Know Your Terrorist Enemy

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. 

'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.' 

'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

'counseling him against attacks that could inadvertently kill Muslim civilians...(which) is damaging to the movement because it inevitably leads to a loss of support among the Muslim masses, a consequence we call the 'Shayma Effect.''

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:

'As the author of a massive handbook on global insurgency — or as he calls it, 'the remedy for the U.S. disease' — Mustafa Setmariam Nasar has written his way into the intellectual heart of  today's jihadi—Salafi movement.' 

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:

—local regimes worked together to foil terrorist efforts;

—terrorists ignored local tribes and ethnic minorities;

—terrorist foot soldiers felt no personal connection to their leaders;

—terrorists failed to win popular support.  (There's that same theme again.)

Terrorists must make effective use of media campaigns and

'use technology like satellite television and the Internet to communicate the movement's objectives and justify its use of violence to the public...'

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:

...the longer it takes to put a strategic communications framework into place, the more we can be certain that the vacuum will be filled by the enemy and by news informers, that most assuredly will not paint an accurate picture of what is actually taking place....

'We are fighting a battle where the survival of our free way of life is at stake, and the center of gravity of that struggle is not simply on the battlefield overseas; it's a test of wills, and will be won or lost with our publics, and with the publics of other nations.'  

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

'the most important component of their education will be engagement in the jihad itself.  Indeed, it seems the primary purpose of local jihads is not the overthrow of the West, but the training and indoctrination of this rising generation.'  [Italics mine]

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.

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