Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Do al Qaeda Affiliates Actually Have a Plan?

Do al Qaeda Affiliates Actually Have a Plan?

The rise of many jihadi affiliates around the Africa and the Middle East has renewed the American media quest to anoint “The Next Bin Laden”. Lacking any real information or expertise on emerging leaders some analyses has settled on older known quantities; namely Abu Musab al-Suri. (I wonder if someone just changed the date on this article from 2005 to 2013, Lawrence Wright does a better breakdown of Suri at this link from September 11, 2006.) While I’ve always been a critic of Suri, the article does raise an interesting question: do the mish-mash of “al Qaeda-in-name” affiliates actually have a plan for their actions?  Most importantly, what is the plan for Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (aka ISIS/AQ in Iraq) as they move forward in Syria?

If al Qaeda affiliates were to actually build a plan from their own lessons learned, I would assume they might reference three jihadi planners of note and several other lesser-known jihadi veterans old and new.  For the “Big Three” and their relevant works I would pick:

  1. Abu Musab al-Suri and his lengthy 1600 page The Call to Global Islamic Resistance released in 2005

  2. Bin Laden’s final strategic thoughts from Abbottabad

  3. Abu Bakr Naji’s 2004 upload The Management of Savagery

I’ll discuss some of my general notions about these three influences and my opinion on whether any of these three actually make much of an impression on current jihadi conflicts. 

Suri’s 2005, The Call to Global Islamic Resistance

Terrorism analysts have long loved Suri because he in many ways mirrors them; a scholar of jihad who developed strategic doctrine the way one would expect of the U.S. military.  Academics found in Suri order to al Qaeda’s chaos and what on paper appeared to be the Clausewitz of jihadi thinkers.  Peter Bergen noted after spending time with both Suri and Bin Laden, “He [Suri] certainly impressed me more than Bin Laden.”

In 2011, rumors swirled of Suri being released by the Assad regime and turned over to rebels.  A jihadi forum posting (probably one of the least credible sources in the world) suggested Suri was alive amongst Syria’s jihadis but since there’s been little discussion. If he were alive and thriving, he’d certainly be an inspiration to jihadis–that is if years of torture haven’t left him drooling, mad or both.

I’ve always been skeptical of Suri’s influence amongst al Qaeda for many reasons. 

  • Suri, at times, appeared a rival and detractor of Bin Laden.  His negativity likely diminished his influence in some al Qaeda circles.

  • Suri’s work in 2005 focused on the “global” and “individual” rather than the “local” and “collective”.  Suri stressed the need to have lone wolves and small cells conduct attacks independently. His ideas were echoed by the likes of Anwar al-Awlaki and to this day by Ayman al-Zawahiri and their calls for do-it-yourself terrorism.  But this strategy failed for the white supremacist movement in the U.S. and also seemingly for al Qaeda in recent years.  Those casually citing Suri today often refer to this document as strategic guidance for jihadis, but its premise and purpose does not match the environment and conditions of today’s al Qaeda upstarts that are enmeshed in insurgencies and civil wars.  (For the weaknesses of Suri’s “Lone Wolf” strategies see these three analyses by J.M. Berger here, here, and here.)

  • What young jihadi actually reads 1600 pages and can comprehend what he just read? While some AQ leaders might make an effort, I imagine Suri’s insights strewn across the equivalent of an encyclopedia largely fly over the heads of jihadis. From jihadi social media, I’ve learned jihadis like their solutions to be quick, concise, one-size fits all, heavy on the violence and light on popular support.  My sense is that Suri 2005 isn’t a huge influence on today’s jihadi battlefields where many a young recruit runs free. 

  • Suri’s main value rests in his understanding of safe havens and their importance for training, indoctrination and planning.  Unlike recent media accounts, I would imagine Suri, if he is alive and thriving in Syria, recommends ignoring his 2005 global call and instead focussing on his more operational works with a regional flavor -– namely his criticisms and analysis of the Muslim Brotherhood’s failings against Syria during the 1980s. 

My opinion: Don’t design a counterterrorism strategy to thwart Suri’s 2005 strategy, let it go, the strategy is flawed and will likely defeat itself. (I could write a book chapter on this but I’ll let it go for now.) For an excellent work on Suri, read Bryjar Lia’s book.

Bin Laden’s Abbottabad Documents, 2011

Prior to his death, one might mistake Bin Laden’s thoughts as copies from America’s Counterinsurgency Manual, FM 3-24. Reeling from drone strikes and contained in Pakistan, Bin Laden urged a more pragmatic strategy for building an Islamic caliphate by integrating with local communities, “winning hearts and minds” and even considered a name change to repair al Qaeda’s tarnished image.  Bin Laden saw Yemen as a potential opportunity for establishing a caliphate but stressed that jihadis should not move too quickly and must wait for the right time to initiate their efforts.

Bin Laden’s guidance appears particularly salient in the post-Arab Spring where more than a half-dozen opportunities for expansion emerged in short order.  But, patience apparently was not a strong suit of post Bin Laden affiliates.  As noted by Will McCants in his recent article “How Zawahiri Lost al Qaeda”, “one major reason that al Qaeda affiliates are not getting along is the great many opportunities before them.” With each affiliate seeing their own interests before them, they aggressively seek out their own stake, ignoring the patience prescribed by Bin Laden.

Abu Bakr Naji’s 2004 The Management of Savagery

In 2004, a document called The Management of Savagery written by an unknown person, Abu Bakr Naji, surfaced on al Qaeda forums.  The two hundred plus page document (translated by Dr. Will McCants) describes how al Qaeda leaders must understand both the political as well as the military sides of jihad.  Lawrence Wright provides an excellent summary of Naji in his 2006 article:

“Naji recommended that jihadis continually attack the vital economic centers of these countries, such as tourist sites and oil refineries, in order to make the regimes concentrate their forces, leaving their peripheries unprotected. Sensing weakness, Naji predicts, the people will lose confidence in their governments, which will respond with increasingly ineffective acts of repression. Eventually, the governments will lose control. Savagery will naturally follow, offering Islamists the opportunity to capture the allegiance of a population that is desperate for order. (Naji cites Afghanistan before the Taliban as an example.) Even though the jihadis will have caused the chaos, that fact will be forgotten as the fighters impose security, provide food and medical treatment, and establish Islamic courts of justice.”

Naji’s proposed doctrine rings eerily familiar to what we’ve seen in many affiliate risings post-Bin Laden; Yemen, Sahel and now Syria.  Amongst the Arab Spring, Naji’s suggested shift to understanding politics appears particularly relevant.  However, the administration of services has been particularly challenging for upstart groups under significant counterterrorism pressure.  Naji seems to enjoy the idea of securing a hinterland as a safe haven for indoctrination and building capacity; much easier to do in a pre-drone era. However, Naji’s prescriptions appear more relevant to current conditions in the post-Arab Spring Middle East and Africa.   

So are they using these theories & doctrine?

My final guess is that al Qaeda affiliates initially start out with a plan, but based on changing circumstances, divergent interests, counterterrorism pressure and imperfect situational awareness, these plans quickly fall apart.  As is commonly said in the U.S. military, the best plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy, thus commanders must adapt, overcome and improvise based on a set of known objectives and a general sense for how the battle should be conducted (i.e., “Commander’s Intent” in military speak). For al Qaeda affiliates and as seen by the 9/11 attacks (or U.S. planners for a post-Saddam Iraq for that matter), al Qaeda leaders have yet to adequately plan beyond first contact.

There are many other planning documents available to al Qaeda affiliates. Jihadis seeking to build their credibility often pen their strategic theories; irrespective of their actual experience, knowledge or skills (Even Omar Hammami spent time writing his own strategic theory).  Today, we see ISIS in Syira trying to govern and provide social services, all the while indiscriminately killing people of all shapes and sizes.  Essentially, ISIS might be picking some strategic plans while selectively ignoring other guidance that doesn’t fit their personal preferences -– namely the guidance of Ayman al-Zawahiri

In conclusion, I think a few of the affiliate leaders read the strategic documents (AQAP I would presume), and I would guess that both Bin Laden’s final thoughts and Naji’s doctrine may be relevant in today’s contexts.  But overall, I’m skeptical that affiliates and their new recruits, whom have largely not been indoctrinated in al Qaeda camps (a key thrust of Suri), are following much of a plan at all.  In the “Own Your Own” era of al Qaeda, I’m guessing affiliates design strategies that support their objectives first and al Qaeda Central’s objectives second.  If a strategy document supports their preferences, the affiliate will incorporate and cite it.  Beyond that, I don’t imagine today’s young recruits to Syria or their local cell leaders delve very far into 1600 pages of Suri.