al Qaeda doesn’t follow its own lessons learned!

Posted by Clint Watts

Don’t feel bad U.S. military, you are not the only force struggling to make better decisions from your lessons learned.  Al Qaeda and particularly their Sahel affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), struggle to improve their operations based on analyses of past failures as evidence in the Associated Press’s (AP) recent publication of AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel’s confidential letter to his fighters in Mali.  While an incomplete manuscript, three chapters of AQIM guidance discovered in Timbuktu provide some clarity to al Qaeda’s strategic thinking in a post-Bin Laden era.

Overall, the document echoes many of the recommendations discussed by Bin Laden in the Abbottabad documents and outlined in a previous post “Are today's al Qaeda offshoots following Bin Laden's vision?".  Droukdel, like Bin Laden, stresses several important principles to his followers at some point after the June 2012.

  • Patience – Droukdel realizes that AQIM’s gains in Northern Mali were fragile and that pushing the implementation of Sharia aggressively amongst a resistant population could short circuit their future Islamic state. 

  • Integrate with local movements – Droukdel encourages his followers to, “extend bridges to the various sectors and part of Azawad society – Arab, Tuareg, and Zingiya – to end the situation of political, social, and intellectual separation.” Droukdel’s narrative is strikingly similar to that of Bin Laden’s “winning hearts and minds” guidance.

  • Learn from mistakes – In Chapter 1 page 3, Droukdel discusses mistakes made by their proxies in implementing Sharia requesting that they avoid the “destruction of shrines” and harsh application of religious punishments.  Droukdel, like Bin Laden, does not want to see his troops continuing to make the same mistakes.

In addition to the points of similarity with Bin Laden’s vision, Droukdel provides some rather interesting analysis of AQIM’s situation and future.

  • Predicted a military intervention – While I was quite surprised it was the French stepping up to stop the march of extremists in Mali, Droukdel expected the West to intervene.  This suggests AQIM likely had a withdrawal plan in place at the time of the intervention. “It is very probable, perhaps certain, that a military intervention will occur, whether directly or indirectly, or that a complete economic, political and military blockade will be imposed along with multiple pressures, which in the end will either force us to retreat to our rear bases or will provoke the people against us because of starvation….” An interesting passage all around from Page 1 of Chapter 1.  So where are AQIM’s rear bases? 

  • Less “Vanguard” and more “Invisible Hand” – In the past, al Qaeda has considered itself the vanguard for leading and establishing resistance against the West and local apostate governments.  However, years of drone attacks and other counterterrorism attention have resulted in al Qaeda moving from a “lead from the front” mentality to a “lead from behind” position.  Droukdel says “we should also take into consideration not to monopolize the political and military stage…we should not be at the forefront.”  

  • Two methods for AQIM integration with Ansar Dine – Droukdel offers two ways in which AQIM can integrate and coordinate with AQIM.  The first option would be AQIM reporting to the emir of Ansar Dine in Mali for local issues and conflicts.  However, AQIM would pursue global jihad on its own without Ansar Dine interference and would assure Ansar Dine no repurcussions from AQIM actions.  (I have no idea how AQIM could guarantee this "no blowback" clause after watching what unfolded with the Taliban in Afghanistan after al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks) Droukdel's second option suggests small, dedicated cadres would be detached to Ansar Dine to help them administer governance in cities while the remaining al Qaeda members would be entirely independent.  In both cases, the objective seems to be for al Qaeda members to keep tabs on Ansar Dine and ensure safe haven stability for the purpose of planning and executing external operations against the West.

  • Compromise in the near term to achieve long-term goals – Droukdel stresses to followers that AQIM should, “make sure to win allies, be flexible in dealing with realities and compromise on some rights to achieve greater interests.”  While this would offer a new direction for al Qaeda operatives I imagine that the elitist nature of their followers undermines the ability of devout members to compromise with local groups.

The document provides a fascinating peak into the mindset of al Qaeda affiliates after Bin Laden’s death.  While flashes of Bin Laden’s intent appear in Droukdel’s dispatch, AQIM’s strategic plan to integrate with local groups appears to undermine itself in two key ways. 

  1. Why should local groups follow AQIM’s lead? – As has been seen on other al Qaeda fronts such as Somalia, local groups may not be inclined to pursue the vision of outside al Qaeda leaders.  Why should Ansar Dine follow the intent of AQIM? If AQIM were to provide resources or something of critical value, I can see Ansar Dine acquiescing to AQIM’s direction.  But Ansar Dine has its own interests to pursue. Did this dynamic lead to AQIM overreaching (because it couldn't control partner aggression) and provoking a French intervention?

  2. It’s difficult to contain the extremism of extremists – AQIM, like al Qaeda in Iraq and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), recognizes the need to learn from mistakes and restrain excessive violence.  However, Droukdel could not seem to hold back his extremists from being extreme.  This is a fatal flaw for al Qaeda in their new integrative approach with locals.  Many joining al Qaeda do so because they want to participate in violence and implement Sharia.  For al Qaeda leaders to then tell their recruits to restrain violence and be patient – this approach truly undermines itself.  Young men don’t join al Qaeda to be insurgent liaisons and government administrators in the middle of the Sahara.  They join al Qaeda to participate in violence.

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AQIMal QaedaClint Watts