Spring 2011

Learning From Al Qaeda

– The Wilson Quarterly

One of the greatest advantages Al Qaeda in Iraq had was the alarming speed at which it could operate. To keep up, the U.S. military needed to become more like a network.

In October 2003, soon after he arrived in Iraq to head the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force, now-retired Army general Stanley A. McChrystal and his fellow commanders got out a whiteboard and started to map out the organizational structure of the recently founded Al Qaeda in Iraq. “By habit, we started mapping the organization in a traditional military structure, with tiers and rows. At the top was [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi, below him a cascade of lieutenants and foot soldiers.” But the more information the U.S. commanders got, the less their whiteboard drawing made sense.

The structure of Al Qaeda in Iraq was defined “not by rank but on the basis of relationships and acquaintances, reputation and fame. . . . Who trained together in the pre-9/11 camps in Afghanistan? Who is married to whose sister?” That structure allowed Al Qaeda in Iraq to grow quickly and recover swiftly from losses. A young Iraqi militant could start fighting, build a reputation, and be easily integrated into the network. One of the greatest advantages Al Qaeda in Iraq had was the “alarming” speed at which it could operate.

The U.S. military was the opposite of nimble. McChrystal sketched out the shape of the U.S. organization between Baghdad (headquarters) and a team in Mosul (commanded by David Petraeus, then a major general): an hourglass. “They met at just one narrow point”—a few antennas on top of a trailer in which the special operations forces worked. The antennas were incapable of transmitting classified information “with any timeliness.” Units in Fallujah, Tikrit, and elsewhere could wait days before crucial intelligence was relayed to them. “Information we captured could not be exploited, analyzed, or reacted to quickly enough—giving enemy targets time to flee.”

To keep up with Al Qaeda, the U.S. military needed to become more like a network. McChrystal and his staff took the simple step of convening a meeting of representatives of various U.S. military efforts in Iraq. A new system emerged, with a shorthand label only a military commander could love: F3EA (find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze). It brought together intelligence analysts; drone operators; combat teams; specialists to exploit information from cell phones, maps, and detainees seized during raids; and more intelligence analysts to distill that information. Operations that once took days now could be completed in hours. Soon, the number of daily operations increased tenfold, and success rates improved substantially.

After serving as director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a little under a year back in Washington, McChrystal became the top commander in Afghanistan in 2009. There the networking of the military was already under way, and he pushed it along. What does it take to lead a network? Well, that’s another story, says McChrystal.

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The Source: "Becoming the Enemy" by Stanley A. McChrystal, in Foreign Policy, March-April 2011. 

Photo courtesy of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff