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Al Qaeda Evolving

Updated: Mar 8, 2020

Al Qaeda: An improved hierarchy adapted by modern communications technology and the example of others

Al Qaeda was at one point the international gold standard for insurgency. From Yemen to Iraq, Al Qaeda was operational, but regional divisions operated more as franchises than as subordinates. Vertical hierarchy manifested less rigidity; instead, there was what could be called a “manual model.” (Clarke 2019) Just like restaurant franchises, it was the protocols of action that dictated procedure rather than chain of command. One of the reasons Al Qaeda found success in insurgency was because leadership was more interested in determining best practices rather than micromanaging. Other Islamist insurgent networks such as Al Shabbab in Somalia or Hamas cells in the West Bank face inefficiency of execution due to obsessive hierarchical control often leading to internal power struggle. (Tucker 2015) This seems to be a cultural constant; ego disputes are not only common among Islamist terrorist organizations, but also Arab militaries and the bureaucracies of government ministries. This is displayed by the quick succession of coups and corruption in state institutions of most Middle Eastern countries.

In the 2000s and early 2010s, even if Al Qaeda wanted to act more with greater vertical hierarchy, they would not have been able to. (Simcox 2019) Al Qaeda, Arabic for “The Base,” ironically lacks one. Certain subsidiary franchises like AQAP and Jabat Al Nusra have controlled small swathes of land, but their basic use of Shariah law as a transitional governance system has been ineffective. The Islamic State, on the other hand, used Shariah law and an experienced municipal governance structure. This granted them a never before gained sense of internal legitimacy compared to other terror organizations. Da’esh maintained impressive government municipal bureaucracies such as an organized court system and civic services. These more formal governmental attributes both expressed and built complex and functional hierarchies. (Tucker 2015) Under the court system of the Islamic State, not only were de facto judges well versed in Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), they had their own clerks and bailiffs. While due process was not held anywhere close to a Western standard, the court system promoted a consistent standard which developed and expressed communication and hierarchy. (Tucker 2015)

Unsettling though it is to admit, a sense of security was garnered from maintaining administered land area in the Islamic State. Their use of new technology added to that comfort. Utilizing encrypted communications provided Da’esh with a digital cover that tempered paranoia about NSA like intelligence agencies. While Da’esh is widely regarded as innovative for their use of social media, the organization received little publicity in regards to their use of intraorganizational communications. It was both gratuity of governance as well as the use of encrypted communications that allowed for the blossoming of complex hierarchy. (Graham 2017)

One could make the argument that the original Al Qaeda faction that became Da’esh achieved its new formation upon the reformatting of its hierarchy. Feeling disconnected from the top brass, Da’esh was a disruptor using new technology and methods of governance. This model is being adopted all over the world, most prominently by the “New Taliban.” Al Qaeda, an organization used to adopting a “manual model” approach, will most likely take a new consolidated form, benefiting from lessons in governance and encrypted communications learned from Da’esh. (Clarke 2019)


Clarke, Colin P. “How Terrorist Groups Learn: Implications for Al-Qaeda.” Foreign Policy Research Institute, Foreign Policy Research Institute, 13 Mar. 2019,

(Clarke 2019)

Simcox, Robin. “Osama Bin Laden's Son Is Likely Dead. Here's What It Means.” The Heritage Foundation, The Heritage Foundation, 1 Aug. 2019,

(Simcox 2019)

Graham, Robert. “How Terrorists Use Encryption.” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, United States Military Academy West Point, 15 Nov. 2017,

(Graham 2017)

Tucker, David. “Terrorism, Networks, and Strategy: Why the Conventional Wisdom Is Wrong.” HOMELAND SECURITY AFFAIRS, Homeland Security Affairs Journal, 14 Jan. 2015,

(Tucker 2015)

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