This week, Osama bin Laden is on the cover of Newsweek. The story? Back in the winter of 2004-2005, we almost got him. But you know what? It wouldn't really make a difference, and here's why.
Al Qaeda is a new kind of organization. It's a diffuse, international social network, with loose interconnections and a flexible hierarchy of reporting and command. It's just the opposite of a large country's military force, with its strict hierarchy and strong leaders at the top whose orders must always be followed. If you take out the headquarters of a traditional army, you make a huge impact on their ability to hurt you. But if you take out the "headquarters" of a loosely connected movement, nothing much happens.
This is the message that you'll read in any number of hot-selling new books: that with today's electronically connected world, with wikis, blogs, and podcasts, we are experiencing the rapid growth of a new kind of leaderless organization. Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia, with far more entries than Encyclopedia Britannica, and comparable accuracy; but there's no one managing all of the writers, no one assigning the right experts to articles. The Linux operating system is created by a loose, informal network of computer programmers. It's the responsibility of no one, and yet the responsibility of everyone. Books about these new leaderless organizations include Wikinomics, The Starfish and the Spider, and my own new book, Group Genius, where I show that these new organizations are often the sources of radical innovation. For example, the board game Monopoly emerged from a leaderless process; it was a handmade parlor game, passed around in the Quaker community for thirty years, before Parker Brothers came out with their version. No one was in charge.
In The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom call Al Qaeda a "starfish" organization--because a starfish has no head, and if you cut off one of its legs, it will just grow back another one. (In fact, the detached leg can itself grow an entire body.) As a comparison, they tell the story of how difficult it has been for music publishers to shut down illegal online file sharing. When they won the lawsuit against Napster, several other file sharing programs sprung up that were more distributed and harder to attack legally. The lesson of this story is, the more you attack a starfish, the more distributed and diffuse it becomes. Their advice? The most effective strategies are to come up with a clever way to get Al Qaeda to become more centralized, or to become more decentralized yourself. Newsweek's article gives several examples of how the centralized nature of the U.S. military prevented effectively responding to the rapidly morphing nature of the enemy.
I've been told that the highest levels of the U.S. military are reading books like The Starfish and the Spider. I'm confident that our professionals are smarter and more innovative than any opponent. There will always be some value to capturing Osama bin Laden. But we've accomplished the main goal already: we've detached him from his network, and that's where the power is. After we catch him, the fight with the starfish will go on.