Ever since Al Qaeda entered the international stage with a series of spectacular attacks, and especially since the coordinated attacks of September 11, 2001, scholars have frequently employed such adjectives as nimble, agile, adaptive, and innovative to describe the group's properties and highlight the unusually high level of danger it poses to its enemies. In 2011, when the group lost its leader Osama bin Laden and other key operatives such as Ilyas Kashmiri and Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, a number of scholars invoked the above attributes to suggest that even if the death of its leader would weaken Al Qaeda in the longer term, the terrorist threats posed by Al Qaeda's affiliates, associates, and/or unaffiliated adherents—who together with Al Qaeda constitute the global jihad movement—would continue unabatedly.
Al Qaeda's adaptive nature and the processes of innovation guiding this entity are rarely the subject of theoretically informed scrutiny, due to at least two challenges: Al Qaeda's highly complex and dynamic organizational structure, and the general theoretical underdevelopment of the study of terrorist innovation. Consequently, this article attempts to further our understanding of Al Qaeda while advancing the theoretical debate on terrorist innovation. To that end, it will adopt a key framework of analysis used to model the direction of military innovation processes—top-down versus bottom-up approaches—and apply it to a case study of terrorist innovation. Recent work by strategists and military innovation scholars has highlighted the importance of combining the more conventional "top-down" approaches to military innovation with "bottom-up" perspectives. While top-down approaches emphasize the role played by the military or civilian leadership in imposing or directing innovation from above, "bottom up" approaches stress the role of innovation led by lower- and middle ranked members of an organization, often through improvisation during battlefield operations.
By applying a key framework from military innovation scholarship to terrorist innovation, this article seeks to bridge and contribute to our understanding of two fields of study that, although related, are usually examined by different scholars using different tools. Such cross-pollination, it is argued, can benefit both fields of inquiry, help refine existing assumptions, and formulate new hypotheses.
The framework is applied to a single case study, namely the attacks of September 11, 2001. Several reasons underlie the choice of this methodology and the case selection. As far as the methodology is concerned, the single case study approach allows for the deepest investigation possible given space constraints. Such depth of inquiry is especially critical given the purpose of the article. Naturally, the single case study approach limits our ability to make broader inferences on terrorist innovation in general. The approach does, however, offer an opportunity to formulate new hypotheses on processes of terrorist innovation that can be tested in future studies.
The case of the September 11 attacks has been chosen for a number of reasons. First, as the subsequent discussion will show, terrorism scholars widely agree that the attacks are a paradigmatic case of terrorist innovation. Second, the attacks had profound implications for international relations in general, and for international security in particular. Third, and most importantly, single case study investigations depend upon the availability of large amounts of information about the subject matter of analysis. Although many questions related to the 9/11 attacks remain unanswered, the material available on the origins, planning, and execution of the 9/11 attacks far exceeds our level of acquaintance with the details of most other terrorist attacks, rendering this case study particularly conducive to in-depth analysis of processes of terrorist innovation. The 9/11 Commission Report in itself is a treasure trove of information, and quite possibly the most detailed account ever produced about a single act of terrorism.
Inquiry on terrorist innovation not only fills a theoretical gap but, given the threat emanating from such actors, is also important from a policy perspective. According to the eminent terrorism scholar Leonard Weinberg, "Innovative terrorist groups seem to be exceptionally dangerous … [O]rganizations engaged in counter-terrorism might well focus their strongest efforts on disrupting the operations of the most innovative groups." The ongoing threat emanating from the global jihad movement’s flagship organization makes Al Qaeda an especially relevant case for analysis, especially from a U.S. policy perspective. As the 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism states, "[t]he preeminent security threat to the United States continues to be from al-Qa‘ida and its affiliates and adherents." To "defeat al-Qa'ida," President Obama writes in the preface, "we must define with precision and clarity who we are fighting."
The article is structured as follows. The next part will briefly define the concepts of innovation employed by terrorism and military innovation scholars, before it will describe the top-down vs. bottom up models of military innovation. The article will then discuss why 9/11 is a case study of terrorist innovation, albeit not necessarily one of military innovation. Subsequently, the article will dissect the 9/11 attacks for evidence of top-down and bottom-up processes of innovations. The final part concludes with a an analysis of the findings, a discussion of their implication for theory and policy, and suggestions for further research.