Security Studies Program Seminar
For the Word of God to Be Supreme:
Al-Qaida Strategic Thinking and Its Implications for U.S. Policy
Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
May 15, 2007
- There are two camps of people who study al-Qaida (AQ): those who think religion is central and those who don't. This talk focuses on the strategic thought of AQ, written by jihadi authors and distributed online. It is primarily secular in language and focus. Don't want to take religion off the table, but going to set it aside for this purpose of this discussion.
- Western interpretations of AQ's religious nihilism skews the picture of AQ strategic thinking, and it drives jihadi thinkers crazy.
- Cites one jihadi who complains about the allegation that terrorists are irrational. The jihadi is taking a shot at people who think that AQ leaders are not capable of strategic thinking.
- We tend to focus on AQ public statements, and this is a mistake. Much of these public statements are propaganda, and they are not a very good window into their strategic thinking.
- For example, look at the most recent al-Zawahiri (AZ) tape (which is 1.5 hours long). One-third is talking about black Americans, how AQ is fighting on their behalf. This is absurd. AQ could care less about the plight of African-Americans.
- So, how can we gain insight into AQ strategic thinking?
- Court documents.
- The “Harmony” documents. The USG raids AQ homes and seizes papers, and puts them into a central database. These papers are translated, and CTC at West Point is main conduit for these documents.
- Online discussion boards. Meant to be internal. Many strategy think pieces are circulated online there.
Groups of Jihadi Actors
- There are three spheres of thinking within the movement:
- The high-command: UBL, AZ. Very difficult to penetrate. Not very many records of their internal thinking.
- Field commanders: i.e., Zarqawi. As important (and different sometimes) than the high-command.
- The “informal think tank”: known affiliates, or people who publish in AQ journals. They distribute strategy think pieces online. These online pieces proliferated after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, when there were no more training camps to disseminate information. This was also done for competitive reasons. Once the AQ high-command disappeared as the most vocal jihadi element, there was a lot of competition among the second-tier thinkers.
- Are these documents just another element of their information ops? Or can we take them seriously and what kind of lessons can we draw?
- To answer that question, McCants surveys the writings of three important jihadi strategic thinkers: al-Qurashi , al-Naji, and al-Suri.
#1: Abu `Ubayd al-Qurashi
- Close to UBL. Don't know much about his identity. Prolific writer from 2002-2004. Used to publish a column in a jihadist “Strategic Studies” and would lay out a grand vision for strategy. Thinks that he died after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
- Founder of the strategic studies genre. Doesn't talk about religion much. Does use scripture to bolster argument, but he is pretty secular.
- Draws heavily on Western literature. In his discussion of the efficacy of guerilla warfare, he refers to War of the Flea by Robert Taber. He also argues that AQ needs to understand that its asymmetry is a strength. Here, he draws on William Lind's study of fourth generation warfare, Clausewitz, and Mao.
- Wants AQ to internalize the rules of fourth generation warfare and make suitable military preparations.
- Argues that the media is the center of the conflict. Media, not military, success matters. This is the undefended front.
#2: Abu Bakr al-Naji
- Qurashi's disciple. Wrote “The Management of Savagery.” Not sure who he is. He might be a Jordanian or Tunisian. Published in AQ journal in Saudi Arabia. Could be a committee, not a person.
- Builds on Qurashi 's argument. Need to engage in guerilla warfare. Need to provoke U.S. into a direct military conflict. Bleed the U.S. military and economically. A direct confrontation will bring people over to AQ's side. Once the U.S. commits, this will place pressure on local regimes. It will bog the U.S. down, and force a withdrawal that will erode a belief in American military superiority. You need to prove it.
- He had hoped that this would happen in Afghanistan (as it did with the Soviets in the 1980s). He's very angry that this hasn't worked out. The U.S. bought off local tribesman; he's furious because this denied them the propaganda victory.
- But he's very happy about Iraq. Because it provides all of those propaganda victories that AQ is after. Over time, the US will have to leave.
- Once the U.S. reduces its visibility in the region, Naji provides general guidelines for the movement going forward (and decentralization is a plus). Go to places where the geography is to the advantage of jihadis, where there are weapons (esp. small arms), where Salafism has taken hold, and where there is a failed state.
- Establishing an Islamic state. Go after sensitive infrastructure. Hit oil. Hit tourism. Cause the local government to spread its resources thin.
- AQ is very good at fighting, not so good at statebuilding.
#3: Abu Musab al-Suri
- Wrote a 1300 page book. Given more credit than he actually deserves. Syrian. Moved to Jordan. Left after Assad's crackdown. Moved to Spain and married there. Worked on Ansar journal in London, which focused on Algeria. Under his stewardship, the journal took a more analytical turn.
- Went to Afghanistan. In 1996, he established his own training camp. He was close to UBL, but had a falling out because he believed UBL's media profile was too high.
- Conducts a long survey of past jihads, why they succeeded and why they failed.
- Focuses on creating a leaderless resistance. Didn't like the centralization under AQ. Ideology and strategic vision matter a lot more. Important to give people an overall vision to make people feel like they are a part of a global movement, but they can act locally.
- For example, the Madrid bombings. There was no direct AQ connection. They were a group of guys that would gripe together, wanted to act, didn't know how, saw an Arabic document talking about the struggle in Iraq saying someone needs to hit Spain. Once they saw the document, it was a matter of days before they took action.
- Focuses on creating a self-organizing, self-sustaining, organic global movement.
- Still wants the establishment of Islamic states in the Middle East.
- Fighting has a didactic value, but it has to have an ultimate purpose, which is establishing Islamic states.
What do these authors have in common?
- It is very secular. They are preaching to the choir. Just outlining tactics. Doesn't mean that religion is irrelevant, just means that scripture isn't invoked as much as people think.
- All strategies rely on direct U.S. military action in the region.
- All believe that media is the center of the struggle; creating the perception of success is more important than actual military success.
What should we make of these studies?
- The documents need to give followers a sense of confidence, and foster the sense that they are fighting intelligently toward a shared goal. Can't afford to be misleading.
- Do they have an impact? Difficult to determine. Cited often on discussion forums.
- What is the right way to view these documents? Not AQ's grand strategy. They are independent opinion pieces laying out a series of choices.
- Read them for internal vulnerabilities. They are the experts' experts. They have a good sense of where they are weak. (i.e., Naji talks about the problems of low-level operatives, and how people not ideologically committed to the cause. Etc.)
- Ideological vulnerabilities. Various competitors in the region. Who siphons off support? The Muslim Brotherhood.
- Theological tensions with other groups. It's kind of lonely. So puritanical, that it is hard to get over the hang ups with other groups to work together.
- Read it for habits of thought. What kind of assumptions do these authors share? The perception is that the U.S. has no willpower. That the U.S. has finite resources. They like the idea of loose networks and guerilla tactics. They like security vacuums. They believe that military success matters less than the perception of it in the media. And they believe that they need large public support (although Zarqawi challenges this).
- AQ strategic thinkers have done a good job at gauging mood in the U.S. Right in their assessment about U.S. willpower and the dangers of overextension (and Naji quotes Paul Kennedy).
- AQ relies on direct U.S. presence, which fits the narrative that the West seeks not to dominate region, but that they are trying to destroy Islam.
- Disrupting that narrative; lowering U.S. military visibility. Not going to convince the jihadis, but what you're worried about is the broader support.
- What do they have wrong? Viability of loose networks. They present problems of their own. You can't control message.
- Security vacuums. CTC report compares at Kenya and Somalia in the 1990s. AQ did a terrible job in Somalia. No infrastructure. Did not know how to navigate culturally. A weak state like Kenya is far better. You do need to have some infrastructure to pull these operations off.
- Military success v. media success. Eventually, they will have to deliver on some of their promises.
back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2007