The Bureaucracy of Savagery

Something that has long fascinated me is how terrorist outfits, insurgent forces, and similar groups organise themselves. I’m not talking about the operational details – structures like the cell formation of Al Qaeda are pretty well-known by now – but the more mundane day-to-day running of the organisation. Do ISIS fighters have to provide receipts to claim expenses? If a member of your cell isn’t pulling their weight, what support can HR provide? Who handles the booking sheet for that fleet of vehicles you converted into car bombs?

Sometimes we get lucky, and documents are uncovered which provide a little bit of insight, and the insight that we get is that – no matter what organisation you work for, whether it is selling paper and office supplies or trying to establish an Islamic caliphate – middle managers are going to middle manage.

“The brief research in Al-‘Uddah book by ‘Abd-al-Qadir Bin ‘Abd Al-((‘Aziz)) indicated that every brother tasked with the responsibility of a group leader should write a report on his projected work that he will achieve during the upcoming season along with a timetable and a budget for this work. As such, it would facilitate to you and him the follow-up of this work plan.”

I like the idea of insurgents being on performance-related pay, although presumably their performance evaluations focus on very specific and in some cases extremely violent Key Performance Indicators, including (for example) number of assassinations, knife attacks, prisoners freed, and apostates repented or run over.

There are a surprising range of grounds for dismissal apart from failing to meet your apostate traffic quota. One “Islamic State emir in Aleppo was censured and dismissed from his position for mocking a mentally handicapped elderly man for insufficient knowledge of Islam”, which seems pretty woke to me. He got off lightly compared to Brother Karar in Diyala who, when he abandoned his belief, was subject to “the required measurement for such act”, which I assume involved a shallow grave.

Of course that ableist Emir might have been let go simply because there were too many Emirs in the Emirate. We read that a surfeit of Emirs was one of the factors behind late-stage al-Qaeda’s dysfunction, causing “a cessation of reverence from the hearts of the brothers toward their Emirs” when “every specialty began having its own Emir such as the Emir of Mortars, Emir of Administration, Emir of Booby‐trap, Emir of Support, Emir of Gas, Emir of Tents, Emir of Kitchen”.

Al-Qaeda at least seemed to welcome feedback from the hearts of the brothers, with a directive that “Suggestions and complaint boxes must be installed in every guesthouse”. What sort of complaints were they receiving? One problem was “the gossip environment, due to several brothers who had joined, [which] had a negative impact… when we were far from the conflict environment and the gossip, the military work began to launch at a high speed with the grace of Allah the Almighty and perhaps you may remember these beautiful days.”

Gossip can take its toll on morale. Depending on how many apostates he ran over, I feel some empathy for Brother Tawfiq, who – like many of us – was clearly suffering from imposter syndrome; a letter notes that “he needs to carry out all of his duties without being embarrassed because of the other brothers who had previous experience in the jihad or are older than he is.” We’ve all been there, even if not specifically while conducting jihad.

From a distance, all of this can seem slightly ridiculous – and it’s great material for a satirical novel which I’ll never write, but which I hope somebody will – but what I take away from these documents is that some things are inevitable as soon as we start to organise ourselves: office gossip, performance evaluations, finance spreadsheets, and so on. Even while you rage against the modern world, you remain in its clutches nevertheless.

P.S. One absolute gem which didn’t fit this piece; apparently there was ‘a debate on the increased price of flour, with one bureaucrat noting that the Islamic State could not fix prices, as this was “not legal according to Sharia law, because God alone fixes prices.”’

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