The Internet is abuzz with the news of a scathing employee performance review given to an associate of al-Qaida's North African branch. The employee in question, a man by the name of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is criticized for neglecting his expense reports, blowing off meetings and wasting his employer's money, among other complaints.
The juxtaposition is both absurd and macabre: murderous terrorist network as Office Space. It just seems so unlikely that individuals who claim responsibility for taking hundreds of lives also engage in the sort of passive-aggressive bureaucratic sniping we associate with innocuous office jobs.
"Who knew that being an international terrorist was less like James Bond and more like Dilbert?" asked a commenter on Reddit.
But this is far from an isolated case. For years, reports have spilled out about the bureaucratic — almost corporate — nature of al-Qaida and its affiliate organizations. After U.S. troops stormed Osama bin Laden's hiding place in 2011, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reported on his organization's meticulous expense-tracking and corporate structure:
"From its earliest days, al-Qaida leaders insisted on receipts. If fighters were buying a car for an operation, or even disk drives and floppy disks for their computers, they were required to return to base with a precise accounting of everything they had spent. ...
"One of the first big troves of intelligence on the group was discovered in the fall of 2001, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Ground troops found literally hundreds of thousands of pages of records in al-Qaida safe houses. The documents laid out al-Qaida's founding bylaws; they included personnel records and receipts for explosives. There were stacks of files and detailed HR policies."
Al-Qaida even had good HR benefits, Temple-Raston reported:
"The seized documents showed that al-Qaida paid an unusual amount of attention to its fighters and their families. Married members were allowed to have seven days of vacation for every three weeks worked. Bachelors got five days off a month."
It's not just al-Qaida, either. Organizations that grow to a certain size — no matter how licit or illicit their activities — tend to acquire familiar bureaucratic structures and characteristics.
Earlier this spring, the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas prison gang found itself in the news amid conjecture that it was responsible for a pair of high-profile homicides. Much of the coverage included an intriguing footnote: The organization's founders began by petitioning the California-based Aryan Brotherhood to begin a charter in Texas, but the request was denied. Details on the exchange remain sketchy. But you almost can't help but wonder whether there was a problem with the application or whether the association fees were too high.
In the New York Times Magazine last June, Patrick Radden Keefe explored how the bloody Mexican drug organization Sinaloa functioned, essentially, as a multinational corporation, as complex in its operations as Amazon or UPS. In this case, too, the organization's illicit activities and its staggeringly violent toll tend to overshadow the familiar, mundane structures at work underneath. Sinaloa, in Keefe's description, has to grapple with the same boring export-and-trade issues — distribution, fees, subcontractors, insurance — that any large company has to deal with.
Asked whether any discoveries in his reporting surprised him, Keefe said:
"A lot of it was the ways in which Sinaloa deals with mundane dilemmas facing any business. There were the insurance policies on loads of cocaine that some of the Colombian cartels have offered, or the fact that when a load gets confiscated by authorities, traffickers will try to find a newspaper clipping about the bust, or even ask the authorities for a receipt, to prove that they didn't steal the drugs themselves."
Code Switch blogger Gene Demby reminded me of a scene in the HBO series The Wire (warning: strong language) in which the heads of various Baltimore drug gangs gather at a hotel conference room to coordinate their activities. The gangsters sit around the familiar purple table cloth and fresh legal pads every hotel conference room seems to have, conducting their business in accordance with Robert's Rules of Order. The kingpin of the group, Stringer Bell, catches a lower-level gangster diligently scribbling on his legal pad and asks him what he's doing.
"The Robert Rules say we gotta have minutes for the meeting, right?" the lackey replies. "These the minutes."
"Nigga, is you taking notes on a f- - - - - criminal conspiracy?" Bell asks.
The evidence suggests that if the criminal conspiracy is large enough, someone probably is taking notes. And filing expense reports. And writing passive-aggressive memos.
But if the criminal conspiracy is brutal enough, the office politics can turn deadly. Months after Belmokhtar's bosses criticized his failure to carry out any spectacular attacks, he broke off from al-Qaida's North African office to work directly with al-Qaida central. "And within months," reports the AP, "he carried out two lethal operations that killed 101 people in all."