The Targeting of Corporate Executives

I came across this article from Defense News yesterday, and the topic is something that I have not come across before.  The gist of the article is that a Pakistani branch of al-Qaeda, or at least with members affiliated with al-Qaeda, was planning the assassination of Lockheed Martin's CEO.

More after the jump…

Now I know there is a fairly substantial literature in the economics/business communities regarding the effects of terrorist attacks on things like stock prices, and a quick Google scholar search indicates that more work has been done in these other fields than in political science (although I think if we move away from the specific areas of stock markets and stock prices to general economic performance, we'll probably find more work turning up in the field of political science).   

In any event, this is something that I found to be particularly interesting.  We usually talk about terrorism in terms of attacks on groups of civilians, and occasionally targeted attacks on government officials or political leaders.  Attacks against corporate executives haven't been something that we've heard all that much about in the war on terror.  First, I wonder how many similar cases there have been?  Second, I'm wondering what the expected result was from such an attack?  The article indicates that the motivation for selecting this particular individual was that Lockheed was responsible for making the drones that have been used to target Afghan and Pakistani militants along the border regions between the two countries.  The article does not, however, go into much detail beyond this point.

First, there's the possibility that an attack on a corporate executive like this would severely damage its stock price, causing investors to flee–withdrawing their money in the process.  I'm not very familiar with the aforementioned literature on the subject, but I can't help but imagine that a company like Lockheed would be rather immune from such pressures, given that it's a defense contractor and all.  Assuming the stated motivation behind the attack is accurate, wouldn't this simply validate the notion that the drone strikes are a really big thorn in the side of the very people that they've been targeting?  This, in turn, would lead me to believe that the government's logical response would be to increase investment in the drone programs, and ramp up their use in the field.  

Let's face it, killing Lockheed's CEO might do a lot of things, but cause the drone program to come to a screeching halt ain't one of them.  And this is not an individual that really means much to the general public either, so in terms of its broader impact I suspect that it will be fairly limited.  Corporate governance structures also suggest that such a move would have very little impact on the general direction of a company–it doesn't matter if there's a higher risk attached to the top job given that there are several other corporate officers and a board of directors in place to keep the ship afloat and on course.  

In my mind this raises some questions about the decision processes of al-Qaeda leaders.  We know that this particular attack has not been executed, although this does not rule out the possibility of it, or something similar, happening the in future.  But the article does indicate that some level of planning (beyond a simple pitching of an idea) did take place.  Maybe I'm missing something, but I honestly can't see how such a move could be worth the time and effort that it would take to execute.  Granted, the assassination of a corporate leader is probably easier than a high-ranking government official, but I again point to the relatively limited psychological and economic impact that it would have.  

Perhaps what this points to is the dynamic that has been widely cited–that al-Qaeda exists as a group of very loosely affiliated and semi-autonomous or fully-autonomous cells.  If such were the case, we should expect there to be potentially substantial variation in the aptitude and training of al-Qaeda agents.  Could it be that this is just a bad plan hatched by bad operatives?  I mean, the fact that they were caught does possibly suggest something about their skills.  And from what I can tell about David Headley's past, the man testifying in the article against an alleged fellow-operative, Tahwwur Rana, he doesn't seem like someone who has been terribly adept at flying under the radar.

 This article from the Chicago Tribune also suggests that Headley received funding from Pakistan's ISI to aid in the planning and execution of the Mumbai attacks from a few years ago, making his testimony of much broader significance.  The rest of his testimony also seems to indicate that he was not simply acting on his own, but that he had broader organizational support, and that the proposed attack on Lockheed was something that originated from within the terrorist organization with which Headley is affiliated, as opposed to being an independently developed plan on the part of Headley.  

Again I go back to the question of what this tells us more generally about decision-making processes of terrorist leaders?  Is this just another Faisal Shahzad case, perhaps designed to get US intelligence agencies so busy swinging at low-hanging fruit that they miss better, more sophisticated plots?  Or does this really suggest something about the depletion of talent within these terrorist organizations?  More broadly, are there mechanisms by which the "intellectual talent," so to speak, within a group like al-Qaeda can detect one another in an effort to collaborate more closely, or perhaps form their own cell?  Is this actually desirable?  Which is a more advantageous structure–several independent and scattered cells with a couple of smart ones and several "drones," or several cells composed mostly of "drones" and a handful of cells composed of extremely talented individuals?  

I've moved the discussion away from the original topic of targeting corporate leaders to a broader issue, and I think it's important to come back around and reiterate that this particular plan did not come to pass.  Consequently, it's probably presumptuous to read too much into what this particular plan tells us, as it's hard to determine just how far down the developmental pipeline it got.  It's probably also quite advantageous for these sorts of organizations to have several ideas incubating at any given time, so without a broader understanding of what sorts of plans were being thrown around in competition it's very difficult to tease out any real conclusions.      


About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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