The Untold Story of al-Qaeda’s Administrative Law Dilemmas


  • Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar
Publish Date:
June 1, 2007
Publication Title:
91 Minnesota Law Review 1302
Journal Article
  • Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, The Untold Story of al-Qaeda's Administrative Law Dilemmas, 91 Minnesota Law Review 1302 (2007).


In the months and years following September 11, senior al Qaeda strategists and sympathizers disseminated a series of manuscripts revealing the terrorist network’s aims and its internal management dilemmas. This Article elucidates how we can better evaluate changes in our counter-terrorism laws and policies – from warrantless NSA surveillance to massive military operations abroad – by scrutinizing the goals and internal organizational problems of our adversaries. Conventional wisdom paints terrorist networks such as al Qaeda and state bureaucracies in advanced industrialized countries as starkly different. Al Qaeda and its allies are assumed to pose particularly severe dangers because they are flexible, adaptable, decentralized, and staffed by committed supporters with a common goal. By contrast, state bureaucracies in advanced industrialized nations are often described as suffering from plodding, rule-bound decision-making structures that hobble their response to our nimble adversary.

But a closer look at al Qaeda’s own strategic studies – read in light of social scientists’ emerging analyses of terrorist organizations – reveals a more complex picture. In it, the distinction between terrorist networks and bureaucratic agencies is less pronounced than commonly supposed. Both entities face pervasive problems involving the harnessing of expertise, the resolution of conflict among politically important players, reconciliation of competing goals, restraints on overzealous action, building public legitimacy, and monitoring subordinate activity. By scrutinizing terrorist networks as collective entities with conflicting goals facing elusive administrative problems, we can better understand three things: (1) that, in fact, terrorist networks have repeatedly sought to develop administrative procedures and law-like hierarchical arrangements to manage their problems; (2) that the efficacy of counter-terrorism strategies depends crucially on the extent to which such strategies exacerbate (at a reasonable cost) these networks’ administrative problems; and (3) that legal arrangements characteristic of U.S. public law – particularly those governing the administrative decisions of bureaucratic institutions – are valuable in part because they assuage the very problems that our terrorist adversaries are so desperately trying to solve.