AQ has an HR Problem

This article by the Associated Press is pretty funny. OK, there’s the serious stuff, like a terrorist carrying out terrible kidnappings and the like; but that Moktar Belmoktar hated expense accounts and never answered his calls? That’s a testament to bureaucracy run amok. The document from which this information comes–found in Timbuktu by the AP–is a fascinating view into branding and franchising terrorist groups. A topic which, by the way, I tackle in my book. If you find this article interesting, you’ll love my book. So stay tuned!

Total Disconnect

A new theme is emerging in many books coming out these days about war zones and other unstable regions: the yawning chasm between directives handed down by First World cubicle dwellers and the realities faced by workers on the ground.

One I just came across is Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails, by Christopher Coyne. Full disclosure: I haven’t actually read this book yet, as I just discovered its existence. But this review, by Peter Van Buren, who has suffered his own disillusionment with nation building, makes me think it’s a must-read.

As Van Buren points out, Coyne’s book outlines how “internal political rewards drive spending decisions, not on-the-ground needs. A bureaucrat, removed from the standard profit-loss equation that governs businesses, allocates aid in ways that make Himself look good, in ways that please his boss and in ways that produce what look like short-term gains, neat photo-ops and the like. The Man is not incentivized by a Washington tied to a 24 hour news cycle to take the long, slow view that real development requires. The institutions The Man serves (State, Defense, USAID) are also slow to decide, very slow to change, nearly immune from boots-on-the-ground feedback and notoriously bad at information sharing both internally and with each other. They rarely seek local input. Failure is inevitable.”

This is the same theme of my book, Victor in the Rubble, where our hero, Victor Caro is trying to catch a terrorist. But Victor faces more challenges from his own bureaucracy and its short-term objectives than from the terrorist group he is chasing.

Maybe we’ve hired too many consultants. I feel like everything has been boiled down to metrics that look great on a Power Point slide but have no connection to the often messy reality on the ground. And the same metrics are applied, no matter the situation and with no input from the field. A recipe for failure, indeed.

Any ideas on how to fix this? Let me know!


Props for Karin Tanabe’s The List

I’ve just finished reading the book The List, about a DC journalist and her quest to make a name for herself in Washington’s overflowing power smorgasbord. The author, Karin Tanabe, was a reporter at Politico, that most inside-the-beltway of publications that has grown to set the media (and often political) agenda of the nation’s capital.

Tanabe clearly has a great sense of humor and a handful of self-deprecation to boot. Through her affable voice, she captures the incestuous nature of DC and its navel-gazing culture. She adds to the realism with some badly dressed bureaucrats who are enthralled with their own power. (I find Washington to be the frumpiest city I have ever been to. But many Washingtonians think that adding a badge on a lanyard makes a polyester suit classy.)

Many of her descriptions of trying to interview important people in the so-called halls of power brought me back to my time in the mosh pit of Washington journalism. I discovered that the halls of power were more like the halls of high school, with every wannabe prom king or queen manipulating the masses for votes, often using the most childish tactics. This is a place where legislative correspondents speak as though they are saving the world, rather than opening mail from constituents.

It is this same culture that I try to capture in Victor in the Rubble. While my manuscript deals with an intelligence officer, the overall theme is Washington’s inability to see beyond itself.

Check out The List. And take a Sneak Peek at Victor in the Rubble.

And send me comments about both, or either, or anything at all. Even if it’s just to tell me it’s raining where you are. Where are you, by the way?

Sneak Peek

A big thank you to everyone who helped tweet my first blog post around, and a special shout out to Sage Sweetwater for her editing contributions to my manuscript!

Let’s start getting even more involved. Send me comments! I will reply! We’ll laugh. We’ll cry. We’ll emoji…

Do you love The Onion? I do. And I was thrilled to see this article the other day. The concept of al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri delivering a TEDtalk is hilarious.

If you like that kind of humor, you’ll love my upcoming book, Victor in the Rubble. Let’s face it: terrorists can be funny. A terrorist in an IKEA store shopping for FJELLESE and VARMLUFT furniture is funny (that’s in my book!). Also funny (and also in my book) is the concept of a terrorist group acting like a corporation.

So in the same vein as the above article from The Onion, here is a sneak peak at a snippet from my book. Just as a lead-in: Omar is a terrorist from the West African country of Pigallo. He is attending a terrorist convention in Las Vegas…


This morning’s lecture was of particular interest to Omar and he opened his notebook and readied his pen as the speaker approached the stage and flashed up the first slide in his presentation, titled: “Leading Generation Y: Making mission count with the Me Generation.”

“Welcome, everyone,” said the presenter. He took a sip of his latte. “I’m here to talk to you about the next generation of terrorists. The Me Generation of terrorists. The first thing you need to know about our future terrorist leaders is: They need constant praise and feedback.” He switched to the next slide, which showed the words “PRAISE” and “FEEDBACK” next to large dots, and which had a picture of a very cute puppy up in the corner. “Tell them how they are doing and how they can improve. Here are a few examples of how we can turn a critique into positive feedback that will really resonate with today’s youth.” He jumped to the next slide and read aloud the phrases that were boldly printed on the screen.

“Leaving all your keys in the lock of the car trunk was not the best move, considering the car did not blow up and the police were able to use the keys to find your apartment. But on the bright side, Times Square remains a valid target.” He looked briefly at the audience, who nodded and jotted down notes, then read the next one. “I’m sorry it made you feel sad when I didn’t pick you for the Germany plot. However, your help getting tea for the planning team was a very positive contribution.” He switched to the next slide and read, “No, that vest does not make you look fat.” The slide clicked again.

“While the loss of your right hand could have been avoided had you been a little more cautious, you did an excellent job with the circuitry on this bomb.” The presenter turned to the audience. “This one actually brings us to another point. This is a real example, based on a situation I was in with a young terrorist. He had been texting, and therefore not paying full attention to what he was doing. Indeed, this young generation is incredibly wired. And I don’t mean wired the way you think I mean it. I’m not talking about bombs here. I mean wired, as in, constantly plugged in to the Internet, social networking, that kind of thing.” He went to the next slide. “This is my Facebook page.”

Omar had heard about this phenomenon, but he had never seen it. He looked up at the screen with wide eyes. The presenter had 486 friends. Omar looked at the list and the accompanying photos. Fatima wore a full veil, only her lovely eyes showing. Yasmine’s profile photo looked exactly the same. So did Raya’s, Rana’s and Jada’s. Several of the presenter’s friends were named Mohamed. They had no profile picture at all.

“Today’s young terrorists aren’t content receiving orders by mule,” the presenter went on. “They want, they expect, communications to come to them anytime, anywhere, through text, through Facebook, through instant messages, through Wii and Playstation.”

Omar looked more carefully at the Facebook page. It was amazing, he thought. They could communicate everything right there, from their mobile phones if they wanted. He read several of the status updates. Fatima was “shopping for lingerie.” Yasmine was “separating my husband’s liquids into dozens of 3oz. bottles for his trip tomorrow.”  Hamid said, “Just got body scanned. Is it bad if I like it when they touch my junk?” Ahmed had written, “Riding the metro, marking the exact time.” Abed had “just signed up for the 3 River nuclear plant tour. Woohoo!” Asim was “trying to finish my student visa application. What’s another way of saying Explosive Personality?” Yusef had “just reported something suspicious to a Wal-Mart employee.” Terrence was “connecting wires. Does the blue go to the red or gree….” His status update ended there.