TCS Daily

The Boys and the Brand

By Daniel McIntosh - October 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Apple. Nike. Starbucks. Al Jazeera. Brands with global recognition. A firm will invest millions of dollars to maintain not only visibility, but also to construct an image that serves corporate interests. Strict management within a firm, and expensive legal action against anyone who uses a brand without authorization, are now part of the price of doing business in global markets.

How about Al Qaeda? While we tend not to think of it that way, Al Qaeda has a serious marketing problem: how can it protect itself from rivals who want to cash in on the brand? And if it can't protect its name or reputation, what does that mean for its operations?

A firm can lose control of its global brand through regional differences among managers, issuing conflicting messages, or the general adoption of a name for a whole class instead of the specific firm (Kleenex, anyone? Tabasco?). All of these are threats to the Bin Laden network.

In October 2004, for example, the group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledged its loyalty to Usama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and by January 2005 changed its name from Tawhid and Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad) to Tanzim Qa'idat al-Jihad Fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (Organization of the Jihad's Base in the Land of the Two Rivers), aka "Al-Qaeda in Iraq." Doing this was in one sense a step backward for al-Zarqawi, a man who had been at turns rejected by and independent from Bin Laden. On another level, it was a move to take control of the more visible brand.

Al-Zarqawi was a petty thug in Jordon prior to his experiences in Afghanistan. He rose to prominence as one of the "Afghan Arabs" but there is no evidence that the Jordanian was even admitted to Al Qaeda -- the best of the best -- let alone its central command. There is even a hint of pettiness in the way Al-Zarqawi organized a cell in Germany whose members described themselves as "Jordanians who did not want to join Al-Qaeda," and later Al-Zarqawi spent his time working with a Kurdish group in Northern Iraq. His was hardly a prestigious position.

In 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, the invasion put Al-Zarqawi in the right place at the right time. The so-called "Al-Zarqawi letter" of 2004, while more likely a product of the Baathists than of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, outlined an approach that matched the local insurgency and contradicted what Al-Qaeda was trying to do elsewhere. More recently, the Al-Zawahiri letter recovered in Iraq in July provides evidence of a center that is not only out of touch with the situation in the field, but concerned about how the regional leader's actions may be contrary to the global goals. In the letter Al-Zawahiri asks, "even if we attack the Shia out of necessity, then why do you announce this matter and make it public, which compels the Iranians to take counter measures?" He argues that "among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable... are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages" -- particularly by beheadings, a tactic associated with Al-Zarkawi personally. Doctor Al-Zawahiri reminds Al-Zarkawi that "we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media...for the hearts and minds of our Umma."

Yet while Al-Zawahiri makes suggestions, he does not issue commands. He does not because he (and the remaining core of Al Qaeda) is in no position to do so. Without that kind of discipline, Al-Zarqawi is free to pledge allegiance to Bin Laden, run his operations to suit himself, and grab the spotlight.

For another example consider "Azzam the American," formerly Adam Gadahn of Orange County, California, noted for releasing public threats in the name of Al Qaeda against Los Angeles and Melbourne. While the FBI has declared that Azzam has connections to Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan, his tape has not been authenticated as a statement from the leadership of Al Qaeda, and by making specific and unfulfilled predictions he undermined the credibility of the organization. Is he really working for Al Qaeda, or is he grabbing attention for himself?

This pattern will almost certainly continue. Al Qaeda has long been a "franchise" operation, but now anyone who wishes to do so can declare themselves to own one of the franchises. KFC wouldn't put up with such an arrangement, but Usama Bin Laden and the core of Al Qaeda don't have a choice. At best, the franchisees will approximate some of the past positions of Al Qaeda, and in so doing turn Usama Bin Laden into the Col. Sanders of transnational terrorism. More likely each will each go its own way, destroying the value of the brand. Much as the IRA finds itself in opposition to the "Real IRA," or elements of the Palestinian Authority fight one another for control, the division of effort will undermine the various "Al-Qaedas." In turn, it will become more difficult for the original Al Qaeda to recruit competent people. Threats will be contradictory, or will fail to materialize. An organization with a reputation for terror will evolve into something more like a nuisance. If Al Qaeda were a legally-constituted organization it would be in court protecting itself, but that's not an option. The founders and leaders of Al Qaeda have to stand and watch as the image they have crafted is rendered worthless.

It's a pity there's no trademark protection for criminal organizations, isn't it?

Daniel McIntosh is an associate professor of political science at Slippery Rock University. He writes and teaches about international security affairs and international political economy. His academic publications include articles in the Journal of Politics, PS, and International Studies Perspectives. McIntosh is a former intelligence analyst and consultant for Science Applications International Corporation.


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