Osama bin Laden: Innovator?

Since we’re talking about innovation this season, it occurs to us that some might consider Osama bin Laden an innovator in terror. After all, he invested less than a $1 million in a scheme to fly airplanes into his enemy’s financial, political and military nerve centers, and reaped trillions of dollars of “results.” Now of course al-Qaida made a lot of other investments (London, Madrid, Bali) with less extravagant returns.  And most operations never hit pay dirt at all. Even so, the 9/11 attack resulted in an ROI that venture capitalists would, uh, kill for.

Come to think of it, bin Laden’s most innovative practice may have been that he ran al-Qaida like a venture capitalist. (As much as we get tired of hearing business people admonish us to run everything –  nonprofits, government, schools, college sports, marriages, friendships, toddler playgroups  – like a business, maybe Osama’s billionaire uncle influenced him to run his terrorist outfit more like a business.) Al-Qaida didn’t come up with the various terror operations itself; these plots were more often pitched by ambitious local youths.

How do know this? We know because a past Illahee visitor, Scott Atran, did what some of our intelligence agencies failed to do. He asked family, friends and neighbors of terrorists what they had noticed about their violent acquaintances in the months before they took action. The kids who blew up the trains in Madrid were connected through their older brothers’ soccer teams, and the desire to “do some meaningful and make their mark.” So they went looking for support.

The nineteen Saudis who perpetrated 9/11 were looking for much the same thing, and came up with plots for an action in Kosovo (response from funders: that ship has sailed) and Chechnya (response: you’ll be killed at the border) before they came up with suicide planes hitting the World Trade Center (response from al-Qaida: tell us more).

Bin Laden ran al-Qaida like the evil spawn of Sequoia Capital, the MacArthur Foundation, Acorn and Amway. He had an instinct for ROI, gravitated toward the “big idea,” was a successful community organizer and a committed skills trainer. Time will tell if he was truly an innovator, with one key measure: did he leave behind a viable organization? We certainly hope not. But if he did, then the civilized world will have to out-innovate what’s left of al-Qaida.


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