When Did Al Qaeda Become Burger King?

Terrorist organizations, if they say anything at all, tend to make apocalyptic threats or take credit for events that have already happened. They don't usually announce setting up branch offices and wholly-owned subsidiaries and introduce the country head with great fanfare.
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Once upon a time every journalist's favourite word when talking about Al Qaeda was "shadowy." It was a "shadowy" world whose size was a "shadowy figure" and whose wings were even more "shadowy."

But if Ayman al Zawahiri's new video proves anything, it is that Al Qaeda is very definitely coming out of the shadows. If you did not know this was one of the world's most dreaded terror networks you would have thought Zawahiri was a CEO trying to shore up confidence among anxious shareholders by outlining expansion plans in a competitive marketplace.

All he lacked was a Powerpoint presentation.

Terrorist organizations, if they say anything at all, tend to make apocalyptic threats or take credit for events that have already happened. They don't usually announce setting up branch offices and wholly-owned subsidiaries and introduce the country head with great fanfare. But that is exactly what Zawahiri did couched though it was in traditional florid Al Qaeda-speak of waging jihad.

Like a good CEO, he first paid obligatory tribute to the group's founder Osama bin Laden and affirmed loyalty to current spiritual leader Mullah Omar. Then after acknowledging the past, he swiftly moved on to plans for the future. Zawahiri announced the formation of Jamaat Qaidat al-jihad fi'shibhi al-qarrat al-Hindiya or Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) to reach the previously untapped markets of "Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad, and Kashmir."

That's important because in the erstwhile "shadowy" world many fly-by-night operations could lay claim to being Al Qaeda in (name your country). But Zawahiri is stating clearly there is now an official Al Qaeda in the subcontinent and no one should be fooled by cheap imitators. "ISIS isn't a branch of Al Qaeda and we have no organizational relationship with it," Zawahiri said in a statement posted earlier on jihadist websites.

He presented the new entity's regional head, Pakistan's Asim Umar, who spoke in Urdu thus establishing his local cred. Zawahiri also introduced the group's new spokesperson Usama Mahmoud because as any corporate head knows, communication is very important especially when announcing new initiatives.

Cocking a virtual eyebrow at Al Qaeda's expansion plans Dhruva Jaishankar (@d_jaishankar) quips on Twitter "Al Qaeda following closely in the footsteps of Burger King." Burger King has announced it too is poised to open franchises in India.

Jaishankar might be closer to the truth than he thinks.

While Burger King Asia Pacific president Elias Diaz Seze says "Deciding on a partner in India was tedious. We met most of the large corporations in the F&B space," Zawahiri says this new organization is "the fruit of a blessed effort of more than two years to gather the mujahedeen in the Indian subcontinent into single entity."

Zawahiri, with a few geographical tweaks, honestly does not sound that different from Burger King CEO Bernardo Hees announcing a company realignment:

Our new marketing and operations alignment under Jonathan's global leadership and Steve's North America leadership will allow us to maintain our global standards, while providing us with the flexibility we need to execute initiatives on a regional level based on local business needs. With this new structure in place, we can be more nimble with our decision-making process and marketing execution, which will better resonate with the millions of guests around the world who enjoy the Burger King brand every day.

Al Qaeda too is a brand but it's a brand under siege. There are other players in the market that are newer, hipper and have captured the jihadist imagination. Al Qaeda is playing catch-up akin to a lumbering IBM trying to retain its footing in a marketplace bristling with cut-throat start-ups.

Like ISIS or the Islamic State.

An excellent infographic on Medium.com outlines ISIS as a dream/nightmare start-up - "Explosive Growth, Highly Disruptive, Super-Evil." It uses helpful pie-charts and bar diagrams to show its net capital and diversification of portfolio (oil, stolen antiquities, robbing banks, money laundering in Mosul and other sources), a slick annual report and steep growth rate from 1,000 armed militants three years ago to 80,000 now.

"That's what they call 'hockey stick' growth in Silicon Valley," observes Medium.com. "Compare those numbers to any non-evil, non-terroristic start-up."

Or even to Al Qaeda. Long the pre-eminent go-to terror organization on the world scene, it is now faced with flattening growth, shrinking market share and brand decline. Zachary Keck in the National Interest magazine goes so far as to say "Al Qaeda's brand is dead" with some local affiliates which formerly took the Al Qaeda name, such as AQAP and AQI (later disavowed by AQ Central) even dropping Al Qaeda from their names.

Islamic State, in contrast, is on a growth trajectory. It controls real markets (with oil) and is laying claim to a Caliphate.

Nothing exemplifies this shift better than the story of Abdel Majed Abdel Bary aka rapper L Jinny apparently the Islamic State terrorist from Britain shown in those hideous decapitation videos.

Abdel Bary, writes Amil Khan in Politico, represents the unholy union of "a history of criminal activity, an ambition to be a gangsta rapper and a fixation with the terrorist group begun by Osama bin Laden." Bary's father, in fact is the son of an alleged al Qaeda mastermind Adel Abdul Bary who investigators believe was "one of bin Laden's closest lieutenants in the infancy of al Qaeda and ran a London cell of the terror network." He is suspected of being involved in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa.

What could be a more potent example of a generational shift of brand loyalty than the son of Al Qaeda joining company ISIS?

ISIS is the rogue brand. The New York Times reports that when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi revved up operations in Syria, Zawahiri had written a letter directing him to withdraw to Iraq and leave Syria operations to someone else.

"The letter bore the corporate tone of a C.E.O. resolving a turf dispute between two middle managers," observed the Times' Ben Hubbard.

Now the upstart has become a startup and basically had a bloodily spectacular IPO, and Zawahiri, like any concerned CEO, is trying to reassert his multinational's brand supremacy and its patent in the terror marketplace.

"Maybe we can nail Zawahiri when he shows up in Kashmir with a giant pair of scissors for the AQISC ribbon-cutting," tweets J.M. Berger (@intelwire), author of the book Jihad Joe. This transformation of shadowy terror into territorial Terror Inc with all the trappings of modern business conglomerates would be funny if the consequences of their corporate war were not so scary. These, after all, are corporates that take "execution" of their plans for conquering new markets rather too literally.

A version of this blog originally appeared on the Indian news portal Firstpost.com.

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