ANSER | Al-Qaeda as an Adaptive Organization: A Case Study
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Al-Qaeda as an Adaptive Organization: A Case Study

Al-Qaeda as an Adaptive Organization: A Case Study

Client: Systems Thinking; National Policy Communities

Al-Qaeda, a complex distributed and resilient enterprise, has challenged our Nation’s intelligence and national security apparatus for at least the last eleven years. Despite Osama bin Laden’s being eliminated in May of 2011, al-Qaeda remains actively at large with Ayman al-Zawahiri installed as its new leader. How has al-Qaeda remained so agile, innovative, and resilient in spite of such a resourced effort?

The Applied Systems Thinking (ASysT) Institute, a research institute of Analytic Services, was created out of a recognized need to apply systems thinking principles to problems of national and international significance. ASysT specializes in using a systems thinking approach to understand problems and further the discipline’s use. ASysT undertook a recent project to comprehend al-Qaeda’s adaptability in a paper titled: “Al-Qaeda as an Adaptive Organization: A Case Study.” Significant findings:

  • Al-Qaeda’s organizational ideology provides common ground and is flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions
  • Its decision-making process allows for individual initiative
  • Recruitment strategies should be modified as changes occur to potential pools of recruits


Many of us first became aware of al-Qaeda after the attacks of September 11, 2001, however, Osama bin Laden, his followers, and their actions can be traced back to the 1996 bombings of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 attacks on US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 2000 assault on the USS Cole in Yemen. Since September 11, we’ve endeavored to fight two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and established the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), among many other efforts, but we have yet to eliminate al-Qaeda or the threat of terrorism. It may be that the threat of terrorism will never cease, but ASysT will continue venturing to understand our enemy in order to inform decisions that shape the Nation’s future.

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Applied Systems Thinking