The Corporatisation of Jihad

The Corporatisation of Jihad

The organisational building blocks of Islamic terror groups are similar to how multinational corporations work

By Sushant Sareen

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One of the panel discussions during the recently-concluded Raisina Dialogue was titled “Terror Inc.: Combating state and non-state actors”. The entire discussion focussed on the latter part of the topic, ie combating state and non-state actors, and there was virtually no attention given to the Terror Inc aspect of the fight against terrorism. While there is little doubt that combating state and non-state actors involved in terrorism is one of the most critical challenges facing countries and communities around the world, the organisational framework and strength of jihadist groups is something that needs to be studied in greater detail. This is so because the way the jihadists operate and organise themselves is not only quite unlike any of the other terror groups, but is also what (among other things) gives them the ability to persevere and become so potent.

The phrase “Terror Inc” really encapsulates the corporatisation and multinationalisation of the jihad industry. Like most multinational corporations, the jihadist groups embody the dictum of ‘think global, act local’ and have managed to establish a global footprint. The business model of different jihadist groups might differ from each other – the Al Qaeda works more like a holding company with franchises; the Islamic State (ISIS) functions has a more hands-on approach; the Taliban have adopted a model in which the board of directors (shura) provide the broad policy direction while branch managers are given autonomy of operation in their jurisdiction. The corporate philosophy – they call it ideology or their own particularistic version of Islam – of different jihadist groups varies, but just like the ultimate philosophy driving normal corporates is profit, all jihadist groups adhere to the ultimate objective of establishing – nay imposing – the dominance of Islam and a very medieval and distorted interpretation of Islam all over the globe.

Notwithstanding the differences in their corporate governance models (or their corporate philosophy) in terms of their marketing strategy, franchise model, revenue model, corporate communications strategy, skill development modules, training facilities, intelligence and espionage networks, mergers and acquisitions, formation of consortiums for special projects, rebranding strategies, employee rewards programmes and family welfare schemes, corporate social responsibility operations, inter-corporate rivalries, cartelisation agreements, all the significant jihadist terror groups seem to bear resemblance to any big corporate organisation with transnational operations. Just like many normal MNCs which gain strength from the support of a state – this includes both state-owned enterprises as well as private enterprises which are promoted by the state – so too in the case of many jihadist organisations, which are able to extend their operations beyond borders with the help of some states.  

Countries like Pakistan often apply the jihadist version of anti-trust laws to ensure that no one group becomes dominant in the market or so powerful that it can challenge the state. Apart from the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has always functioned as a subsidiary of the state (and as such has managed to become immensely powerful), almost all other jihadist groups have been cut to size, and broken into smaller and more controllable groups the moment they seemed to be capturing the jihad market. While Pakistan is notorious for being the most jihadi start-up friendly country, other countries like Iran have also backed groups like Hizbollah and Hamas openly. Organisations like ISIS and Al Qaeda haven’t received open support, but their affiliates have from countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and even Turkey, to name just a few. Even the parent terrorist organisations have received indirect support from various countries, either through charities or even in terms of securing their logistics lines. Western countries aren’t entirely innocent of not playing footsie with some of the jihadist groups, especially in Syria, and to an extent in places like Yemen, Libya and Iraq. Of course, it is another matter that almost all the country’s which have flirted with any jihadist group has had to face a blowback of jihad.

The franchise model has been most successfully used by the Al Qaeda. But the ISIS too has developed its own franchise model, especially since it gives it a footprint in parts of the world where it has only a virtual presence – part of its global marketing strategy – but not any physical presence. Some of the franchisees shift from the Al Qaeda to the ISIS and back, depending on which organisation is more happening at any point in time. In the Indian subcontinent, the franchise model hasn’t worked very successfully for Pakistani jihadist groups, but the holding company of many jihadist groups – ISI – has managed to set up its own subsidiaries and appoint its marketing agents all over South Asia. Some jihadist groups, especially the Jamaat-ud Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba, have set up offices (cells) in many parts of the world, but have generally preferred to stay under the radar screen, in large part because higher visibility will bring its venture capitalist/promoter – ISI – under pressure.

In terms of marketing, the ISIS has cracked the scene. Making effective use of the internet, the ISIS marketing strategy is the stuff of legends in terms of its ability to connect with its target audience and win new adherents from across the globe. In fact, quite like business schools study marketing strategies of successful brands, universities and governments around the world are today engaged in studying the marketing model of ISIS to figure out ways to meet the challenge. The Al Qaeda, which had the first mover advantage lost out because it adopted a very word-of-mouth, faceless and formless marketing strategy which didn’t really didn’t gel with many potential customers of its wares of terror. The success of the marketing strategy also impacts and influences people who want to become a part of the jihadist group to further its agenda. In other words, recruitment of foot-soldiers becomes so much easier if the marketing strategy clicks. But even groups which do not have a very slick marketing machine at their disposal are able to recruit enough people to keep their business running. Like every big corporate concern, the jihadists have their own skill development centre (making IEDs, honing unarmed combat skills, and teaching other tricks of the trade) and training facilities (camps where both basic and advances courses are given to terrorist recruits).

The revenue streams of different groups depend on the area of operation. Where they control territory, they function like a para-state and levy taxes and import duties. They also engage in exports of resources – the Taliban control the narco-trade, the ISIS got a huge amount of revenue from oil, the Haqqani Network have huge business operations in a range of areas. Almost all the jihadists earn a fair amount from charities and donations. Some of them engage in criminal activities – kidnapping, extortion, bank robberies etc. – to collect funds for their operations. Apart from kinetic operations, all the jihadists have a very active corporate communications wing which issues press releases about their activities and declares their positions on a range of issues. The corp comm wings also issue threats to journalists and provide them with scoops and backgrounders. What is more, they also publish in-house magazines which are available for wider distribution to publicise their corporate philosophy, worldview and boast about their operations.

Like any responsible corporate, the jihadists take care of their employees who die while performing their duties. The LeT/JuD and the Jaish-e-Mohammad have a family pension scheme where in some of the dead jihadists families get a lump sum compensation and others receive a family pension. As for the employees themselves, they are motivated through a rewards programme, which is generally given to them in the after-life – 72 virgins, land of milk and honey and the rest of the shebang, including reserved seats for their family members in heaven. Asides of taking care of their employees and foot soldiers, the jihadists also have fairly well-honed CSR (corporate social responsibility) operations which help to win them supporters and acceptability. Most of the Pakistani terrorists have ‘welfare’ wings which give them the veneer of being philanthropic organisations. In fact, the internationally designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed is often portrayed as the Mother Teresa of Pakistan by politicians, media and even so-called civil society of Pakistan. The LeT, JeM and other jihadists have charitable foundations and trusts that undertake medical, education, and relief activities, often replacing the state and discharging the functions of the state in remote areas and disaster zones.

Like big corporate houses which often compete with each other but also form cartels to keep out competition and sometimes form consortiums to cooperate on a big project, so too in the case of the jihadists. There are many examples of competing jihadists forming a special purpose vehicle for some extraordinary operation. At other times, they zealously protect their markets and their turf by ruthlessly eliminating competition – for instance, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan wiped out the ISI backed LeT in FATA when the latter tried to make inroads in that region. The ISIS has done the same with groups like the Jabhat-al-Nusra and other smaller jihadists in Syria, though there have been occasions when the al Nusra has also worked with ISIS against a common foe. The Al Qaeda has faced setbacks at the hands of the ISIS both in terms of the competition to be the alpha jihadist outfit as well as in terms of affiliates of Al Qaeda switching loyalties to ISIS. The other interesting parallel between corporates and jihadists is the way one outfit merges into or is acquired by the other to synergise their operations and increase their effectiveness. Then there is the whole rebranding exercise which these jihadists undertake to improve their market share and their appeal. The Taliban for example pretend to be a local Afghanistan centred force, the al Nusra has pretended to sever its Al Qaeda links, and the JuD pretends to be a welfare organisation – all three instances are pure and simple dissemble but have managed to fool enough people who then argue for engaging these groups.

Even as states and societies around the world figure out ways on countering the perverted, pernicious and diabolical ideology of the jihadists, and endeavour to defeat the jihadists militarily, it is just as important to concentrate on demolishing the organisational structures that the jihadists have set up which allow them to persevere and re-emerge even after major setbacks. Mere decapitation will not suffice if the rest of the structure is not dismantled. Any anti-jihadist strategy must therefore include degrading all the organisational building blocks that allow jihadist terror groups to be so enduring.