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Killing al-Qaeda’s Middle Managers May Be Key to its Destruction

Identifying and neutralizing al-Qaeda’s little-known middle managers is a more effective way to disable the organization than just targeting its top leaders, according to a newly published report.

“A much higher priority -- both in terms of attention and resources -- should be given to identifying and neutralizing the middle managers who connect the top of the organization with the bottom, and -- in doing so -- undermine al-Qaeda’s military strength and strategic coherence,” says the report from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation & Political Violence at Kings College London.

The argument isn’t new, said Bruce Hoffman, the director of the security studies program at Georgetown University, in an e-mail. Terrorism experts at the RAND Corp., a government-funded research group, sent a detailed letter laying it out to then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, CIA director George Tenet and FBI director Robert Mueller a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he said.

“The problem is that no one generally knows who these people are, so eliminating them lacks the same drama, or sense of catharsis, that taking out a high-value target does,” Hoffman said.

The paper, published Oct. 25 in the journal “Studies in Conflict & Terrorism,” argues that while al-Qaeda’s senior leaders, most of whom are believed to be in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and its foot soldiers remain important, its “operational center of gravity lies with a group of so-called middle managers.”

Terror Middle Management

These middle managers aren’t part of the group’s top echelon of “experienced and ideologically committed jihadists,” led since leader Osama bin Laden’s death by the Egyptian Ayman al Zawahiri, says the paper by Peter Neumann, Ryan Evans and Raffaello Pantucci.

Nor are they al-Qaeda’s foot soldiers, whom the paper describes as “individuals who have been inspired by al-Qaeda and often ’participate’ through Internet forums, so-called jihobbyists; low level members of jihadist cells and their activist leaders; and those who have been to a training camp and returned to their home countries without having developed lasting ties to the leadership.”

Al-Qaeda’s middle managers, says the paper, are experienced and skilled, and are connected to both its grassroots and its top leadership.

“Importantly, they are not permanently based in the tribal areas but have returned to their home countries or other non-battlefront states, sometimes traveling back and forth, building support networks and raising money for the global jihad,” the report says.

Three Examples

The paper offers three examples of what it calls middle managers in terrorist plots against Western targets. It concedes that the sample is small, but says it may be significant given that when it was written there had been only 39 known al-Qaeda-related terrorist plots in the West since Sept. 11.

The three examples are:

Mohammed Qayum Khan and Abu Munthir, who ran a network of at least nine mostly British Muslims of Pakistani origin who were planning a series of fertilizer bomb attacks in 2004 on targets in the United Kingdom, including the Ministry of Sound nightclub in London. The plot was interrupted by British intelligence and the London police.

Abu Munthir, who the paper says “seemed to enjoy excellent relations with senior members of al-Qaeda’s top leadership” and reported to Abu Hadi al-Iraqi, then the group’s third in command, who was captured in 2006 and is detained at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba.

Cash and Night Vision Goggles

Khan and Abu Munthir “helped a group of young Muslim men to connect to al-Qaeda and receive the training, skills, and strategic direction they needed in order to become effective.”

Aleem Nasir was at the center of a network that supplied al-Qaeda with money, equipment and recruits between 2003 and June 2007, when Pakistani intelligence arrested him in Lahore. Born in Pakistan, he migrated to Germany in 1987, where he married a local woman and was granted citizenship in 1992.

Nasir made four trips to Pakistan and delivered bundles of cash and equipment such as night vision goggles, bulletproof vests, and compasses to al Qaeda in Pakistan, the report says.

He also introduced a Moroccan-born German named Bekkay Harrach to al-Qaeda, according to the report. Harrach became an al-Qaeda leader and propagandist, and the BBC reported that fellow militants said he was killed last January leading an attack on the big U.S. air base at Bagram, Afghanistan.

Malika El Aroud and her husband Moez Garsallaoui were al-Qaeda middle managers in Belgium until police arrested El Aroud in December 2008, the report said.

“The couple played an important role in linking young Muslim men from Belgium and France with al-Qaeda Central in Pakistan’s tribal areas, thereby turning ’wannabes’ into potential terrorists,” the report says.

Growing Importance

Intelligence from the raid that killed bin Laden may shed light on the still murky relationship between such middle managers and al-Qaeda central, said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington and the author of “Bin Laden’s Legacy.”

The importance of middle managers in Europe and elsewhere may have grown, he said, as U.S. attacks have riddled the group’s top leadership in Pakistan and its affiliates in places such as Yemen, Somalia and northern Africa have grown more independent.

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