Al Qaeda is a Starfish, not a Spider: A Battle of Visions that only one side understands

Robert Maynard

In a Fox News interview, London Center for Policy Research Senior Fellow Lt. Colonel Tony Shaffer takes apart the New York Times claim that there was no Al Qaeda link to the Benghazi attack. He also refutes the already discredited notion that the Benghazi attack was prompted by an internet video. There is another, more fundamental problem with the report from the New York times. The core problem is that it does not appear to understand the nature of al Qaeda, or the battle they are fighting. If we are to prevail in this battle, a better understanding of both of these factors is vital.

First, let’s deal with the nature of al Qaeda. Whether they actually have direct organizational ties to the group that engaged in the Benghazi attack is not really relevant to the overall battle. That is because al Qaeda is a starfish, not a spider. The analysis of two types of organizations analogous to a starfish and a spider is spelled out by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom in “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.” The book contrasts a loose network that has little visible vertical organization with a command and control type of group that has a strict vertical organization. The starfish represents the network with its loose, nearly invisible organizational structure. Traditional, top down organizations, with highly visible organizational structures, are represented by the spider. The problem with the spider is that it dies if you cut off the head. That is not so with the starfish, which can regenerate the whole organization from any part. Herein lies the reason why the Administration’s claim that al Qaeda has been defeated, because Bin Laden was killed, does not hold water. Like the starfish al Qaeda cannot be killed by cutting off the head. It too can regenerate itself from any of its parts.

The reason why this is true is that al Qaeda’s leadership of the loose Jihadi network is more a matter of being a source of ideology and inspiration, than it is organizational control that can be easily traced. They exert a vast amount of influence on the global Jihadi network even where they have no organizational ties. That is because this battle is more one of values and ideas than a military conflict. As French author Victor Hugo once remarked: “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

Al Qaeda understands this much better than our leaders do. In a NEW YORK POST September 4, 2003 piece entitled: “AL QAEDA’S AGENDA FOR IRAQ,” Amir Taheri quotes extensively from a book entitled: “The Future of Iraq and The Arabian Peninsula After The Fall of Baghdad” by Yussuf al-Ayyeri, one of Osama bin Laden’s closest associates since the early ’90s. In the book, al-Ayyeri makes the claim that: “It is not the American war machine that should be of the utmost concern to Muslims. What threatens the future of Islam, in fact its very survival, is American democracy.” When we look further, we note that he sees democracy as a form of “unbelief” which is more threatening to Islam than all the other forms combined. The reason for this is that: ‘This form of “unbelief” persuades the people that they are in charge of their destiny and that, using their collective reasoning, they can shape policies and pass laws as they see fit. That leads them into ignoring the “unalterable laws” promulgated by God for the whole of mankind, and codified in the Islamic Shari’ah (jurisprudence) until the end of time.’

This is what he sees as at stake in Iraq: “In Iraq today, there are only two sides,” Al-Ayyeri asserts. “Here we have a clash of two visions of the world and the future of mankind. The side prepared to accept more sacrifices will win.”

It is quite clear here that Al-Ayyeri, and others like him, view the freedoms we associate with our democratic tradition as heretical, sacrilegious and incompatible with Islam. Herein lies the basic nature of the conflict of visions, which we are engaged in. The American notion of ordered liberty, which is derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition, sees freedom as a sacred gift, which our creator has endowed us with. The God who gave us dominion over the creation expects us to exercise self-dominion as well. Self-dominion means self-government. Al Qaeda’s leadership is based on their being in the forefront of this “clash of two visions,” not on any visible organizational ties. It is vital that we recognize this and confront them in this clash, or we cannot hope to prevail.