Barak Mendelsohn has written a comprehensive and well-considered study of why al-Qaeda chose to associate itself with a number of largely autonomous, often uncontrollable, and geographically distant terrorist organizations under a “branching out” strategy widely known as “franchising.” Mendelsohn examines a number of important questions about al-Qaeda’s franchising effort, including a consideration of how well it has succeeded in advancing al-Qaeda’s interests. Throughout much of the work, he considers the potential gains and even higher risks of a franchising strategy, which have led al-Qaeda to accept various terrorist organizations as autonomous parts of their organization. He further asks why some franchises are more effective and loyal to the core organization than others and under what circumstances does franchising appear to be an attractive strategy.
Mendelsohn explains al-Qaeda did not begin its franchising strategy until 2003 rather than when the organization was at the height of its power and prestige immediately after the 9/11 strikes. He argues the franchising effort was al-Qaeda’s response to its rapidly declining fortunes following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan but prior to what he identifies as a jihadist renewal following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Mendelsohn further maintains al-Qaeda’s inflated views of its own importance after 9/11 required it to prove its ability to continue the struggle in the face of aggressive counter-terrorism measures. Unfortunately for bin Laden, al-Qaeda lacked sufficient capabilities to send its own members to establish multiple branches in new geographical arenas by 2003. Franchising existing terrorist organizations became the easy, cheap, but also risky response to this problem.
The al-Qaeda strategy of franchising has been organized as a two-tier structure with a central command (often called “al-Qaeda central” by both organization leaders and the media) and various subordinate branches, each of which is responsible for a particular geographical region. The central organization is formally responsible for high-level strategy and direction, while the franchises conduct daily operations often including local target selection, propaganda, recruitment, and coordination with potentially friendly organizations and individuals. Establishing franchises with local terrorist organizations also lowered al-Qaeda’s start-up costs by providing a pre-existing infrastructure and presenting the possibility of an immediate operational impact with local resources. An existing terrorist infrastructure usually includes operatives, support personnel, media, and logistical assets such as safe houses and access to weapons and money. Conversely, a central problem with franchises is that they are often extremely difficult to control. Franchises often provide late and incomplete information to their parent organization, making it more difficult for the leadership to employ the group effectively as part of a larger strategy. Whether or not the franchise follows the parent group’s instructions to any serious extent often depends on the affiliate’s reservoir of good will and if the group depends on the parent organization financially.
There have also been different kinds of al-Qaeda franchises. In Iraq, Algeria, and Somalia, that organization merged with existing radical groups by mutual agreement. In Yemen and Saudi Arabia, they used their own members to establish and organize the franchise. Under these circumstances, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), operating first out of Saudi Arabia and then Yemen, became al-Qaeda’s most loyal supporter. Unsurprisingly, other affiliates without a history of cooperation have showed much less loyalty and sometimes embarrassed al-Qaeda by their undisciplined and counterproductive actions. …