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Transformational Leadership

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Government officials, scholars, and analysts continue to debate the extent to which Al-Qaeda’s central leadership remains relevant to today’s battle against terrorism. After U.S. forces eliminated the group’s safe haven in Afghanistan in late 2001, many argued that Al-Qaeda had transformed into a decentralized organization with little vertical hierarchy, that it had become “more of an ideology than an organization.”In the words of one analyst, Al-Qaeda was seen as “a fragmented terrorist group living on the run in the caves of Afghanistan.” This description may have been true in the months following the overthrow of the Taliban, but the notion of a scattered and ineffective Al-Qaeda central leadership has been overplayed over the past several years. Many analysts have exaggerated the capabilities that the terror group’s top leaders require to remain relevant and so have overlooked the fact that even during its nadir from 2002 through 2004, Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership was able to develop terrorist plots for regional nodes to execute.Now that Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership has gained a safe haven in the tribal regions of Pakistan, the organization’s power and relevance grow even greater. Today, the Al-Qaeda network—with a resilient central leadership—is the most dangerous terrorist adversary that the United States faces, possessing a lethal combination of capability and, unlike Hezbollah, a demonstrated desire to carry out mass-casualty attacks on U.S. soil. Analysts such as Jason Burke, a reporter for London’s Observer and the author of Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, and Stratfor’s Peter Zeihan have underestimated the importance of Al-Qaeda’s central leadership, in part because they overstate what that leadership needs to do to remain relevant. Even if the central leadership’s role is limited to connecting terrorist nodes—pairing skill sets, financing, and operatives—it can transform terrorist groups from disunited regional problems into cohesive adversaries capable of threatening Western societies.Analysts consider terrorist networks to be centralized when there is a principal command exercising control over the network, making operational decisions, and guiding its ideology. Decisions filter from top to bottom, and levels do not mix: There is a clear separation between the leadership and lower ranking operatives. A central command joins terrorists with specific skill sets across regions, tasks smaller cells, and provides financial and logistical resources. A prime example of such a centralized structure was pre-9-11 Al-Qaeda, which had a supreme leader (Osama bin Laden), a shura (consultation) council, various committees, and a cadre of lieutenants in charge of regions or cells. Although some analysts assume that youths can self-radicalize and train themselves via the Internet,training camps produce the most capable terrorists. Graduates of terrorist training camps have conducted the deadliest post-9-11 attacks: in Bali, Madrid, London, Sharm el-Sheikh, and Mumbai. U.S. officials are fortunate that both the group that plotted to bomb the John F. Kennedy airport in 2007 and the cell arrested in Miami in 2006 were untrained and apparently isolated from global jihadist networks.

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