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The jailing of seven men at Woolwich Crown Court on Friday 15 June 2007 allows the UK public a glimpse of the problem that was faced by the nation in 2004. Described by prosecutors as a UK Al-Qa’ida “sleeper cell”, they worked together as a multi-disciplinary team. Each member brought individual skills, such as devising false identities or advising on counter-surveillance, and the team’s job was to provide support to an Al-Qa’ida operative planning attacks in the UK.
The seven men were jailed for a total of 136 years for their part in plots masterminded by Dhiren Barot to blow up US financial institutions and stage attacks in Britain between 2001 and 2004. Six of the men admitted conspiracy to cause explosions and a seventh was found guilty of conspiracy to murder.
But three years have passed since they operated and the threat the nation faces is unlikely to have remained static during that time. Strategy, together with operational tactics will have evolved to take account of the nation’s increased counter-terrorist capability and the changing aspirations of the Al-Qa’ida leadership.
During the trial prosecutors said that the operational bombing plans drawn up by Barot resembled professional business plans in their complexity and detail. They were described as “meticulous” and included statements on how the campaign would benefit the Al-Qa’ida cause. Prosecutors stated that Barot presented the plans, together with detailed funding requirements, to Al-Qa’ida figures hiding in Pakistan.
Such practice is more in keeping with the boardroom of a multi-national business than a military campaign headquarters. Therefore looking at how modern business practices have evolved over recent years may provide both an insight into the current threat to the UK and ways to counter it.
It is not surprising to find business practices in Al-Qa’ida as Osama Bin Laden, generally recognized as the Commander and Senior Operations Chief of Al-Qa’ida, is no stranger to business himself. He is a member of the bin Laden family whose financial interests are represented by the Saudi Binladin Group, a global construction and equity management conglomerate grossing 5 billion U.S. dollars annually, and one of the largest construction firms in the Islamic world, with offices in London and Geneva. 
He is reported to have studied economics and business administration at the Management and Economics School of King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. Likewise some reports suggest he earned a degree in civil engineering in 1979  and a degree in public administration in 1981. However, other sources describe him as never having graduated from college, or as having left university during his third year.
Although his personal qualifications are subject to hot debate there can be no doubt that he has business acumen. He is widely reported to have brought personal wealth and construction expertise to the Afghan Mujahedeen during the Revolutionary War in Afghanistan and in an interview with Independent newspaper's Robert Fisk (6.12.96) he described himself as “a construction engineer and an agriculturist.”
According to Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a former member of Al-Qa’ida who defected to the United States in 1996, Al-Qa’ida’s structure is not dissimilar to that of a multi-national organisation. Bin Laden is advised by a council who seem to fulfil the same operational role as a Board of Directors and there are at least five semi-autonomous “Business Units”. There is a military unit looking at issues such as training and weapons, a business/commercial enterprise unit overseeing financial aspects, a legal unit, a religious unit and a media unit.
Al-Qa’ida's objectives include the elimination of foreign influence in Muslim countries, eradication of those deemed to be "infidels", elimination of Israel and the creation of a new Islamic caliphate [8,9], . The “business plan” is therefore to be global.
A modern business with such an aspiration has two fundamental choices: either become enormous with every aspect of the business replicated in every part of the world in which it wishes to operate; or retain the core functions and subcontract locally for operational services and resources. An enormous organisation has the advantage of not risking dilution of brand but requires an organisational overhead that would be hard to maintain in a covert manner. Therefore, in the interests of stealth and agility it would not be unreasonable for Al-Qa’ida to have adopted to retain core competences and subcontract where appropriate.
This strategy seems to be reflected in what has emerged about the plots surrounding the recent jailings. With respect to Dhiren Barot, Mr Justice Butterfield said "Barot was the instigator of this terrorist planning, he was by some considerable distance the principal participant in the conspiracy.” And with respect to the seven men he stated "each one of you was recruited by Barot and assisted him at his request."
Woolwich Crown Court was told that one of those convicted used his first-class degree in engineering to research how the bombs could work. Another acted as a driver and led counter-surveillance checks. The third member had a degree in architecture and acted as a "consultant" on the best way to bring down buildings and the fourth member rented a safe-house for the men and researched radioactivity. The fifth was said to have studied how to disable electronic security and fire control systems and the only man to plead not guilty joined Barot on a US reconnaissance trip.
When expanding one’s business into a new area it is common practice to start on a project by project basis and the implication of Mr Justice Butterfield’s remarks is that Barot’s associates were more of a team assembled by Barot rather than a “sleeper cell” who were prepositioned ready to support whomever was sent to them by Al-Qa’ida.
However, this all took place over three years ago and, in business, once your presence in a new market has been established, you then start to build up a more permanent local support network who can assist in many projects rather than single one-offs.
It is therefore not inconceivable that there is now a permanent domestic capability in the UK ready and willing to support any “business plan” that Al-Qa’ida central rubber stamps.
Dr Sandra Bell
Director, Homeland Security & Resilience Department, RUSI
The “Al-Qa’ida Business Plan” is a current area of study in RUSI. For more information on this strand of research please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. The House of bin Laden, The New Yorker, 2001-11-05.
2. Messages to the World, the Statements of Osama bin Laden, Verso, 2005, p.xii
3. Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, (Vol. 22. Gale Group, 2002) http://galenet.galegroup.com
4. Hunting Bin Laden: Who is Bin Laden? PBS Frontline.
5. Hug, Aziz, The Real Osama. American Prospect (January 19, 2006).
6. Gunaratna, Rohan . Inside Al Qaeda (3rd edition, Berkley Books, 2003), p. 22.
7. A Traitor's Tale, Time, 19 February 2001.
8 Letter from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) (2005-10-11).
9. Allan Hall. Al-Qa’ida chiefs reveal world domination design, The Age, August 24, 2005.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI