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Studies: Al Qaeda both complex and dull

Terror group portrayed as much like a flawed corporation

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A West Point study states that Osama bin Laden runs al Qaeda much like a corporation.

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(CNN) -- Al Qaeda and the like have similar weaknesses to other modern organizations, according to two West Point studies that portray the terror network as sophisticated but its daily operations as banal.

As a consequence, the study "Stealing al Qaeda's Playbook" says, the United States should conduct counterinsurgency and psychological operations against terrorist organizations in a subtle manner that avoids "direct engagement" whenever possible.

The other study, "Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting al Qaeda's Organizational Vulnerabilities," analyzes seized al Qaeda documents and lists ways to combat the group on many levels, such as targeting its finances and undermining it with propaganda. (Watch for details on al Qaeda's vacation benefits -- 2:03)

The documents, which reside in a classified database called "Harmony," examine what the study calls "the banality of al Qaeda's day-to-day operations."

The Harmony materials "identify the al Qaeda recruitment criteria, the training program for 'new hires,' and the tactics of information, political and military warfare needed to defeat the Jews and Crusaders."

"The documents reflect meticulous operational calculations being made by the leadership over intended results and available opportunities for exploitation," according to the study. "The strategic discussions reflect a patient, organized and determined foe that has known defeats, but one with the ability to learn from its mistakes."

The study recommends different means of attacking al Qaeda, such as targeting its finances, confusing and embarrassing the rank and file, and exploiting ideological rifts.

It also looks at al Qaeda as a business, with the same inherent personality conflicts, intra-organizational disputes and arguments over allocating resources of any corporation.

"The corporate culture appears to be similar to other modern organizations," the study states.

Indeed, some of the documents used by researchers indicate that al Qaeda has vacation plans -- seven days every three weeks for married members, five days a month for bachelors -- and provides its members with 15 days of sick leave a year.

One document states that al Qaeda operatives must request vacation 10 weeks in advance, and another document outlines the pay scale for members: about $108 a month for married members, less if they're single and more if they have more than one wife.

The Harmony documents, some of which date back to the 1970s, when Islamists tried to overthrow the secular government of Syria, "also reveal a high level of arrogance and intense ambition" common to jihadist groups, the study states.

"While the theology may seem reactionary, the organization insists on using modern management principles as well. Instruction is provided on applying information technology, manipulating the media and researching the use of nuclear weapons for the cause of jihad."

Trends in jihad

The "Playbook" study takes a different approach, outlining six major trends in the thinking of prominent jihadists, including al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, and describing how the United States could counter each one:

  • Direct engagement with the United States has been positive for the movement because it rallies locals, drains U.S. resources and puts pressure on Washington's allies.
  • To counter the first trend, the study says the United States "should avoid direct, large-scale military action in the Middle East. If such fighting is necessary, it must be done through proxies whenever possible."

  • The movement has become decentralized, making training camps obsolete and opening doors to new venues for training, such as urban areas and the Internet.
  • Therefore, the study authors write, the United States "must be aware of the consequences of creating new theaters for jihad, particularly in the Arab world. The U.S. must also find ways to redirect the alienation among Muslim youth that is fueling recruitment."

  • Jihadist ideologues want to establish Islamic states that can be used as training bases and to help develop the "nuclei of the future jihadi order." But rather than overthrowing a sitting ruler, they would be content to create enclaves in poorly policed regions.
  • The United States should compete by helping local surrogates establish their own enclaves "in regions where there are security vacuums," according to the study.

  • Jihadists frown on bad publicity and want to foster an image that will convince people to join their groups.
  • The study suggests using Cold War-era propaganda tactics to covertly sway public opinion. Attempts by the U.S. "to elicit pro-American feelings in the Middle East by making public pronouncements about the true nature of Islam or the virtues of democracy" should be avoided.

  • Jihadists see religious leadership as integral to attracting youths and lending legitimacy to violence.
  • The United States "should very carefully and unobtrusively support Muslim religious leaders and movements" that counter the movement, even if the leaders are not friendly with the West," the study says.

    "If the bottom line is a rejection of violence against the United States and its allies, [such groups] should be supported."

  • Jihadists look for insights in Western thought and U.S. strategic planning.
  • According to the study, the United States should counter these efforts by "establishing a think tank staffed with highly trained experts on the Middle East and counterinsurgency whose sole purpose would be to identify the major jihadi thinkers and analyze their works."

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