So on Sunday, an elite US military team finally caught up with and killed “terrorist mastermind”, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad.
Analysts are largely agreed that the death of Osama does not mean the end of al Qaeda terrorism, because the organisation has since evolved into several largely independent micro-units.
However, the glee and celebrations that greeted the news of Osama’s death, especially in the USA, tells us that many recognise that his demise is significant.
In the end, I believe Osama will be important, not mainly for his brand of terrorism, but for revealing to us how dramatically the world had changed as we entered the 21st century.
Al Qaeda was the first of a new type of organisation; one which did not have formal structures of a headquarters, an address, an official website, designated lawyers, regular bank accounts, and phone numbers.
Osama’s evil genius was his ability to crowd-source terrorism. Until he came along, every management or revolutionary manual would tell you that to succeed, you needed an organisation that had clear structures and lines of command.
Osama turned that on its head. His case tells us that the strengths of a highly-structured organisation are its biggest weakness too.
It is easy to “hijack”. For example, a dictatorship can more easily buy-off known opposition party leaders. It is also easy to destroy a structured organisation, because you know which heads to cut off to disable it.
Osama evaded capture since al Qaeda bombed the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, and later the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, because there was virtually no paper or digital trail leading back to him.
Osama’s al Qaeda was just the first of the “formless” organisations. Yet, however much it broke convention, it still retained some elements from the old. For example, Osama was the leader, and Ayman al-Zawahiri his deputy.
The next stage of the evolution of these formless organisations happened dramatically in Africa. Tunisia and Egypt, to be precise.
The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia that toppled Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and the Tahrir uprising that ousted Egypt’s strongman Hosni Mubarak, faced an unusual problem when they succeeded — they had no leaders to take over power.
The reason was that they didn’t have any defined public leader. Depending on how you look at it, either each of the millions of the protesters was a leader, or the social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter, on which the people organised, were the leaders.
We have arrived at truly interesting times. In the old order, an organisation’s strength was its membership. Today, these formless organisations don’t need membership; they want your time.
A non-member who takes 15 minutes to re-Tweet a notice of meeting 100 times is far more useful than a member who pays his subscription and does nothing for 15 months.
They are also more cost-effective. There is no office rent, and after you have deposed Ben Ali and Mubarak, everyone demobilises and goes home, and you don’t have to worry about paying the office manager’s terminal benefits.
Where the old hierarchical organisations demanded loyalty and commitment, the new formless things only ask for your attention:
“Please, I don’t care whether you support me, all I want you to do is read my blog. I need your hits, not your love”.
One of the key questions for us to answer is what explains this trend? Clever men and women will soon study it and tell us, but my gut suggests a few things: We are living in a world where we have smaller families, and more of us live behind fenced homes.
However, children’s needs to have many siblings and play with them is still very strong. They find them on Facebook — and Tahrir Square.
Also, there is a sharp rise in the single-parent family. A child raised by a single mother will look for a father figure, and one raised by a single father will look for a mother-figure.
Today, they find them in the digital world or in a formless organisation with no barriers to entry. Osama seems to have been among the first people to figure out how to exploit this demographic shift.