What is Al-Qaeda?

To formulate a reasonable plan of action, we must understand the basic nature and structure of the enemy movement. Al-Qaeda is difficult to define because it is a decentralized ideological movement. It has no structure so any attempts to attack it directly means it will change shape like a fluid. We should define the enemy’s center of gravity as its ideology – “al-Qaedaism.”

Currently, there are a number of Islamist wars across the world. Each insurgency is a self-grown movement with a mixture of local and international objectives. Al-Qaeda is an alliance of autonomous insurgent organizations.

AQ is an ideological movement to support the political objectives of Revolutionary Salafism.

For a brief time, al-Qaeda was a more formal organization in Afghanistan. The alliance with the Taliban granted AQ sanctuary where it could establish state-like functions, including the training of military forces and terrorist cells. The 2001 war destroyed al-Qaeda’s sanctuary and forced the organization to adapt. It has since transformed into a highly decentralized network of alliances and confederations.

The US Armed Forces recognizes the primary threat to be Al-Qaeda and Associated Movements (AQAM). They threat is no longer al-Qaeda itself. I believe we are biased by our own organizations and we attempt to force al-qaeda to “fit” a Western model. al-Qaeda is not an organized hierachy, it lacks a unified command structure, and it is not like a business that sets up local “franchises” like McDonalds. AQAM is more of a tribal confederacy mixed with a religious/political mass movement.

AQ, as an organization, is very limited in capabilities. The real threat is its ideology CFR describes the “Rise of Al-Qaedaism

In short, Osama bin Laden is not, and never really was, the “leader” of al-Qaeda. If we assassinate him, it will not affect ongoing wars.

Al-Qaeda (the base) acts as a coordinating agent for multiple insurgencies. It creates propaganda to attract recruits for local wars and reminds insurgents of their grand objectives. It can coordinate multiple wars through persuasion and by sending advisors to combat theatres.

Any individual insurgency is normally too weak to overthrow a government. Victorious insurgents need a state sponsor or the ability to interconnect with international political parties, other insurgents, and criminals.

These connections create an economy of scale. AQAM can help move critically needed personnel to new locations. Bomb-making experts from Algeria relocate to Iraq or Afghanistan, for instance. Many may not be centrally direct, but act as freelancers seeking business contracts. These connections improve the skill level of local insurgencies and more efficiently relocate resources. Without foreign aid, locals must learn to build explosives from scratch, which can be difficult as the failed London car bombings demonstrated.

Self-generating Cells
Every insurgency needs an ecology to support its survival. They need food, money, weapons, and manpower. If the local civilians turn against them, the insurgents lose rapidly and become nothing more than terrorists or criminal gangs.

Revolutionary Salafism provides the basic ecology needed to begin an Islamist insurgency. Fortunately, they represent only a small fraction of Muslims.

But they can be found in most Muslim countries in significant enough numbers to support an insurgency. The Muslim world is undergoing a population boom, so in many countries, 30% or more of the population are under the age of 25. Many are disillusioned and frustrated with the stagnant economies and political leadership, especially educated ones, such as engineers and doctors. Al-Qaedaism, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other radical political parties attract members of the young Middle Class who are tempted with Revolutionary radicalism.

Each insurgency theater has a local organization. These are self-generating organizations. They recruit from the local Salafists and create a fighting force of networks and cells. They use what is being called “4th generation warfare” tactics.

This includes the Islamic Courts Union of Somalia, the Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in Arabia, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ansar al-Sunnah, Ansar al-Islam, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, and so forth.

AQAM maintains a loose set of alliances and affiliations with other Islamist organizations. This includes the Deobandi sect – the Taliban – in the Pashtun regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It also includes the Muslim Brotherhood, although AQAM and the MB are potential rivals within the Islamist movement.

Al-Qaeda in Waziristan

Al-Qaeda as an organization is constantly evolving because it is so decentralized. For this reason, assassination strategies are inappropriate.

The al-Qaeda “leadership” are mostly propaganda artists and ideological theorists. There is no real organization as such. Al-Qaeda as an organization in Waziristan, functions more like COMINTERN during the Cold War. Even if we completely eradicate it, similar organizations will simply regenerate elsewhere.

For example, the inspirational theorists of the Revolutionary Islamist movements have mostly been killed already. This includes al-Banna and Qutb, members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States captured Abu Musab al-Suri a major strategist for al-Qaeda who created a plan to wage decentralized fourth generation warfare. In all cases, they already published their ideas. Qutb continues to inspire generations of new radicals despite his death over 40 years ago.

al-Qaeda is an ideological movement akin to Communism. Assassinating Karl Marx would not have impacted the communist revolutions of the 20th century. Nor today, would killing Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden end the conflicts across the world. Like the Cold War, this is a war of ideas. Killing the source of the idea may be of minor help, but the idea has already been set loose.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq
Al-Qaeda as a movement has concentrated its resources in Iraq. Zawahiri has declared that their future rests with the success of the Islamic Emirate of Iraq.

AQAM has limited resources at their disposal. They may issue calls for Jihad, but they receive too few recruits from international sources. There are limits on the number of weapons and ammunition on the global black market. Bomb-experts are always in short supply. The most useful suicide bombers are college educated, and it is difficult to find enough volunteers.

AQAM is discovering that it can only create “surges” of reinforcements in one or two theaters at a time. It must economize its resources and focus where it believes it will have the greatest success.

AQAM decided to wage war in Iraq. Iraq is at the Heart of Islam. The Sunni population in Iraq were willing allies in the war against the Americans. There were enough Iraqi Salafists to create an Islamist insurgency in the region (in essense, AQI was in Iraq long before 2003, but was unorganized). Nearby are the Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, where there are many potential recruits.

Judging from Zawahiris grand strategy, AQ wanted Iraq as the central front to force an American withdrawal and establish an Islamist state in the Arab world. Much of AQAM’s strategy is derived from the successful Islamist insurgency against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. If they could replicate that success against the Americans, the Islamists could begin the revolutionary overthrow of the Arab governments.

The US intelligence community recognizes al-Qaeda in Iraq as the most formidible branch within the AQAM. This has also starved other theaters of needed resources and has weakened Islamist insurgencies outside of Iraq.

Grand Strategy
Disaggregation is a superior long-term plan compared to assassinations. Decentralized social networks are highly robust and redundant in structure. Assassinations will not cause the collapse of these movements, although they may temporarily disrupt operations.

Instead, we must to isolate and divide revolutionary Islamists to break apart their movement. We cannot just assassinate a few top leaders and pretend we solved the problem.

The Republican and Democratic grand strategies are often closer than either realize. Over the long-term, they will need to agree upon a basic general strategy as they did with Cold War Containment. The more mature politicians understand the basic concept of disaggregation and may come to an agreement over the long-term.

The Republicans initially erred by assuming that state sponsorship played a larger role in this war. State sponsorship remains important, but AQAM proved it does not need direct sponsorship. Non-state actors are self-sufficient military actors. Welcome to the Brave New World. The first Bush Doctrine failed. Now Bush is moving towards a Disaggregation and COIN strategy, led by Gen. Petreaus and a new generation of military leaders.

The Democrats, likewise, place too much importance on “al-Qaeda” and terrorism and ignore AQAM’s role in the widespread warfare in places like Iraq, Somalia, Algeria, and elsewhere. Assassinating al-Qaeda leaders in Waziristan is not a viable strategy, and it may not even be a feasible one either.

The war may be won through counterinsurgency strategies that isolate radicals from their communities. This requires that the US engage the enemy in a war of ideas. We have done this before with the Cold War so it is possible.

Here’s one example of how this new concept of warfare is trickling upwards to the US Government. The Pentagon published the National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terror. It properly defined Al-Qaedaism as the threat and makes a number of recommendations to isolate and defeat the political movement.

Ends. The national strategic aims are to defeat violent extremism as a threat to our way of life as a free and open society; and create a global environment inhospitable to violent extremists and all who support them.

Ways. The U.S. Government strategy for GWOT is to continue to lead an international effort to deny violent extremist networks the components they need to operate and survive. Once we deny them what they need to survive, we will have won. In the mean time, we must deny them what they need to operate.

Means. Success in this war will rely heavily on the close cooperation among U.S. Government agencies and partner nations to integrate all instruments of U.S. and partner national power — diplomatic, information, military, economic, financial, intelligence, and law enforcement(DIMEFIL). The clandestine nature of terrorist organizations, their support by some populations and governments, and the trend toward decentralized control and integration into diverse communities worldwide complicate the employment of military power.


Centers of gravity exist at the strategic, operational and tactical levels, and differ for each extremist network or organization. At the strategic level, the AQAM’s center of gravity is its extremist ideology. This ideology motivates anger and resentment and justifies, in the extremists’ eyes, the use of violence to achieve strategic goals and objectives. A principal focus of this strategic plan is to support other U.S. Government agency efforts to counter the extremist ideologies that fuel terrorist networks.

It’s a start. I hope the 2008 elections provide an honest debate to discuss the merits of this strategy and the means to win.

Advertisements