The LA Times has a fascinating story today derived from transcripts of government interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), which reveals a great deal about the inner workings and organizational dynamics of al-Qaeda. It’s worth reading closely in order to better understand al-Qaeda’s operational and management philosophies, as a means to improve our detection and disruption of potential attacks. For example, the story contains the following management insights from KSM:
Mohammed described Al Qaeda in a written statement for his U.S. interrogators as an almost mystically efficient corporation that operates in ways Americans would never understand.
The portly Kuwaiti, who had studied engineering in the U.S. and was captured in Pakistan in 2003, told his interrogators that they could learn a lot from Al Qaeda, the organization.
“You must study these matters to know the huge difference between the Western mentality in administration and the Eastern mentality, specifically at Al Qaeda.”
The hallmark of the system, he said, was unquestioned control: Everyone up the chain of command did as they were told, didn’t ask questions and never bucked authority â€” all for the common cause of the enterprise, which in this case was killing as many Americans as possible.
And Mohammed revealed some of his management stratagems to his interrogators.
“Simplicity was the key to success,” was one of them.
For instance, he told the plot’s co-conspirators not to use codes, especially in routine messages or e-mails.
“He asked the operatives to be normal to the maximum extent possible in their dealings, to keep the tone of their letters educational, social or commercial, and to keep the calls short.”
Mohammed also delegated tasks. He entrusted much of the communications and finance details to two underlings so he would not have to be in contact with the hijackers while they were in America. And he gave lead hijacker Mohamed Atta the authority over many operational details.
Mohammed said he was a stickler for security. He insisted on compartmentalizing the details of the plot, to such a degree that even some of Al Qaeda’s top officials did not know them.
“When four people know the details of an operation, it is dangerous; when two people know, it is good; when just one person knows, it is better,” Mohammed said, according to his interrogators.
Al-Qaeda might be diminished in some respects today, but there’s no reason that we should assume that we are dealing with enemy operators who are any less sophisticated than KSM. (We’re also facing an enemy that can make mistakes – the article details numerous ways in which bin Laden’s actions could have compromised the 9/11 attacks). We can’t let down our guard on the intelligence and law enforcement fronts, and our homeland security system needs to encourage personal initiative and instill the values of continuous learning and adaptability.
Definitely read the whole article. The full transcripts are not yet publicly available, as far as I can tell, but Cryptome has some of the early ones and is encouraging people to donate so they can buy a full set. At least some of the quotes from this article are taken from the 3/27/06 transcript, which is $241 here.
Update (4/7): Here’s the testimony that contains the content from KSM’s interrogation.