirs not to reason why/theirs but to do and die’ make me think that binLaden has shown us again what Tennyson taught us so many years ago: thatleadership must be charismatic. If it is, people will follow you blindly. “The drawback is that today’s corporations don’t want people to followblindly. They are in the game of trying to predict the future and need theirpeople to be individualistic, not clones. They need them to be empowered, sothey can collect the data on which decisions are then made. With the bin Ladenapproach you don’t have the capability to change direction when things don’t goright,” says Easwaran. Easwaran, who heads HR in India for multinational electronic product designcompany the Tality Corporation, rejects bin Laden’s over-reliance on theindoctrination of young recruits. But he says bin Laden did possess manyimportant leadership qualities. “He was aware of all the latest technology – and used it to achieve hisobjectives. He used a computer, faxes, e-mail, satellite phones. But he wasalso aware of the surveillance techniques being used against him. “He knew what the competition was doing. When he realised he was indanger of detection because of his use of technology, he reverted to word ofmouth and messengers to carry communications.” Easwaran says bin Laden showed an ability to be focused and patient whilekeeping in mind an overall goal. “He was willing to give himself time toachieve his goals. He knew people were his most important asset. “He was a strategist but in implementation he made sure that peopleknew the bare minimum that they needed to know. He broke up the whole task intomanageable, meaningful tasks that were an end in themselves. “Each individual was assigned one of those tasks and it became theirgoal, their responsibility. If they didn’t already have the skills they needed– flying, for example – he enabled them to acquire them. He was committed togetting the right person for each job. “The parallel in corporations is finding people with different, butcomplementary, skills and binding them together, as bin Laden did, with acommon set of values. Not everyone needs to be concerned with every detail ofwhat other people are doing. Otherwise you end up with information overload,and unfocused with nothing ever moving forward.” The best measure of bin Laden’s leadership skills, Bedi adds, is the extentto which he achieved his goals. “Just as in judo, he took his opponent’s strengths and used themagainst it. For example, it was relatively simple to learn to fly, even to makemoney from the World Trade Center disaster by trading shares on the stockexchange. He took the West’s openness and its use of technology and used themas weapons.” Bedi speculates that had the Americans not been able to pressure Pakistanand rely on the Northern Alliance to fight for it, it may have had to concededefeat in Afghanistan. “At the end of the day, they still have not gotOsama bin Laden – just a puppet regime in Kabul and about 200 al-Qaedaprisoners. “They went into Afghanistan with two objectives: to capture bin Ladenand to oust the Taliban. They achieved the second goal, but it took themseveral months. They never got Osama bin Laden. I would not write himoff.” Related posts:No related photos.last_img read more