Osama bin Laden – charismatic but no role model – achieved his objectives by
acquiring all the skills of a "true chief executive officer",
according to terrorism analyst Peter L Bergen. An apparently consummate leader,
bin Laden motivated thousands of young men worldwide to lay down everything for
him. Then, he organised them into cells whose diabolical actions took on the
might of the world’s only super power. By Helen Rowe
Bin Laden’s leadership potential was far less evident in his 20s. In his
book – significantly entitled Holy War Inc – Bergen compares professor Abdullah
Azzam, who taught bin Laden. Those who knew Azzam described him as eloquent and
charismatic, possibly a leader in the making. The younger bin Laden, by
contrast, was regarded as sincere and honest but not a potential leader.
Rahul Bedi, who covers South Asia for Jane’s Defence Weekly, believes bin
Laden owes much of his ultimate success as a leader and motivator to his
"Bin Laden spent much of his childhood travelling around," he
says. "He travelled all over the world. He became very adaptable, a real
chameleon. If he was in your drawing room, he would have been very polished.
"He knew the ways of the West and the ways of the East. He could
operate in his own society and also in Europe and North America. In that sense
he had an inherent advantage because the reverse – westerners trying to operate
in the east – does not work so well."
Bin Laden’s journey from ideologue to leader began in the early 1980s during
the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. A graduate in economics and public
administration, he was also an expert in demolition as a result of time spent
working at his family’s construction business in Saudi Arabia.
Horrified at the Soviets’ invasion of a Muslim nation, he began to import
tonnes of construction equipment into Afghanistan to help the Mujahideen fight
According to Bedi, it was during this time that bin Laden began to
demonstrate two skills common to all leaders: an ability to innovate and to
lead by example. Having turned his back on the luxury lifestyle that was his
birthright, he adopted the spartan existence of his followers, living in caves
and simple mud-built houses in Afghanistan.
"He was a survivor and innovated as he went along, like the
Taliban," says Bedi. "He was also similar to those old-time
communists who lived what they preached. He was not preaching abstinence on the
one hand while doing something different. He walked the talk. He lived what he
preached and, in that sense, I think he was fairly sincere."
Throughout the 1980s, bin Laden recruited Arabs to fight a jihad, or holy
war, in Afghanistan. Although the Soviets withdrew in 1989, bin Laden continued
to recruit manpower while soliciting financial support for the expanding
Substantial funds were channelled by bin Laden to provide practical support
on the ground. Bridges were built, underground bunkers constructed and a
network of refugee camps was set up in Pakistan to support the millions of
Afghans driven out of their homeland by the fighting. At the same time, cash
was made available for the maintenance and training of cell members worldwide.
Bin Laden used the latest western technology. An al-Qaeda CD-Rom provided
detailed information on weapons and instructions on how to build a bomb and
carry out terrorist attacks. A recruitment video showing bin Laden firing an
automatic rifle was widely circulated and made available on the Internet. The
video was made available in DVD format to make it easy to copy.
Bin Laden invested in training, using his formidable organisational skills
to make sure operatives were always given the back-up they needed. An extensive
network of training camps provided operatives with training in the use of
high-tech explosives. Cell members received advice on how to change their
identities using stolen or forged documents. For those who retained their own
identities, training focused on how to by-pass immigration regulations and
travel without attracting the attention of officials.
Bergen says bin Laden ran al-Qaeda like a "sort of multinational
holding company" with subsidiary militant organisations in countries
including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria, Libya, Yemen and Syria.
Some recruits – such as the elite operatives destined to carry out the
attacks in East Africa and the US – were specially chosen for their ability to
blend in and not arouse suspicions as they prepared to carry out their
missions. But many were just cannon fodder.
None, however, knew the broader picture. Bin Laden did not share strategy
with everyone. A system of specialist committees meant tasks were delegated. As
a result, many of those further down the chain of command never actually met
When tasks were assigned, so-called ‘cell management’ ensured the
individuals involved were unaware of how their role fitted into bin Laden’s
overall objective. Each member knew only as much as he needed to, thereby
preventing lapses of security that might have endangered entire operations.
The operatives’ commitment and belief in their leader is clear from their
willingness to carry out bin Laden’s carefully laid plans without question or
deviation. It was also crucial to the eventual success of their missions.
Jay Easwaran, a New Delhi-based HR director, says the way bin Laden operated
demonstrates the power of indoctrination – and also its limitations.
"It all reminds me of Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. Lines
like ‘Theirs not to reason why/theirs but to do and die’ make me think that bin
Laden has shown us again what Tennyson taught us so many years ago: that
leadership must be charismatic. If it is, people will follow you blindly.
"The drawback is that today’s corporations don’t want people to follow
blindly. They are in the game of trying to predict the future and need their
people to be individualistic, not clones. They need them to be empowered, so
they can collect the data on which decisions are then made. With the bin Laden
approach you don’t have the capability to change direction when things don’t go
right," says Easwaran.
Easwaran, who heads HR in India for multinational electronic product design
company the Tality Corporation, rejects bin Laden’s over-reliance on the
indoctrination of young recruits. But he says bin Laden did possess many
important leadership qualities.
"He was aware of all the latest technology – and used it to achieve his
objectives. He used a computer, faxes, e-mail, satellite phones. But he was
also aware of the surveillance techniques being used against him.
"He knew what the competition was doing. When he realised he was in
danger of detection because of his use of technology, he reverted to word of
mouth and messengers to carry communications."
Easwaran says bin Laden showed an ability to be focused and patient while
keeping in mind an overall goal. "He was willing to give himself time to
achieve his goals. He knew people were his most important asset.
"He was a strategist but in implementation he made sure that people
knew the bare minimum that they needed to know. He broke up the whole task into
manageable, meaningful tasks that were an end in themselves.
"Each individual was assigned one of those tasks and it became their
goal, their responsibility. If they didn’t already have the skills they needed
– flying, for example – he enabled them to acquire them. He was committed to
getting the right person for each job.
"The parallel in corporations is finding people with different, but
complementary, skills and binding them together, as bin Laden did, with a
common set of values. Not everyone needs to be concerned with every detail of
what other people are doing. Otherwise you end up with information overload,
and unfocused with nothing ever moving forward."
The best measure of bin Laden’s leadership skills, Bedi adds, is the extent
to which he achieved his goals.
"Just as in judo, he took his opponent’s strengths and used them
against it. For example, it was relatively simple to learn to fly, even to make
money from the World Trade Center disaster by trading shares on the stock
exchange. He took the West’s openness and its use of technology and used them
Bedi speculates that had the Americans not been able to pressure Pakistan
and rely on the Northern Alliance to fight for it, it may have had to concede
defeat in Afghanistan. "At the end of the day, they still have not got
Osama bin Laden – just a puppet regime in Kabul and about 200 al-Qaeda
"They went into Afghanistan with two objectives: to capture bin Laden
and to oust the Taliban. They achieved the second goal, but it took them
several months. They never got Osama bin Laden. I would not write him