February 22, 2006
Know Your Terrorist EnemyBy John B. Dwyer
As the authors of the just published Stealing Al—Qa'ida's Playbook state in their introduction,
'The key to defeating the jihadi movement is identifying its strengths and weaknesses so that the former may be countered or co—opted and the latter exploited.'
Since the writings, the playbooks, of leading terrorist (I'll be using this term instead of jihadist) strategists are available online and elsewhere, they can be mined for more effective counter—terrorist tactics, techniques and strategies. This is what Jarrett M. Brachman and William F. McCants of West Point's Combatting Terrorism Center have done.
'Stealing Al—Qa'ida's Playbook' examines the writings of four prominent terrorist ideologues: Abu Bakr Naji (The Management of Barbarism), Ayman al—Zawahiri (Knights Under The Banner of The Prophet), Abu Qatada (Between Two Methods) and Abu Mus'ab al—Suri (Observations Concerning the Jihadi Experience in Syria). If you want to understand the enemy, these guys are a good place to start.
Naji does not believe the terrorist movement can defeat the United States in head—to—head confrontation. He takes the long, asymmetrical view: initially, there will be important propaganda victories, followed by increasing societal and economic strains which will eventually result in political defeat. Naji, noting this strategy was highly successful against the Soviet Union, believes it has an even better chance with the U.S. because 'it does not have the ruthless or resolve' of the USSR.
The propaganda victories Naji foresees will stem from Middle Eastern countries (Iraq not specified) that have been invaded and occupied by the U.S. Citizens will be outraged at the (infidel) occupiers, and as the war drags on, they will see that in fact this superpower is not invincible.
Their anger will also be directed at the 'proxy government.' As the authors put it 'this will lead to social unrest at home and the ultimate defeat of the superpower.' (If I didn't know any better, I'd say Naji is using our Vietnam experience as his template.)
As for establishing the caliphate, Naji has a plan, based on 'his reading of western literature, his experience in the Middle East, and his interpretation of Mohammed's early career.' The plan: conduct 'vexation and exhaustion' operations such as bombing tourist sites and oil facilities. This will create a security vacuum as regime forces concentrate at those places, which will then be exploited by terrorist cadres moving into unprotected regions or cities to take over day—to—day administrative duties. (Naji assumes they will be welcomed by the populace.) Once established, these cadres will network with each other and 'move towards a caliphate.'
As for terrorist movement weaknesses, Naji lists them: problems resolving chain of command issues in a secret organization; finding spies within it; reining in overzealous recruits. These hot heads are liable to damage public opinion by conducting an unauthorized attack 'targeting the wrong people at the wrong time (and turning) the masses against the movement.'
Public opinion is a major issue for terrorists such as Naji, who points out that in the past they have failed miserably to explain their attacks to the public, which 'allowed the local regime to turn public opinion against them.'
PR problems are the major issue for Zawahiri, too, who cites the specific example of a 12 year—old girl named Shayma, killed by a car bomb in Egypt. The government claimed Islamic Jihad deliberately targeted Shayma, not its intended target, the prime minister. The authors pick up on this PR black eye theme and note Zawahiri's recent cautionary letter to Zarqawi
Enemies — external and internal — figure prominently. The writings of Abu Qatada, a chief Al—Qa'ida ideologue, 'are a veritable who's—who of jihadi enemies.' Some of those enemies are within the terrorists' own religious camp,Abu Qatada singles out the 'so—called Salafi' Rabi al—Madkhali. (Salafism = radical Muslim fundamentalism that seeks to establish a caliphate ruled by strict sharia laws.) Madkhali's basic sin was that, as a glib speaker and skilled debater who used cassettes to spread his message, he siphoned off potential terrorist recruits.
Brachman and McCants begin their section on Abu Mus'ab al—Suri this way:
Nasar is best known by his nom de guerre Abu Mas'ab al—Suri. A senior Al—Qa'ida ideologue, he pays close attention to western counter—terrorist strategy. In other words, he's doing the Al—Qa—ida version of mining our documents to improve terrorist operations.
His study of failed terrorist efforts reveals the reasons why:
Terrorists must make effective use of media campaigns and
Al—Suri, therefore, stresses the important role of propagandists to generate 'global Islamic resistance.' But, he warns propagandists against 'using lies and exaggeration' as the Muslim masses will 'see through such falsehoods and grow disaffected with the Salafi message.' Perhaps this caution reflects some bitter lessons, but I would not count on the lesson taking.
The importance of terrorist propaganda highlights the absolute necessity of an effective counter — America's information warfare and information operations efforts. SecDef Donald Rumsfeld has noted the need to not be outdone on this front front by the terrorists:
Religious leaders are integral to the strategy of information warfare as well as for recruitment. Al—Suri believes the best way to generate new local terrorist movements is keeping Muslim clerics actively involved. The movement can't afford alienating the leading clerics.
But the authors stress that although religious leaders play a key role in educating future terrorists
We are engaged, whether we realize it or not, in a war with an enemy that takes a temporal perspective of generations upon generations. Jarrett M. Brachman and William F. McCants have done a great service in creating a window into the thinking and strategizing of our terrorist enemies. We may more easily defeat them once we understand them better. Review this study yourself on the CTC website.
John B. Dwyer is a military historian, and a frequent contributor to The American Thinker.