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How al Qaeda is like Office Space
The AP uncovers a darkly hilarious letter that showcases the terrorist group's talent for mind-numbing corporate-speak
Moktar Belmoktar had some problems with his TPS reports.
Moktar Belmoktar had some problems with his TPS reports. Site Intel Group via AP
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f you think your boss is hard-nosed, try working for al Qaeda. That's one lesson to be drawn from a remarkable letter The Associated Press uncovered in Timbuktu, in which al Qaeda's chiefs in North Africa reprimand terrorist commander Moktar Belmoktar.

But the letter is so much more than that, touching on the universality of recruitment challenges at large corporations, as well as the banality of running a murderous terrorist outfit.

The 10-page letter was a final missive to Belmoktar — referred to throughout by nom de guerre Khaled Abu Abbas — after years of attempted disciplinary action, says the AP's Rukmini Callimachi.

In page after scathing page, they described how he didn't answer his phone when they called, failed to turn in his expense reports, ignored meetings, and refused time and again to carry out orders. Most of all, they claimed he had failed to carry out a single spectacular operation, despite the resources at his disposal.... Belmoktar responded the way talented employees with bruised egos have in corporations the world over: He quit and formed his own competing group. [AP]

The letter is from the 14-member governing Shura Council of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and it refers to their relationship with Belmoktar as "a bleeding wound." And like any good corporate board, the Shura Council lays out its grievances in 30 bullet points. "The list of slights is long," says Callimachi:

He would not take their phone calls. He refused to send administrative and financial reports. He ignored a meeting in Timbuktu, calling it "useless." He even ordered his men to refuse to meet with al Qaeda emissaries. And he aired the organization's dirty laundry in online jihadist forums, even while refusing to communicate with the chapter via the Internet, claiming it was insecure. Sounding like managers in any company, the Shura leaders accuse Belmoktar of not being able to get along with his peers. [AP]

New York's Adam Martin broke down the transgressions into corporate-speak:

Does not work well with others: "Abu Abbas is not willing to follow anyone... He is only willing to be followed and obeyed."

Failed to meet fund-raising targets: Belmoktar captured Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler and a colleague, held them hostage for four months in 2008, then released him for a $900,000 ransom, rather than the Afghanistan War concessions AQIM was pushing for, or even the $3 million average European nations pay for each hostage. The Shura Council was not amused:

"Rather than walking alongside us in the plan we outlined, he managed the case as he liked.... Here we must ask, who handled this important abduction poorly?... Does it come from the unilateral behavior along the lines of our brother Abu Abbas, which produced a blatant inadequacy: Trading the weightiest case (Canadian diplomats!!) for the most meager price (700,000 euros)!!"

The complaints eventually pushed Belmoktar over the edge, and he quit the company a few weeks later, in December 2012, to form his own organization. Unfortunately, he was much more successful going solo: Within months, he and his forces had killed 101 people in two operations: The massive kidnapping of 600 people at a BP-operated gas plant in Algeria, and twin attacks in Niger last week, on a French-owned uranium mine and a military base.

These deadly attacks are largely about showing up his former bosses, says Rudolph Atallah, a former Pentagon counterterrorism official for Africa:

He's sending a message directly north to his former bosses in Algeria saying, "I'm a jihadi. I deserve to be separate from you." And he's also sending a message to al Qaeda, saying, "See, those bozos in the north are incompetent. You can talk to me directly." And in these attacks, he drew a lot of attention to himself. [AP]

Mathieu Guidere, an Islamic scholar at the University of Toulouse, agrees about the motive, adding that the attack on the Ain Amenas gas facility in Algeria was a big clue, since it was in territory controlled by a rival, Abou Zeid:

It's a punch in the gut... It's saying, "You've never been able to do anything even in your native region. Watch me. I'll carry out the biggest hostage operation ever in that very region..." Ain Amenas is the illustration of his ability to do a quality operation, when he is under no authority other than his own, when he doesn't have to turn in expense reports or answer to anybody. [AP]

This is another dark truth about corporate culture: Sometimes in a proxy fight, lots of innocent people get hurt. It actually would have been better for the world had Belmoktar not quit the corporate grind.

Read the entire AP article.

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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