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Last Updated: Friday, 23 January, 2004, 11:39 GMT
Do terrorists have a business plan?

By Tim Weber
BBC News Online business editor in Davos

Let's take a closer look at a well-known organisation. It is a multinational, and although highly centralised its subsidiaries can operate autonomously.

Osama bin Laden
Can chief executives learn from Osama bin Laden?

It has departments for finance, human resources and public-relations; its training programme is famous and it makes effective use of the internet.

And it has a very strong brand name: al-Qaeda. The chief executive, by the way, is called Osama bin Laden.

Is this a way to analyse terrorism? Some business leaders and academics at the World Economic Forum in Davos certainly think so.

Fighting the nimble competitor

Michael Elliott, editor-at-large of Time Magazine and one of the leaders on the "business lessons from terrorists" debate, compares nation states to large companies.

He says they should view terrorist organisations like nimble, highly flexible start-ups trying to undermine their business.

Of course, he says, there is no corporate analogy to a suicide bomber, but that is not the point.

Rather, by applying business logic to terror groups governments can gain an additional layer of insight into how they operate - and how they can be fought.

Bin Laden, HR manager

"Applying business models to terrorist organisations is certainly useful", says Jessica Stern, a Harvard University lecturer.

Policemen and security guards check a car on its way to Davos
Davos delegates are well protected from any terrorist threat
"They have capital, they employ labour, they have a brand, and they have a mission," she says.

And spotting the weak points in their organisation allows law enforcement agencies to stop them going about their 'business'.

Al-Qaeda, for example, is using both skilled and unskilled labour, and pays them accordingly.

One former Sudanese al-Qaeda operative told investigators that Egyptian operatives were paid up to three times as much as he himself.

Osama bin Laden's answer was straight out of the human resources handbook: he was paying his people according to how much they would earn in their home country.

So maybe some disgruntled and underpaid employees can be poached.

Applying strategy

And in a way, even businesses have something to learn.

Look at al-Qaeda, says Mr Elliott. It has a lean, horizontal structure, a thin layer of management and is highly successful in what it does.

The group applies the best of management strategy.

Not every company is as focused on its corporate mission as al-Qaeda.

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