A CEO of Terror?

A miniature trend in using business-world metaphors to describe the operations of Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network reached a sort of climax over the weekend. Bin Laden had already been described as using the venture capital model (by a Forbes columnist) and as being an “entrepreneur” (by The New Yorker). On Sunday Colin Powell called him “the chairman and CEO” of al-Qaida, and the New York Times ran a story headlined “Running Terrorism as a Business,” which manages to suggest that al-Qaida is similar both to a struggling startup and to “a coolly efficient corporation” with a new economy flavor.

Evidence? “Like new economy C.E.O.’s, Mr. bin Laden is constantly searching for ways to cut costs,” the Times asserts. Yes, but then so are librarians, newspaper editors, public radio station managers, mayors, and whoever is in charge of your office holiday party this year. Still, a fancy university expert chimes in to say that the idea that al-Qaida operatives are compensated largely with the promise of a rewarding afterlife is a “perfect example of bin Laden agreeing to pay the operatives the opportunity costs for their time, which is exactly what a C.E.O. does.” Sure. But then even fancy universities have been known to pay the opportunity costs for their affiliated experts’ time, haven’t they?

Anyway, the bottom line is that al-Qaida  is not set up to earn profits, which would seem to pretty severely undermine the idea that it’s “run as a business.” But if we must have a business-related metaphor for al-Qaida, I guess the venture capitalist variation is the most plausible one. It was advanced in Forbes by Richard Karlgaard, whose column is a guilty pleasure of mine, even though it’s a bit repetitive and at times overheated—and even though one recent, silly installment actually called for Slate’s closure. Karlgaard contends that, like a VC, Bin Laden backs decentralized and unrelated disruptive ventures that “change the rules of engagement.” At least this metaphor more or less holds up.

Still, in the end I think all these comparisons are not only pointless, but also dangerously misguided. All pick up a theme that’s become distressingly commonplace in the business world, and that is placing way too much emphasis on the power of one individual. In the same way that people unthinkingly credit Jack Welch as being singly responsible for the success of General Electric, the Osama-as-business-titan theory implies that if you get rid of the Great Leader, the organization falls apart.

This theory has actually undermined many more ventures than it has supported. In fact, if it’s true that Bin Laden is like a typical new economy CEO, what that would actually mean is not that his terror network is a model of cool and unstoppable efficiency, but rather that it’s a self-deluded venture built on wishful thinking, a blind cult of personality rather than anything truly sustainable. If that proves to be true, we will be lucky indeed.