By Isaac Kfir
Review of The Al-Qaeda Franchise: The Expansion of Al-Qaeda & Its Consequences by Barak Mendelsohn (Oxford, 2016)
In The Al-Qaeda Franchise, Barak Mendelsohn offers an interesting view of al-Qaeda’s strategy over the last decade, specifically what he describes as its franchising strategy. The book, with a rather ambitious thesis, assesses how this franchising strategy impacted the organization and in doing so makes some suggestions to policymakers as to how they should devise a counterterrorism strategy. In making this argument, Mendelsohn seeks to show that the franchising strategy has not made al-Qaeda more dangerous nor stronger, but rather has weakened it, as it has had to adapt to local conditions and demands.
The book has two principal sections. The first, which is far more interesting, lays out the theoretical framework, whereas the second part, chapters 6 to 9, provides case studies to support Mendelsohn’s theoretical exposition.
The author’s theoretical framework is effectively a typology of formal organizational expansion, where he distinguishes between absorption, branching out, unification, and umbrella groups (each is given its own chapter later on in the book, though the main focus of the book is with the branching out strategy). These approaches to expansion are distinct, and although there may be some overlap, by his focusing on the type of expansion, insight emerges as to the objective of the organization and the threat they pose. Such an approach could be enormously useful for policymakers as they struggle with various counterterrorism policies.
In discussing the various expansion strategies, Mendelsohn correctly asserts that organizational expansion operates at a higher level than operational adaptation in that the former demands a willingness to accept structural changes, whereas the latter focuses mainly on tactics. In laying out this basic premise, Mendelsohn provides support to those who argue that al-Qaeda’s ideology is not merely theological, emphasizing a need for strict adherence, but rather is flexible. Put differently, instead of seeing al-Qaeda as an uncompromising, dogmatic terror group, Mendelsohn sees it as a rational actor, committed to expanding its influence even if it is at the cost of its theological cohesion.
To understand the expansion strategy, particularly when it comes to branching out, there is a need to consider what Mendelsohn calls the actors-based perspective and the arena-based perspective. The former essentially refers to psychological elements that impact upon the group and its leaders. The latter has three considerations. First, ideational values. This means that an arena becomes attractive to a group not only because of religious or historical aspects, but also for ideological reasons. Thus, Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Palestine, for instance, are attractive to a group such as al-Qaeda, as each combines all three elements: religion, history and ideology. That is, these locals have religious, historical and ideological values for existing and having potential recruits.
The second consideration is a strategic value, which is when an organization identifies certain fronts as being vital for its overall mission success. In the case of al-Qaeda, its strategic area of choice was the Middle East, as noted by al-Zawahiri in 2001 when he called for the organization to establish a base in the Middle East. Oddly enough though, al-Qaeda has not been very successful in this region; as seen for example with its failure to establish a base in Saudi Arabia or Palestine. The third consideration is internal characteristics, because when one introduces new actors into a group, the group naturally changes.
The next chapters analyze the franchising strategy. The first attempt was in Saudi Arabia, with the founding of an al-Qaeda branch in the Kingdom (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and the merger with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group, Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (TWJ, Organization of Monotheism and Jihad), which operated in Iraq following the US invasion.
Mendelsohn’s argument is that although in 2003 and 2004 when policymakers looked at al-Qaeda’s operation in Saudi Arabia and Iraq and saw an organization they thought was strong, in fact it was far from that. The al-Qaeda branch in Saudi Arabia had suffered devastating losses mainly because of the counteroffensive policies of the Saudi regime. This not only claimed the lives of al-Qaeda recruits, but forced the regime to take a proactive stance against the organization …
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Isaac Kfir, Associate Professor at Tokyo International University, is an INSCT Research and Practice Associate.