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Global Charismatic Leadership:

A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown

Georgetown University

Security Studies Program

May 8, 2007
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Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown



Figure 1: Pyramid of Jihadi Causal Motivations...........................................................................14

Figure 2: Hub-and-Spokes Model to Orbital Model......................................................................27

Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown

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Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown

“We have carried the fight to the enemy. We are rolling back the terrorist threat

to civilization, not on the fringes of its influence, but at the heart of its power.”

-President George W. Bush, September 20031

“Al Qaeda is a larger threat now than it has ever been”

-Michael Scheuer, Former Head of the Bin Laden Taskforce, May 20072

Al Qaeda’s Double-Edged Sword: Resilience through Leadership

While these two statements seem directly at odds with one another, they are both

entirely true. During the years following the attacks on the World Trade Center

and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the United States did, in fact, take the

fight to al Qaeda and its supporters in Afghanistan. Additionally, the United

States inflicted damage upon the group by freezing the funds of groups tied to al

Qaeda and through the capture of hundreds of suspected al Qaeda associates

by American intelligence agencies. President Bush sent a clear message that

any nation that would assist the organization would pay dearly. However,

through all these setbacks, al Qaeda survived and continued to be a viable and
President George W. Bush, “President Addresses the Nation (Presidential
Speech),” (September 7, 2003) [as found on official White House website at]. Bush
made a similar pronouncement on October 25, 2006, saying “Absolutely we’re
winning. Al Qaeda is on the run.” [President George W. Bush, Press Conference
by the President (Presidential Speech),” (October 25, 2006) [as found on official
White House website at]]. This latter
pronouncement can primarily be viewed as a political statement due to its
proximity to the midterm elections. Nonetheless, it was a prevalent view that the
core of al Qaeda had been dismantled.
Charles Coxe, “Who’s Running Al Qaeda,” Maxim (May 2007) p65

Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown

threatening organization.

Today, analysts including Michael Scheuer, Bruce Hoffman, Bruce Riedel, Daniel

Benjamin, Steven Simon, Marc Sageman, and Bard O’Neill agree that al Qaeda

has not only made a resurgence, but has become an even more dangerous and

complex power than it was prior to 2001.3 Ambassador John Negroponte put it

very simply when he was the Director of National Intelligence saying, “Al Qaeda’s

core elements are resilient.”4 The term resilience is an often misunderstood

capacity at an organizational level. In this case, resilience refers not to the ability

to return the normalcy of the organization before incurring damage, but rather to

regain a level of effectiveness despite having to change.5 As long as al Qaeda

See Michael Scheuer, Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical
Islam, and the Future of America (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2006);
Bruce Hoffman, “Remember Al Qaeda: They’re Baaack,” (Feb 20,
2007) [as found at
hoffman20feb20,0,2283472.story?coll=la-opinion-rightrail]; Bruce Riedel, “Al
Qaeda Strikes Back,” Foreign Affairs (Vol 86, No 3: May/June 2007) [as found at
strikes-back.html]; Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror
(New York, NY: Random House, 2003); Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror
Networks, (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004); Bard E.
O’Neill, Insurgency & Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, 2nd Ed. Rev.
(Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2005). Each of these authors threads a
theme of al Qaeda’s resilience and threat throughout their works, and these
represent only a small number of the scholars with the same opinion.
Mark Mazzetti and David Rohde, “Terror Officials see Al Qaeda Chiefs
Regaining Power,” (February 19, 2007) [as found at
The terms resilience and survival are often used interchangeably in this paper,
as the basic concept is the same. Regardless of the term used, it is not intended
to mean that the group will simply spring back to be the same organization after
sustaining significant damage. Rather than returning to a state of normalcy akin
to the previous state, resilience in this case is intended to reflect a new normalcy
in which the organization may have moved geographically, restructured entirely,

Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown

maintains this resilient nature, it will be impossible to eliminate the organization

or the movement that has become associated with it. In other words, the United

States cannot win the “Global War on Terror” as long as al Qaeda can recover

from direct attacks to its organization. Thus, the keys to al Qaeda’s impressive

resilience must be discovered before moving further down any strategic roads in

this conflict.

There are two primary reasons for such organizational resilience after having

faced the full resources of the world’s strongest military and economic power.

Jessica Stern addressed the first of these, organizational agility, in her 2003

Foreign Affairs article, “The Protean Enemy,” where she points out that al Qaeda

is willing to adapt not only its structure and constituency, but its fundamental

mission, to remain resilient.6 Stern, though, recognizes that this stems from a

second factor, which is a special type of strategic leadership7 that the

organization has been fortunate to maintain throughout this critical period in its

history. Since its genesis, al Qaeda has been led by a group of men that would

and in other ways may not resemble the prior organization at all. Despite such
changes, the organization has maintained a critical mass and coordinated
operational capacity. Further, the degree of resilience is directly tied to the
degree of effectiveness in the “reborn” organization – if the organization is
rendered entirely ineffective after the damage-inflicting event, it cannot be
considered resilient even if it maintains some degree of organizational integrity.
Jessica Stern, “The Protean Enemy, Foreign Affairs (Vol 82, No 4, July/August
2003) p28
A central point within this paper is the distinction between strategic leadership
and operational leadership. Strategic leadership refers to the set of central
figures responsible for providing vision and guidance to the organization, perhaps
across multiple theaters. Operational leadership is much more limited in scope
and involves direction of specific activities.

Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown

appear to be the paragons of charismatic leaders on the surface, but who, upon

further examination, bring far more to the table than that.

The concept that leadership was, and, more importantly, is still critical to al

Qaeda’s resilience has been the topic of significant debate within the security

community for the past few years. This particularly appears in the context of the

debate over whether killing the senior strategic leadership of al Qaeda, most

notably Usama bin Laden, would inflict critical damage on the organization, thus

rendering it impotent. However, many scholars point to the “protean” nature of al

Qaeda as rationale for why central leadership no longer matters. There are three

primary arguments that scholars have presented which explain in simple terms

why al Qaeda no longer relies on the leadership and guidance of men like

Usama bin Laden, but each of these is founded on flawed assumptions and, in

fact, represents evidence why al Qaeda needs a special brand of “charismatic

leadership plus” even more. These arguments include the decentralized

structure of the organization, the “hydra effect”,8 and the role of ideology in

driving the movement.

In demonstrating the role of leadership in maintaining al Qaeda’s resilience, I will

first review what al Qaeda’s leadership brings to the table in terms of leadership

The “hydra effect” is the concept that removing one head, i.e. a leader, will have
little useful effect as it will immediately be replaced by two others. This argument
is commonly used to describe the way in which individual terrorists are quickly
replaced at the operational level, and some have extended this argument to the
leadership level.

Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown

style and other factors. The central theme in this review will be the

demonstration that the top tier of leadership in al Qaeda is uniquely necessary

and essentially irreplaceable. Once a baseline of understanding is established

for these leaders, I will explore each of the primary counterarguments to my

hypothesis that others have identified. Finally, I will argue the value of

decapitation as a necessity in the end game if the United States is to win the so-

called “Global War on Terror.”

Defining “Global Charismatic Leadership” and its Role in Resilience

Al Qaeda’s leadership, most notably Usama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri,

has maintained the focus and momentum of the global Salafi jihad based on their

strength of character and the power they wield simply through exercise of

influence. This strength of personality is a central feature of the phenomenon of

charismatic leadership, and it provides a compelling – albeit incomplete –

argument for the organization’s and movement’s success. In addition to

understanding the fundamentals of charismatic leadership, it is critical to

recognize other contributions that these leaders bring to the table which give rise

to what this author now recognizes as “global charismatic leadership” as distinct

from simpler networked or organizational forms of charismatic leadership. These

aspects of this global charismatic leadership are both critical to maintaining

operational capacity, despite being under attack from the United States, and are

effectively irreplaceable.

Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown

The idea of charismatic leadership has been examined in a variety of context

throughout social science literature over the last thirty years.9 While many

implications and the nature of such leadership is regularly debated, the basic

understanding of charismatic leadership remains relatively constant. The

common thread through the various conceptions of the style of leadership is that

it provides an explanation for how “certain leaders foster performance beyond

The concept of charismatic leadership was originally defined by Max Weber as
"a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart
from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at
least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not
accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as
exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a
leader [...] How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an
ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the
purpose of definition" [Maximillian Weber, Theory of Social and Economic
Organization. Chapter: "The Nature of Charismatic Authority and its
Routinization" translated by A. R. Anderson and Talcot Parsons, 1947. Originally
published in 1922 in German under the title Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft chapter
III, § 10 (available online at, translated by
Throughout the Twentieth Century, scholars in the fields of psychology and
sociology investigated the characteristics, causes, and effects of charismatic
leadership. A number of scholars including William H. Swatos, Jr. and R. Hrair
Dekmejian, transferred Weber’s concepts on charismatic leadership to cases of
revolution. Swatos in particular, emphasizes the importance of the social
component of charismatic leadership, saying that it is the common extraordinary
social context that gives rise to the opportunity for a charismatic leader to appear.
[William H. Swatos, Jr., “The Disenchantment of Charisma: A Weberian
Assessment of Revolution in a Rationalized World,” Sociological Analysis (Vol.
42, No. 2: Summer 1981) p124]. Dekmejian, in contrast believed that the while
the social context generated the leader, the revolutionary movement and
ideology were in fact extensions of the leader, and it was the leader that caused
the people to follow, not the common social context [R. Hrair Dekmejian,
“Charismatic Leadership in Messianic and Revolutionary Movements,” in
Religious Resurgence: Contemporary Cases in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism,
ed. Richard T. Antoun and Mare Elaine Hegland (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse
University Press, 1987)].

Within the last 20 years, Conger and Kanungo moved the forefront of the role of
charismatic leadership in organizations, primarily in the context of the business

Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown

expected standards by developing an emotional attachment with followers that is

tied to a common cause and contributes to the ‘greater good’ or larger

collective.”10 This definition and the implications of it provide a strong basis for

understanding how leaders such as bin Laden and Zawahiri have successfully

maintained the direction of al Qaeda and the broader global Salafi jihad since the

American campaign against al Qaeda began in the fall of 2001.

Yammarino, et al.’s definition depicts charismatic leadership in terms of its

observable effects. Specifically, there are two components, which may be

attributed to the charismatic leader and play significant roles in motivating the

followers, thus providing a level of organizational effectiveness tantamount with

maintaining resilience in the modern context. The leader makes an emotional

attachment with his followers that focuses their efforts and concerns. Secondly,

he grounds the efforts of the organization in a specific cause, which drives the
environment. Nonetheless, their theories relating to the tasks of identifying
potential future charismatic leaders and the requirements to grooming such
leadership among managers is valuable in understanding the broader social
context of charismatic leadership and in particular the challenges to developing it
within a revolutionary organization such as al Qaeda [Jay A. Conger and
Rabindra N. Kanungo, “Charismatic Leadership in Organizations: Perceived
Behavioral Attributes and their Measurement,” Journal of Organizational
Behavior (Vol. 15, No. 5: Sep 1994) pp439-452]. Crant and Bateman extended
upon the ideas of Conger and Kanungo, emphasizing the role of the proactive
personality among those features identified within the prior model [J. Michael
Crant and Thomas S. Bateman, “Charismatic Leadership Viewed from Above: the
Impact of the Proactive Personality,” Journal of Organizational Behavior (Vol. 21,
No. 1: Feb 2000) pp 63-75].
Francis J. Yammarino, Shelley Dionne, and Jae Uk Chun, “Transformational
and Charismatic Leadership: A Level-of-Analysis Review of Theory,
Measurement, Data Analysis, and Inferences” in Leadership, ed. Linda L. Neider
and Chester A. Schrieshem (Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing, 2002)

Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown

followers to act beyond what they would in general social contexts. These

components are necessary in combination to maintain or restore operational

effectiveness on a level sufficient such that the organization may be considered

resilient. Al Qaeda is fortunate to have leadership which possess and has

employed these aspects.

Emotional Bonds in al Qaeda

The case for an emotional bond between al Qaeda’s leadership and its followers

is based on two distinctly different aspects: character and success. Character

was important primarily in building the reputation of bin Laden in the early phases

of al Qaeda’s genesis. Bin Laden is regularly referred to as a devout man who is

well-respected among those around him, and is generally soft-spoken.11 The

biographies of bin Laden go as far as to detail specific instances where he

renounced material goods and the benefits of his wealth to live a better life as a

Muslim and be closer to those for whom he was fighting. 12 This kind of devotion

to the faith and the cause is certainly admirable and gives many people cause to

trust a man who could otherwise be living a charmed life in the Saudi court.

Additionally, bin Laden and other al Qaeda leadership has consistently

demonstrated qualities of heroism that even his enemies would have to respect if

Scheuer 13. See also Peter Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral
History of al Qaeda’s Leader (New York, NY: Free Press, 2006); Michael Petrou,
“Happy 50th, Osama,” Maclean’s (Vol. 12o, Issue 10: March 19, 2007) pp26-29.
Petrou 26. Bin Laden in this account goes as far as to refuse drinking chilled
water as he believes it is a luxury that the Prophet Muhammed did not enjoy.

Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown

they considered it without bias. Michael Scheuer goes as far as to compare bin

Laden’s aims and actions to those of some of America’s greatest heroes

including John Brown, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, John Bunyan, and Thomas

Jefferson.13 In this discussion, Scheuer draws parallels between bin Laden’s

original peaceful overtures and those of these American heroes before they were

driven to fight. Among the most poignant references offered by Scheuer was a

quote by Thomas Paine in which he said,

“I have as little superstition in me as any living man,

but my secret has and still is that God Almighty will

not give up a people to military destruction or leave

them unsupported to perish who have so earnestly

and so repeatedly sought to avoid the calamities of

war by every decent method that wisdom could

invent. Neither have I so much of the infidel in me to

suppose that he has relinquished the government of

the world and given us up to the care of devils, and

as I do not, and cannot, see on what grounds the

King of Britain can look up to heaven fro help against

us; a common murderer, a highwayman, or a

housebreaker has as good a pretense as he.”14

Scheuer 3-14
Scheur 13-14 quoting the following: Paul Glad, et al., eds., The Process of
American History. Volume I: Early America (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall,
1969), p211; Nelson F. Adkins, ed., Paine: Common Sense and Other Political
Writings (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953), pp55-6

Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

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By most accounts, and certainly based on the record of bin Laden’s statements,

he offered numerous opportunities for the United States to avoid conflict. Initially,

as it is important to remember, al Qaeda targeted only those regimes in the

Middle East that they did not feel were “Islamic enough” and represented what

Sayyid Qutb had referenced years earlier in his Milestones as jahiliya.15 While it

is true that the United States could never have permitted bin Laden’s

organization to overthrow allied regimes, in the eyes of the Muslim people, the

United States refused to accept the terms of peace in the early 1990s. Thus al

Qaeda was forced to begin its assault on the “far enemy.” In this perspective, al

Qaeda remains the keeper of the faith and the United States represents the

crusading jahiliya that was offered mercy and an opportunity to repent. Both

reflected signs of a good leader and devout Muslim in the eyes of the Islamic

faithful. Thus, in the end, bin Laden and al Qaeda did what was necessary,

invoked ideas reminiscent of Thomas Paine, and called upon their God to help in

repelling the tyrannical and oppressive enemy by hitting them at home.

Lastly, in terms of character, bin Laden has repeatedly demonstrated courage on

Jahiliya refers to the pre-Islamic period of time in the Arabic world in which the
world was considered unenlightened and crude. By extension then, Sayyid Qutb
draws the parallel to those things in the modern world that are fundamentally
opposed to the religious life, and effectively pervert society. This includes all
forms of infidelity, apostasy, heresy, secularism, and especially atheism. Qutb
called the Muslim umma (the Muslim world collectively) to arms against all things
jahili, and recommended the creation of a vanguard institution to drive the jihad
against jahiliya. Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Mother Mosque
Foundation) p80 [as quoted in Sageman]

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the field of battle in a way that hearkens to the heroes in Muslim history and

literature such as Suleiman, Abu Bakr, and even the Prophet Muhammad at the

Battle of Badr.16 First, during the battles against the Soviets in Afghanistan

during the 1980s, bin Laden was among the earliest to demand that the Islamic

world unite against the invaders. While he built his initial reputation by raising

funds and donating his own fortune for the cause in Afghanistan, he distinguished

himself from his peers, including his mentor, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, by actively

waging war against the Soviets from his base in the Tora Bora region of

Afghanistan. In the aftermath of that conflict, the Arabs that bin Laden led viewed

the victory over the Soviet empire as achieved through their faith, although

history shows that the contribution of the “Lion’s Den” was relatively

insignificant.17 He demonstrated similar courage during a more recent trip to the

same region when the American-led Northern Alliance bore down on the

remnants of the al Qaeda fighters in December 2001. Sources have confirmed

that bin Laden was present during this battle and was injured.18 Despite the

impossible odds, bin Laden delayed his flight from the battle until December 16,

2001. This is especially impressive as the large majority of bin Laden’s men had

already fled across the Pakistani border on the evening of December 12 when
At the Battle of Badr, Muhammad and his army of roughly 300 Muslim soldiers
defeated as many as 1,000 of the Quraish of Mecca. The odds seemed stacked
against Muhammad’s army, but he achieved victory, which he later accounted to
divine intervention.
Petrou 27. The Lion’s Den (al Masadah) refers to the base of operations that
bin Laden set up separate from Azzam’s Service Bureau to actively battle the
Soviets rather than simply supporting the Afghan resistance.
Reports have indicated that this was likely bin Laden’s third serious war wound
(based on commentary by Michael Scheuer in a lecture to Georgetown University
in July 2006).

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local warlords granted them a brief respite to decide whether they would

surrender.19 These behaviors are those of a man who is willing to die for his

cause and therefore is asking no more of his followers than that which he is

willing to sacrifice. While bin Laden provides an excellent example of this

behavior, similar selflessness and dedication to the cause rings throughout the

upper echelon of al Qaeda.

Attacks such as these on purported enemies of Islam account for the second

area that has driven the global Salafi jihad to follow bin Laden the person in

addition to the Salafi cause. The success of bin Laden in campaigns against two

major superpowers and numerous other strong First-world powers has given

hope to those that would see this war prosecuted. During the conflict against the

Soviets in Afghanistan, bin Laden claimed credit for the defeat in Afghanistan and

some credit for the fall of the empire as a whole. Since the 1990s, al Qaeda

succeeded where global military superpowers had generally failed: it attacked the

United States directly. The 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the 1998

attacks of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the 2000 bombing of the USS

Cole, and of course the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon

were all qualified successes on a tactical and strategic level.20 The last of these
Mary Anne Weaver, “Lost at Tora Bora,” New York Times Online (September
11, 2005) [as found at
The strategic value for these attacks is based on the premise that bin Laden
wanted to send a message to Americans. The message fell into two categories.
First al Qaeda wanted to encourage the United States to remove its presence
from the Muslim world, through its support of apostate states (as in the attacks

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particularly demonstrated the type of damage that a humble man armed with his

faith could inflict on the world’s greatest superpower. The United States was not

alone in being a victim in these attacks, as we have seen successful attacks in

the cases of the Bali nightclub attacks in 2002 (frequented primarily by

Westerners), the Madrid train bombing in 2004,21 the London subway bombings

in 2005, and numerous other cases which have been stopped just short of

catastrophe. It’s always easier for someone to back a winning, or at least

competitive, horse rather than one that shows no results.

The combination of the al Qaeda leadership character and its demonstrated

success create a single focus upon which supporters of the global Salafi jihad

may keep their vision in the struggle. Bin Laden, in particular, combines the

qualities of a man who can be trusted by his followers on a personal level with

the ambition and ingenuity to succeed in the most trying of circumstances. This

combination of qualities has attracted the level of recruiting on a global scale that

is necessary to maintain a resilient organization. Al Qaeda has drawn substantial

on the Embassies) and its continued military presence (in the attack on the USS
Cole). Second, al Qaeda wanted to demonstrate to the Americans that they were
not removed from the global affairs based on distance and that their actions
overseas could generate severe repercussions. In the case of the attacks of
September 11, 2001, bin Laden has stated that he wanted an American military
backlash as it would provide fuel for a war of civilizations between the West and
the Muslim world.
The bombing of the trains in Madrid also demonstrate a certain skill that al
Qaeda has in foreign policy, as they affected a national election and essentially
negotiated a cease-fire in return for Spanish troop withdrawals from Iraq – as
stated in Robert J. Bunker and Matt Begert, “Operational Combat Analysis of the
Al Qaeda Network,” Networks, Terrorism, and Global Insurgency ed. Robert J.
Bunker (New York: Routledge, 2005) p150

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numbers of individuals into the ranks of active mujahedin during the past five

years, expanding the total number of fighters inordinately. The central al Qaeda

network has set up new bases of operations in Africa, Iraq, and Waziristan (a

province in northern Pakistan); it has drawn in thousands of recruits worldwide;

and it has been restored, along with the Taliban, to operational capacity in the

course of only a few years.22 To have achieved this level of growth among active,

not just passive, willing participants is quite impressive.

The Cause and al Qaeda23

The second major component necessary in successful charismatic leadership is

a clear cause behind which the leader may rally his followers. In the case of

religious movements, this cause is generally very easy to identify, though in the

case of al Qaeda, numerous interpretations of the cause exist. Effectively, al

Qaeda’s leadership has created a tiered system of causes that appeal to various

constituencies in various degrees. The lower tiers of causes comprise, in their

aggregate, the necessary conditions for achieving the higher levels of causes as

depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Pyramid of Jihadi Causal Motivations

Ahmed Rashid, “Osama bin Laden still major challenge to West: Terrorist
leader has expanded al-Qaida, revived Taliban,” Vancouver Sun (March 10,
2007) [Lexis Nexis]
The concepts in this section borrow heavily from understandings developed
within past work that I have done, particularly in the following source: Eric
Brown, “Measuring Al Qaeda’s Success Using Salafist Metrics,” (Paper for
Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, SEST-540: July 2007)

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Creation of a
Global Islamic

in other Muslim
Westerners on

Western forces
Low oil prices
Arabian Pen.

Support for

Support for
Support for




General Social Conditions (e.g. relative

depravity, oppression, famine)

In grand terms, al Qaeda and the global Salafi jihad seek to remove jahiliya from

the Islamic world. Any practicing Muslim, regardless of degree of radicalism, will

support this tenet in the most basic of terms as it is at the heart of the Islamic

faith. In very broad terms, this concept is the general assertion that al Qaeda and

the global Salafi jihad are fought for Islam. This cause, though, presents no

immediacy for action and provides a broad spectrum of actions that followers

could hold onto.

To provide a more tangible cause, bin Laden and especially Zawahiri began

preaching the necessity to bring Allah’s kingdom back to earth. With references

to a resurgence of the Caliphate “from al-Andalus to Indonesia” called for by

Qutb and Azzam, Zawahiri gives the broad set of followers a vision of an end-

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state for which they should be striving. He poses the clearest and most

actionable visions of the strategy to achieve this end-state in his various rallying

cries to the mujadhedin, including during his elegy for Abu Mu’sab al-Zarqawi in

which he said,

“My Mujahid brothers in Iraq, know that the Islamic

Ummah has put its hope in you, and that you must

establish an Islamic state in Iraq, then make your way

towards captive Jerusalem and restore the Caliphate

which was toppled through the cooperation of the

Crusaders and the traitorous slaves of the English.

Do not tire or become weary of harnessing the

energies of the Mujahideen and bringing them

together in a single rank to confront the enemies of

Islam. And defend the Muslim people of Iraq - men,

women and children - and protect their honor, lives,

wealth and sanctities with your chests.”24

Statements such as this make the vision of an end-state more accessible and

understood by those fighting for the cause. This focus on an end-state is

attractive to the most vehement and adamant mujahedin, and it provides a solid

rallying cry for this group. However, it remains little more than an attractive idea

to the larger constituency of would-be mujahedin, and it does little to bring them

Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri Elegizes Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
in a Video Speech,” Search for International Terrorist Entities (June 7, 2006)
[Lexis Nexis]

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to arms.

For the broader population, an even more diffused cause is elaborated by the al

Qaeda leadership. This level of motivation includes messages that are

accessible to a broad population given their understanding of the world from a

localized perspective. In order to reach these populations and potential militant

radicals, the al Qaeda leadership identified a series of valence issues, one that

would resonate with truth to anyone that heard them, though the degree to which

they have impact is subject to interpretation. The issues identified in numerous

speeches by bin Laden and Zawahiri are:

1. Western forces and civilians on the Arabian peninsula

2. West’s imposition of artificially low oil prices

3. Unqualified American support for Israel

4. American support for powers that oppress Muslims

5. American military presence in Muslim countries outside the Arabian


6. American support and protection for Muslim tyrannies.25

The interesting aspect of these issues is that, in addition to inciting rage among

Muslims globally, they also represent policies on which the West, and particularly

the United States, cannot easily change direction due to strategic interests in the

region. Uniting Muslims against their apostate rulers is any easy mission to

achieve, but uniting them in a global Salafi jihad requires a common enemy,
As condensed by Michael Scheuer during a lecture in July 2006

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referenced regularly by the militants as a modern equivalent of Crusaders

coming from the West. Additionally, by emphasizing these relatively static issues,

al Qaeda leadership has created a platform that will be consistently understood

over a long period of time with little need to adjust course.

At the most diffuse level, al Qaeda and other jihadi organizations appeal to

Muslims by recognizing the negative social conditions afflicting a large portion of

the Islamic world. With the emphasis that the Western media places on the

military arm of al Qaeda, it is easy to forget that the organization also has a

substantial public works capability and has historically contributed to the well-

being of destitute populations. Additionally, among the stated purposes of al

Qaeda is the elimination of oppressive apostate regimes, a chord that certainly

rings loudly in the ears of those facing the daily pains of such powers. Al

Qaeda’s support for these populations also encourages the support of often more

affluent investors due to the altruistic desire to help the disenfranchised Muslim

brethren through whatever means possible.

It is through this creation of a tiered system of motivations that al Qaeda’s

leadership brings additional value to the table. The leadership has a sufficient

understanding of the constituency required to provide an accessible and clear

message to a broad array of populations and to provide a message that is

actionable in the populations’ eyes. What differentiates a militant group like al

Qaeda from moderate ideological groups is the ability of the leadership to

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effectively deliver a message that will challenge the population to take up arms,

for reasons of which the followers will take personal ownership rather than seeing

the cause(s) as some more distant proposition. The Islamic world has long

maintained an oral tradition and has historically valued the power of rhetoric

above any other.26 In the leadership provided by bin Laden and Zawahiri, al

Qaeda and the global Salafi jihad have two incredible orators and scribes that

can inflame the mujahedin constituency, while using talk of peace and references

to the Islamic heritage and tradition.

Without clear articulation of the cause on all levels over the past five years, the

global Salafi jihad would not have been able to generate the kind of continued

support that it has enjoyed. As bin Laden and Zawahiri were the founders of the

al Qaeda organization and clarified the Salafi militant ideology more than any

others during the 1990s and this decade, they are uniquely qualified and

respected for their ability to deliver the message. Even if another individual could

match their rhetorical prowess, this lack of personal experience and the people’s

trust would dilute its effect substantially.

The Global Aspect: Charismatic Leadership Plus

As important as the elements of charismatic leadership are to maintaining al

Numerous references to the importance of rhetoric rather than military skills
can be found throughout Martin Lings, Muhammed: His Life Based on the
Earliest Sources (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions Internationa, 1983) and also in
Amin Maalouf, Crusades Through Arab Eyes (New York, NY: Schocken/Random
House, 1989)

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Qaeda’s organizational resilience, an additional element has proved to be the

factor that has boosted the likes of bin Laden and Zawahiri above traditional

leaders. Al Qaeda’s leadership determined early in the organization’s life that it

must look at the conflict on a global scale with a fundamental belief that only by

attacking the far enemy (the United States) could it compromise the near

enemies (local apostate regimes and tyrannies). This strategic decision

inherently required that the leadership organize globally and develop personal

capacities and networks that permitted it endless reach. These qualities have

come to amplify the effects of the strategic leadership in the aftermath of the

American campaign against al Qaeda, facilitating the reconstitution of the al

Qaeda and the development of the global Safali jihad into a robust threat to the

West. Three components of this global mentality contribute to this global element

of the leadership: use of technology, personal international networks, and

effective public affairs.

In the first component of this globalized leadership capacity, we see the value

presented by the incorporation of technology into both the command-and-control

mechanisms and the dissemination of central strategic visions. Following the fall

of the Taliban in 2002, many American policymakers began making assertions

that the al Qaeda leadership was on the run and could no longer direct their

operations as they were hiding in caves. This is fundamentally absurd because

anyone with line of sight on any of the dozens of communications satellites

orbiting the globe has the capacity to communicate with anyone else in the world.

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Bin Laden has purportedly been using satellite telephony since 1996, and while

reports of the United States eavesdropping on the al Qaeda leader have perhaps

been overstated, the use of this technology at least provides the capacity to

communicate globally.27

Additionally, al Qaeda has since incorporated the Internet not only into its global

operational capabilities but has used it as a new theater for waging a traditional

insurgent campaign. Given that the center of gravity in an insurgency is the

populace, the Internet permits the militants to reach far more people with far

fewer resources and maintain a level of anonymity. There are more than 4,500

overtly jihadi websites disseminating al Qaeda’s messages, and most are run by

individuals acting entirely independently of the central leadership.28 The United

States government is regularly taking these sites over, but as quickly as the

government takes down one site, another is published. With such a diffuse

system of Internet usage, it has been argued that the jihad is moving to a virtual

environment where leadership is irrelevant.29 However, the common use of the

leaders’ words as central themes across the “virtual jihad” provides additional

exposure for the al Qaeda leadership and increases the feeling of closeness and

Glenn Kessler, “File the Bin Laden Phone Leak Under 'Urban Myths,'”
Washington Post (December 22, 2005), pA02
Riedel 2007
Benjamin and Simon discuss at length the potential for al Qaeda to move from
“bricks-and-mortar statehood to a virtual statehood (169).” With a move to the
virtual statehood, the group would become increasingly dispersed and require
little to no official guidance as everyone would have access to the same library of
ideas. The learning environment would largely be collegial rather than
instructional, and operational guidance would be done in a group context.

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emotional attachment to the leaders. Their accessibility via the Internet

strengthens the impact of the charismatic leadership. While this use of Western

technology is not necessarily unique to the leadership within al Qaeda, its use in

disseminating the messages of the leadership has amplified the importance of

the al Qaeda leadership rather than diminished its necessity.

One area that is truly unique to the al Qaeda leadership is that of the global

networking capacity that has been developed over a period of decades. The

most obvious example of this networking appeared in the case of Zarqawi when

he professed allegiance to bin Laden and renamed his insurgent organization as

“al Qaeda in Iraq.” Other organizations have similarly been linked to al Qaeda

including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jemaah Islamiya, the Egyptian

Islamic Jihad (EIJ), and the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) in Algeria. Bin Laden

and Zawahiri have been able to leverage not only their international celebrity but

also their international networks to achieve a power base greater than that which

many other leaders could muster in aligning these groups. In many cases, these

networks are built on quite personal ties, such as in the case of the fostering of

relations with Shiite Hezbollah (an unlikely alliance) by reportedly sending bin

Laden’s eldest son, Sa’ad to participate in the Lebanese conflict in August

2006.30 This international network includes not only other terror networks, but
“Bin Laden Son Off to War,” Calgary Sun (August 3, 2006) [Lexis Nexis]. This
coordination against the Israelis represented a temporary alliance of
convenience. Bin Laden has stated repeatedly that the Islamic world needs first
to unite against the Zionists and the Westerners prior sorting out the conflicts
among the sects. One of his primary complaints against Zarqawi was the rise of
sectarian violence in Iraq rather than focusing the efforts on the Americans. It is

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also international crime syndicates, drug rings, quasi-legitimate businesses, and

legitimate non-profit organizations, enabling bin Laden and Zawahiri to leverage

operational and strategic capabilities on a truly global scale. Due to the personal

nature of this network, it is unlikely that the role of the leadership in the fostering

of such a network could be replaced.

The final component of the global nature of al Qaeda’s charismatic leadership,

which enables it to maintain resilience, includes the wherewithal and initiative to

leverage public affairs effectively. In the years following the American invasion of

Afghanistan, videos disseminating messages from bin Laden and Zawahiri

became fairly regular fixtures, not only on Arabic news stations such as Al-

Jazeera but also in subtitled form on CNN, BBC, Skynews, and other major

Western outlets. Al Qaeda’s leadership had discovered that as they were able to

use Western aircraft against their enemy in the case of the September 11

attacks, so too, were they able to use Western media as an effective delivery

mechanism for their messages on a global scale. This insight thus amplified the

nature of the leaders’ rhetorical skills, effectively branding al Qaeda with the

faces of its leaders. This branding, similar to the way that Ernesto “Ché”

Guevara, Vladmir Lenin, and Mao Zedong served as brands for the various

not accurate to say that this would be a lasting alliance under any circumstances.
The case of Sa’ad’s involvement in the Lebanon conflict was also never
confirmed, but reports were pervasive that Iran had released Saad from custody
and had permitted him to join the fight in Lebanon. Another example of this type
of personal tied include the marriage of Mohammed bin Laden (Usama’s second
eldest son) to Mohammed Atef’s daughter, a marriage which yielded one of the
most watched wedding videos in the history of the intelligence community.

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communist movements during the 20th Century.

Implications of Global Charismatic Leadership

With the combination of charismatic personalities, effective delivery of accessible

messages, and the facilitation of a global approach, the leadership of al Qaeda

represents a sort of “perfect storm” of capacity and circumstance that has

enabled it to facilitate the bounce back of al Qaeda and the growth of the global

Salafi jihad. No other individuals could have achieved this regrowth after the

initial American campaign against al Qaeda, either due to lack of capability, lack

of experience, or lack of respect. Looking at the current situation, it is true that

the global Salafi jihad has surpassed any inertia and is now functioning under its

own momentum, but the focal leadership is still necessary to maintain a level of

effectiveness that legitimizes its threat to the West. Moreover, it is this leadership

that remains at the heart of al Qaeda’s ability to sustain major damage and return

to operational capacity in a reasonable time frame.

There are a number of strong arguments that have been offered to explain why

the leadership of al Qaeda is no longer necessary to the survival of the

organization or the movement. These are grouped into three major categories as


1. Decentralized Leadership

2. Substitutability

3. Ideological motivation.

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In each of these cases, the arguments overlook basic facts of the modern context

or they marginalize judgments associated with the contributions of the leadership

in the current situation. In the case of both decentralization and ideological

grounding, the importance of a specific type of leadership is actually

exacerbated. In the case of replaceability, assumptions are made regarding the

quality and type of leadership that may be present as successors, and in most

scenarios, these would weaken or even cripple the organization and movement.

Nonetheless, there is value in exploring each of these arguments.

Argument I: Decentralized Structure Precludes the Need for Leadership

The first argument pointing the inconsequential nature of leadership in the

maintenance of the effectiveness of al Qaeda is that the decentralized nature of

the organization precludes the requirement for leadership. Daniel Benjamin and

Steven Simon succinctly state, “As a network of networks, al Qaeda is structured

to survive multiple amputations, and even decapitation.”31 This shift to a

decentralized organization lacking a direct command-and-control mechanism

was an intentional move on the part of al Qaeda’s organizational leadership,

Benjamin and Simon 170. Also see Riedel 2007 where he points out that the
decentralized command-and-control structure has allowed al Qaeda “to survive
the loss of key operatives such as Zarqawi.” Bunker and Begert state that
operations are conducted by cells based on the principles of the original
foundation (dissolved in 2001) with the support of the network and that leaders
are entirely unnecessary at the central level for operational control. They go on
to say that some evidence exists that eliminating the leaders may actually
strengthen the network. No supporting evidence is given for this last claim, but
we may presume that the reasons would be the further shift in burden to
decentralized structure without a focal point and the temporary surge in
radicalism based on martyring a Muslim hero (159).

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particularly by men such as Abu Mu’sab al-Suri.32 The goal in moving to such an

organizational structure was the elimination of vulnerabilities that would enable

conventional attacks to deal devastating blows to the organization. Already, al

Qaeda had been weakened substantially by the death of Muhammed Atef and

many others within the senior operational leadership during the invasion of

Afghanistan, and by shifting to this “network of networks” model, men such as al-

Suri and certainly bin Laden himself believed that they were warding off such


This, however, is flawed both in the conception of the organizational structure by

the leadership of al Qaeda and by the scholars that now analyze the topic. While

it is accurate to say that the central leadership no longer needs to operationally

direct the actions undertaken by its followers,33 it does not speak to the

requirements of strategic leadership. The vast majority of the evidence and

arguments raised to support the view that al Qaeda is immune to decapitation

stem from the assertion that independent cells may function effectively without

operational control, as they are internally managing the command-and-control

Paul Cruickshank and Mohannad Hage Ali, “Abu Musab al Suri: Architect of the
New Al Qaeda, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (Vol 30, No 1: 2007) p2. Al-Suri
is the nomme de guerre Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, a member of the al Qaeda
strategic leadership who was captured by Pakistani police in November 2005.
He claims to have been at the center of the shift to achieve the more
decentralized organization.
This distinction between operational leadership and strategic leadership is
central to this argument. Operational leadership provides instruction on
individual activities, monitoring things at a tactical level while providing direction
on the functions of individual cells. Strategic leadership, the style discussed in
the first half of this paper, provides an overarching vision of the organization
without looking deeply into the individual actions of its membership.

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Prior to the fall of 2001, al Qaeda as an organization functioned in a hub-and-

spokes type of system where the central leadership issued directives to individual

cells through middlemen who were generally unaware of each other. 34 This

centralized all command-and-control with a small body, maintained operational

security, and permitted the leadership to execute multiple coordinated attacks on

a global scale.35 After 2001, the shift to a decentralized organization still left the

strategic leadership at the center, but resembled more of an orbital system as

depicted in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Hub-and-Spokes Model to Orbital Model

Within the orbital system, the individuals cells remain in alignment and active

Bunker and Begert 148
Simultaneous and/or coordinated attacks occurred in the case of the Embassy
bombings of 1998 and in the airplane hijackings of September 11, 2001. This
method of attacking multiple targets was viewed by al Qaeda’s leadership as its
greatest tactic due to its ability to inflict damage and permit attacks on several
locations before intelligence and law enforcement recognized the signature of the
attacks. Isolated attacks have typically been attributed to organizations affiliated
with al Qaeda rather than directed centrally by al Qaeda.

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based on the strategic direction of the central leadership. In effect, this could be

viewed that the leadership must be able to provide a “magnetism” or

“gravitational force” to keep the individual operational elements from spinning off

into space and eventually either operating contrary to the interests of the

organization or becoming inactive altogether for lack of coherent vision.

Additional support is also often needed in the form of operational assistance.

The individual cells that are self-generated do not typically possess members

with a great deal of expertise in waging a jihad, nor do they necessarily have the

resources to organize and execute an effective attack. Thus, as in the case of

the Madrid train and London subway bombings, the cells had to reach back to

the central organization for assistance and guidance.36

This type of model, moreover, then relies upon the charisma of the leadership on

a global level to provide ample motivation and direction to its followers. From

2002-2006, videos of al Qaeda’s two senior leaders were constantly being

shown. Letters were also regularly released to the press that instructed the

members of the diffuse network to carry on their operations and even give

suggestions on how to do so.37 In effect, while al-Suri’s organizational model did

reduce the vulnerabilities of al Qaeda on a grand scale by reducing the number

of pressure points within the organization, it increased the risks associated with

decapitation by amplifying the need for a clear message and a focal point for the
Cruickshank and Ali 10
Specifically, in one video from 2003, bin Laden lauded the use of trenches and
tunnels, relating ways in which guerilla fighters could overcome better equipped
armies through deception.

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organization. As al Qaeda attempts to mobilize greater populations, this

necessity of a charismatic central presence increases even more, because

cellular systems are not conducive with mass mobilization of any sort.38

Argument II: “The Hydra Effect” – Removing the Head to Reveal Two More

The obvious counter to the argument that al Qaeda requires central leadership is

that the organization can and will adopt new central leadership. The talking

heads on television have often stated that for every mujahedin fighter that drops

an AK-47 on the battlefield, two more are ready to take his place. This maxim

has often been extended to the role of leadership as well where people have

speculated on the identity of leadership successors. The prime example that is

often given for the ability to replace leadership within the cellular structure was

the almost immediate replacement of Zarqawi by al-Masri as the head of al

Qaeda in Iraq. Even in popular magazines outside academia, this theme of the

replacement of leaders is prevalent when reporting on al Qaeda.39

This argument also suffers from the failure to distinguish between strategic

O’Neill 96. The rationale behind the inability of a cellular organization to
mobilize broader populations is two-fold. First, the cells are necessarily
clandestine, which renders them incapable of general public outreach. Second,
accessing populations of any size requires a single, coherent message, which
would be lost if cells attempted to become propaganda machines in addition to
operational entities as their messages would basically compete.
The spreading out of the organization beyond the borders of Afghanistan has
permitted the opportunity for new leadership to arise and has made it harder to
track. The implicit statement here is that prior to the invasion Afghanistan, there
was no upward mobility available for leadership and so it remained a centralized
and limited cadre by default. Coxe 65

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leadership and operational direction. While it is true that operational leadership

is easily generated, particularly during periods of conflict when leadership may be

tried and tested on a daily basis, it is not reasonable to assume that the same is

true for organizational leadership that is providing vision and direction across

theaters. In the United States military, it takes in excess of 20 years and the

wealth of various experiences associated with that time to achieve the rank of

General officer. Similar to the case in the conventional military standpoint, a

successor to bin Laden would need immense experience in organizational

control, fundraising, operational direction, public affairs, networking, and political

maneuvering. Additionally, as in the case of the United States military, a

successor leader to al Qaeda would have to be vetted by all the organizational

leadership on the basis not only of his leadership skills, but also his political

savvy within the leadership group.40

The challenges associated with replacing a strategic leader are generally

immense and time-consuming, and in the case of al Qaeda, they may be

impossible. The phenomenon of global charismatic leadership includes a variety

of facets and characteristics that are uncommon individually and virtually unseen
Interview with LtCol Kelly Morningstar, US Army (ret.) May 5, 2007. LtCol
Morningstar also noted the parallels with the general officer ranks within the
Napoleonic armies where junior officers with sufficient charisma were promoted
to Marshall and succeeded based on capability, but that Napoleon, due to his
unique qualities remained irreplaceable and central to the success of the armies.
These organizations, granted, were hierarchical at all levels, but within the senior
ranks of al Qaeda, the organization is also vertically oriented as stated in Kimbra
Fishel, “Challenging the Hegemon: Al Qaeda’s Elevation of Assymetric Insurgent
Warfare Onto the Global Arena,” Networks, Terrorism, and Global Insurgency,
ed. Robert J. Bunker (New York: Routledge, 2005) p121.

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in combination. In traditional political environments, the presence of global

charismatic leadership similar to that of al Qaeda’s leadership is nonexistent. In

the United States alone, American voters have been lamenting the lack of viable

alternatives for the past two election cycles. Based on the need to have

someone willing to serve with both requisite skills and respect associated with

extensive experience, the list of potential candidates is exceedingly short. It is

difficult to think that al Qaeda’s even slimmer ranks could generate sufficient

replacements to match leaders such as bin Laden and Zawahiri, given the fact

that they not only bring the experience in excess of a combined half a century

between the two of them, but they also bring the legitimacy associated with being

the founders of the organization. They have personal networks that are

irreplaceable and critical to the continuing operations on a global level. Even

Zarqawi famously professed his allegiance to bin Laden saying in a statement on

his organization’s website in October 2004,

“O sheikh of the mujahidin, if you cross the sea we

shall cross it with you. If you give orders, we shall

listen; if you forbid, we shall obey. You are the

designated leader for the armies of Islam against all

infidels, Crusaders, and apostates.”41

Bin Laden and Zawahiri have effectively become a brand for the global Salafi

Jean-Charles Brisard, Zarqawi: The New Face of Al-Qaeda (New York: Other
Press, 2005) p151. This was the second time that Zarqawi pledged personal
allegiance to bin Laden, with the first being in 2001. Zarqawi looked up to bin
Laden the person, not just the leader, and he viewed bin Laden as the single
focal leader of the jihad.

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jihad, with the faces of al Qaeda’s leaders adorning T-shirts and placards at anti-

American rallies. The name bin Laden has become a household name in homes

worldwide and heard with pride in homes throughout the Muslim world.42

The difficulties associated with replacing a leader such as bin Laden then further

reduce the resilience of the organization. Even if one accepts the assertion that

the organization would go on without leadership, it is difficult to argue that the

loss of a figure like bin Laden would have no negative effect. Since the

leadership is also not reasonably replaceable, this points to an absolute

weakness in the organization. Currently, reports have pointed to Sa’ad bin

Laden as the probably successor to his father’s legacy, but that has been based

entirely upon the fact that the elder bin Laden can trust few others than his son

while he has a $25 million bounty on his head and the world is hunting him.

Otherwise, it has little to do with capacity and a belief that Sa’ad could function in

this role.43 If one accepts the remainder of the arguments in this study relating to

the importance of global charismatic leadership in maintaining organizational

resilience, then the inability to replace specific individuals in the roles of

leadership represents a direct threat to the overall resilience of the organization.

With this understanding, al Qaeda is inherently at risk of eventual collapse when

its leadership inevitably dies someday and the sufficient additional damage is

dealt to the organization. The successful grooming of new leadership over a

Benjamin and Simon 153
Andrew Buncombe, Phil Reeves, and Angus McDowall, “Son of Bin Laden
Directing Terror Attacks,” The Independent (October 15, 2003) [Lexis Nexis]

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significant period of time could temper this effect, though this is unlikely to occur,

and even in its occurrence, a successful transition of leadership that would

maintain resilience is not guaranteed.

Argument III: The Global Salafi Jihad as Ideologically Driven

This last major argument departs from the discussion of al Qaeda as

organization and instead looks at it as the heart of an ideology. In Marc

Sageman’s, Understanding Terrorist Networks, he posits that the traditional

conception of al Qaeda had been replaced by a broader movement, which he

labeled the global Salafi jihad.44 Like Benjamin and Simon, he proceeds to label

al Qaeda as a sort of network of networks with loose affiliations, spanning a

global scale. The four groups he identifies are the central leadership, the core

Arabs, the Southeast Asians, and the Maghreb, which when looked at in

aggregate had only a common ideology as a connecting thread.

The argument that is derived from this perspective is similar to the Benjamin and

Simon argument that a single leader is no longer necessary to move the group

as a whole. However, unlike the Benjamin and Simon argument, the argument

that a movement driven by ideology does not require a head strikes at the

requirements for strategic leadership, and thus poses a more direct assault on

the proposition that strategic leadership is even more necessary in a dispersed

organization. A movement, by most definitions, would be even further dispersed

Sageman 1

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as it lacks a formalized operational body altogether, resembling more of a loose

confederation of common believers.

The headless movement argument justifies this lack of requirement for central

leadership by stating that ideology rather than leadership drives forward the

organization. Seeing the way in which many even moderate Muslims around the

world rallied following the attacks of 9/11 lends significant credence to this

argument. Unity through the creation of common goals, namely defense of the

religion and opposition to the “crusading” United States (and the West), is

certainly a factor contributing to the generation of sympathy and pathos for the

militant Salafist cause. Further, it can easily be argued that ideology is the

primary factor in the radicalization and recruitment of new members within the


The conclusion of this argument then states that with an evolved and unifying

ideological message onto which participants in the jihad may latch, leadership is

relatively insignificant because the ideology speaks for itself. The classic case

study for this type of unified message-driven, rather than leader-driven,

movement is the Palestinian case, where the Palestinians have consistently kept

up the fight against an aggressive Israeli state despite the presence of weak

leadership in the body of Yassir Arafat and others.

This case, however, is not indicative of the situation of al Qaeda due to the

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localized nature of the conflict and the fact that both sides continue to mount

aggression, thereby making this more a cycle of aimless violence than an

ideologically-driven movement. Instead, in the case of al Qaeda and the global

Salafi jihad, the ideology is crafted and developed by the senior leadership, most

notably bin Laden and Zawahiri. R. Hrair Dekmejian goes into great detail

regarding the importance of leadership not only in maintaining the cohesiveness

of a movement, but into the relationship between the leader and the ideology,


“In the view of overwhelming centrality of leadership,

religious and ideological movements may be fruitfully

studied as extensions of the leader’s personality as it

reacts with the social milieu of his time.”45

Dekmejian bases these assertions on the idea that the leader is fundamentally

affected by the crisis of his day and begins crafting, or at least fine-tuning, his

ideological message in accordance with his perception of the crisis. The leader’s

basic charismatic nature provides him with the skill sets needed to generate a

discipleship behind this ideology. Because the ideology, then, is little more than a

formulation of the leader’s own pain points in the world, without the leader, the

ideology quickly folds as it is more reactive than substantial.

The presence of this type of crisis can certainly be seen in both the lives of bin

Laden and Zawahiri, since bin Laden was indoctrinated during the first Afghan

Dekmejian 78

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campaign and Zawahiri found his roots in the struggle against the secular

Egyptian regime in the 1970s and 1980s. These leaders had small followings

that gave them legitimacy following their respective indoctrination conflicts.

Additionally, those global characteristics that mark the leadership style of both bin

Laden and Zawahiri enable them to access their constituency in a focused and

concerted effort, thereby delivering a clear definition of their visions.

Additionally, the current ideology benefits from its foundations in well-accepted

principles that date at least back to the time of Sayyid Qutb when he professed

the need to united the umma46 and expel all jahili influences from the Islamic

world, particularly in statements like the following from Milestones:

“[The umma] cannot come into existence simply as a

creed in the hearts of individual Muslims, however

numerous they may be, unless they become an

active, harmonious and cooperative group, distinct by

itself, whose different elements, like the limbs of a

human body, work together for its formation, its

strengthening, its expansion, and for its defense

against all those elements which attack its system,

working under a leadership which is independent of

the jahili leadership, which organizes its various

Umma refers to the global Islamic populace. The underlying supposition in
references to the umma is that it is collectively devout and rid of all jahili

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efforts into one harmonious purpose, and which

prepares for the strengthening and widening of their

Islamic character and directs them to abolish the

influences of their opponent, the jahili life.”47

The foundations of the movement largely find themselves in the teachings of

many of the mainstream religious leaders within the Islamic faith. Thus, the job

of the leader, in this case, becomes one more of crystallizing the vision to the

modern context as Dekmejian states, than generating a wholly new concept,

which facilitates its acceptance. If new leadership were to take over at this point,

the message would naturally evolve to reflect the pain points of that new

leadership, which could potentially dilute the power of the vision painted by bin

Laden and Zawahiri over the last 20 years. Thus, the movement would decay or

at least splinter, reducing its effectiveness and dealing a substantial blow to the

cause from the inside, without even the pressures of an external attack.

On a more operational level, Bin Laden and Zawahiri have rooted their

statements in theology, ideology, and empathy of the forefathers, but

fundamentally, the message has been a call to arms. While many Muslims

fundamentally accepted Qutb’s and Abdullah Azzam’s teachings of a unified and

militant umma, they were not motivated to actively participate in something like a

militant jihad prior to the creation of al Qaeda and the attacks that dotted the
Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (Chapter 4: The Characteristics of the Islamic Society
and the Correct method for its Formation) [as found at]

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1990s. The call to arms from al Qaeda’s leadership is what turned significant

numbers of radical Muslims from bystanders into participants. Additionally, bin

Laden first suggested that the organization / movement should target the far

enemy in the West in addition to the near enemy, thus elevating al Qaeda to the

role of a global actor from that of a regional one.

Without al Qaeda’s current leadership, neither the basic message of the global

Salafi jihad nor the call to arms would remain intact. While the movement would

in all likelihood maintain some level of momentum – as this author firmly believes

that the global Salafi jihad is a phenomenon that will persist indefinitely – without

focal leadership at its heart, it will not remain resilient and will likely decay or

splinter over time into ineffective and uncoordinated individual actors.48 They will

operate under the aegis of al Qaeda and the global Salafi jihad, though probably

not with its support, and perhaps not with the purity of its principles. The case of

Sendero Luminoso Peru illustrates this effect where leadership was lost after an

extremely successful campaign, which then made it possible for the government

to begin dismantling the organization through direct attacks on its operational

components. The remaining components of Sendero Luminoso acted, and

A corollary argument to this discussion of an ideologically-driven movement is
the value of a leader as a martyr, which could generate sufficient momentum to
drive the movement indefinitely. There are currently no real empirical examples
of this as a realistic threat, though it does have potential. This paper does not
intend to delve into the debate surrounding the effect of martyring as it brings in
numerous complex sociological, cultural, and organizational issues that exceed
the scope of this paper.

Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown

continue to act, more under the name of the organization than with its ideology or

capacity. 49

Implications of the centrality of global charismatic leadership in al Qaeda

Al Qaeda and, more broadly, the global Salafi jihad are here to stay as

permanent perpetrators of violence against the Western world and states

deemed apostasies in the Islamic world. This single statement sums up the

views of scholars looking at the issue of al Qaeda’s resilience, and I

wholeheartedly agree. However, the degree to which this organization and

movement continue to function as a true threat, rather than an omnipresent pest,

hinges largely on the continued presence of its strategic leadership and their

ability to provide visionary guidance.

A prime example of this type of phenomenon can be found in Peru where
Abimael Guzmán was the charismatic leader of Sendero Luminoso (Shining
Path). Initially, it functioned as a tight-knit organization, but over time, with its
success, the group’s Maoist ideology became more important as a motivator for
violence than the organization. Ultimately, Guzmán was captured and paraded
about Lima in disgrace. The Peruvian government maintained its pressure on
the operational components of Sendero Luminoso, and even enlisted the
assistance of the peasantry to form nationwide “neighborhood watches” known
as rondas. Shortly thereafter, Sendero Luminoso became increasingly less
effective and more-or-less crumbled as a national force. In the last five years,
reports have resurfaced of activities attributed to Sendero Luminoso, but these
are more isolated incidents of individuals carrying on the name, though not
necessarily the cause. It has little real impact on the Peruvian state today, and
certainly does not represent the existential threat it did prior to organizational

Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown

With this understanding, the tactic of organizational decapitation should continue

to be a centerpiece of American counter-terror policy. Though he sees al Qaeda

as a lasting force, Bruce Riedel still emphasizes the importance of removing men

such as bin Laden and Zawahiri from the head of the movement, saying,

“The focus of Washington’s new strategy must be to

target al Qaeda’s leaders, who provide the inspiration

and direction for the global jihad. As long as they are

alive and active, they will symbolize successful

resistance to the United States and continue to attract

new recruits. Settling for having them on the run or

hiding in caves is not enough; it is a recipe for defeat,

if not already an acknowledgement of failure. The

death of bin Laden and his senior associates in

Pakistan and Iraq would not end the movement, but it

would deal al Qaeda a serious blow.”50

Even Michael Scheuer who has been at the forefront of those scholars

professing the lethality of the new decentralized and largely headless global

Salafi jihad has stated that eliminating bin Laden is a necessary first step in

abating the movement.51 Thus, even those that have been most adamant about

the natural resilience of the organization and movement at this point have agreed

that a policy of targeted killing is not only justified but necessary in this case.
Riedel 2007
Lecture by Michael Scheuer to Georgetown University, July 2006

Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown

This study demonstrates that the final step forward that Scheuer, Riedel, and

others are afraid to take – the step that leads to the conclusion that eliminating al

Qaeda’s leadership will inflict critical damage upon its resilience – is a

reasonable and logical one.

Those that oppose or are apprehensive of a policy of targeted killings 52 typically

do so on the grounds that the United States will lose legitimacy in the world’s

eyes, and unlike Israel, it relies heavily upon maintaining some degree of that

legitimacy. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the United States

government has come under constant fire for going too far in prosecuting the

“Global War on Terror,” including the way in which the Administration

conveniently interprets our ban on assassinations. In an entirely Machiavellian

perspective, though, this policy must remain a centerpiece of the

counterterrorism strategy, because with the presence of leadership such as bin

Laden and Zawahiri, the United States will always lose the much more

challenging battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.

Lastly, the United States must be successful in its attempts to decapitate al

See Daniel Byman, “Do Targeted Killings Work,” Foreign Affairs (Vol 85, Issue
2: Mar/Apr 2006); Steven R. David, “Israel’s Policy of Targeted Killing,” Ethics &
International Affairs (Spring 2003), Vol. 17, pp. 111-126; Yael Stein, “By Any
Name Illegal and Immoral: Response to ‘Israel’s Policy of Targeted Killing,’”
Ethics & International Affairs

Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown

Qaeda in the near future. Each passing year provides additional experience to

the potential successors to bin Laden’s legacy, and eventually a legitimate

successor could surface that may carry on bin Laden’s leadership, message, and

general call-to-arms. The current war in Iraq could potentially generate such a

leader in a shorter timeframe, particularly if the United States withdraws.53 Al

Qaeda leadership will surely paint any American withdrawal as a victory for the

organization and the movement, and the leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq will

certainly gain some level of notoriety necessary to ascend the ranks of the parent

organization and broader movement.54

During the 1990s, the United States had numerous opportunities to kill bin

Laden, but it refused to do so based on fears of damaging its international

legitimacy.55 Today we see the results of this inaction, and the attempts by the

United States to topple the jihad, instead, by killing individual operational

There are many factors that must be weighed in this decision, and this paper is
not intended to address the value of the war in Iraq. Its impact on al Qaeda
leadership is, though, one aspect that should be considered.
Brisard believed the opportunities posed by the conflict in Iraq would be major
reasons for Zarqawi’s ascension in addition to his previous personal ties to bin
Laden (206). With Zarqawi’s death in June 2006, Abu Ayyub al-Masri took the
reins of al Qaeda in Iraq, but he never attained the same level of notoriety.
Nonetheless, I would contend that a perceived victory in Iraq over the Americans
could have catapulted al-Masri high into the ranks of the jihad. His apparent
death in May 2007 (reports out as late as May 6, 2007, cast doubt on his death
as a statement attacking Iraqi Vice President Hashimi on the al Qaeda in Iraq
website was attributed to al-Masri) has left al Qaeda in Iraq searching for another
successor, but bin Laden’s statements that Iraq is the primary battlefield for the
jihad seem to indicate that the leader of that effort would continue to represent a
prime candidate to the succession.
Coxe 65

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Eric J. Brown

components and leaders of the organization and movement. This has only

served to further alienate the populace that the United States must ultimately win

over, and has radicalized some Muslims further when men such as bin Laden

and Zawahiri take advantage of these attacks as fodder for their messages.

Thus, the current attacks on the operational cadre are counter-productive as long

as the strategic leadership remains intact. Only once al Qaeda’s senior

leadership is captured or killed will the organization and the movement truly be

vulnerable to attack as in the case of Sendero Luminoso.

While the features posited by bin Laden, Zawahiri, and al-Suri were intended to

strengthen al Qaeda’s resilience, they actually amplified the risk of decapitation

by setting the bar ever higher for the qualifications of the group’s and

movement’s leadership, thus creating a double-edged sword. Certainly, al

Qaeda is now almost entirely immune to the effects of the amputation of

individual cells and could even lose its “middle management” without any long-

term pains, but losing Usama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and those other

associates at the senior-most level of al Qaeda would represent a serious threat

to the continued resilience of the global Salafi jihad. Without the force of

character that these men exert, the organization and movement would disperse,

making it possible for the United States to hunt the group’s operational

components including its operational leaders with substantial effect. It is,

therefore, the strategic imperative of the United States to finish the job started in

Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown

the mountains around Tora Bora and eliminate al Qaeda’s leadership.

Global Charismatic Leadership: A Necessary Reagent in Al Qaeda’s Resilience

Eric J. Brown


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