Posts Tagged ‘Al-Qaeda’

The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)

28 July, 2008

The bi-monthly International Affairs journal published by Chatham House always includes a featured article which is made available to non-members. In the recently released July-August issue, the featured article is an excellent piece by Thomas Hegghammer, entitled ‘Islamist Violence and Regime Stability in Saudi Arabia‘. In his paper, Hegghammer provides a well-informed analysis of the underlying dynamics that explain one of the more puzzling conundrums in contemporary jihadi studies: the sudden and somewhat belated rise of AQAP in 2003, and its equally sudden collapse as an operational force by late 2004 / early 2005.

As Hegghammer explains:

Apart from isolated incidents, such as the 1979 Mecca mosque siege, the 1995 Riyadh bombing and the 1996 Khobar bombing, the Kingdom had largely been spared the Islamist violence which had ravaged Egypt and Algeria in previous decades. What, then, caused the sudden outbreak of violence? Even more interestingly: why did it happen in 2003 and not before? The near-absence of violence before 2003 is, after all, quite paradoxical in the light of the fact that Saudi militants were so active abroad in the 1990s, either as guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya, or as members of Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda organization. These questions highlight a deeper problem, namely that we do not really understand what determines the comings and goings of Islamist violence in Saudi Arabia. This is hardly a purely academic issue—it directly concerns our ability to assess the stability of the world’s leading oil producer and a pillar of US strategy in the Middle East.

Hegghammer discounts a number of popular theories, including ideology-based explanations ‘which see the violence as a product of the religiosity of Saudi society or the inherent extremism of the Wahhabi religious tradition’; and structural approaches that blame strains ‘of a political (e.g. regime oppression), economic (e.g. unemployment) or social (e.g. westernization) kind.’

Drawing upon his analysis of Saudi jihadist texts and videos, and on extensive field work in the Kingdom, Hegghammer argues instead that:

…Saudi Arabia experienced relatively low levels of Sunni Islamist violence in the 1980s and 1990s because, unlike the Arab republics, Saudi Arabia has never been home to a strong socio-revolutionary Islamist community. Saudi jihadism has been driven primarily not by regime discontent but by extreme pan-Islamism, and has thus been geared towards fighting non-Muslims. I further argue that the violence in 2003 was the result not of structural political or economic strain inside the Kingdom, but rather of a momentary conjunction between high operational capability on the part of the local Al-Qaeda network, boosted in numbers and skills by post-2001 returnees from Afghanistan, and a weak Saudi security apparatus. That gap in capability has now closed, and the QAP campaign has petered out.

Read the paper here.


Why Terrorists Quit

18 July, 2008

The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point has released the July issue [PDF] of its CTC Sentinel journal, which is quickly establishing itself as one of the finest non-subscription publications addressing contemporary terrorism and insurgency around.

The July issue leads with an article by Michael Jacobson entitled Why Terrorists Quit: Gaining From Al-Qa`ida’s Losses, which argues that there are valuable lessons to be learned from an understanding of the processes by which individual terrorists have in the past become de-radicalised, voluntarily de-selecting themselves from participation in contemporary jihadist militancy. Jacobson’s thoughts on this subject were examined in a March posting on this blog.

Also of note is Kirsten E. Schulze’s piece entitled Indonesia’s Approach to Jihadist Deradicalization, which provides an Indonesian perspective on the practice of ‘COIN Inside the Wire’ – the process of integrating rehabilitation of captured militants into broader COIN campaigns – a strategy whose implementation by the Saudis, and by the US in Iraq, was examined in this post earlier this month.

The full line up is as follows:

Why Terrorists Quit: Gaining From Al-Qa`ida’s Losses
By Michael Jacobson

An Ideological and Operational Threat: Abu `Amr/Shaykh `Isa
By Erich Marquardt & Abdul Hameed Bakier

Indonesia’s Approach to Jihadist Deradicalization
By Kirsten E. Schulze

The High Stakes Battle for the Future of Musa Qala
By David C. Isby

Al-Qa`ida Seeking to Recruit African-American Muslims
By Cadets Benjamin Haas & Daniel McGrory

Propaganda and Peace Deals: The Taliban’s Information War in Pakistan
By Arthur Keller

Uncovering Extremist Violence in Morocco
By Alison Pargeter

After Action Report: Nuanced Diplomacy in Zerok, Afghanistan
By Captain John G. Gibson, U.S. Army

Worrying Implications of the Terrorism Act for Insurgency Researchers

24 May, 2008

In a disturbing development of particular relevance to IRG members doing insurgency research in the War Studies Department at King’s – and to anyone working in the field in the UK – a masters student researching terrorist tactics at Nottingham University has been arrested and held for six days under the Terrorism Act after downloading Al-Qaeda related material from the internet.

Despite his Nottingham University supervisors insisting the materials were directly relevant to his research, Rizwaan Sabir, 22, was held for nearly a week under the Terrorism Act, accused of downloading the materials for illegal use. The student had obtained a copy of the al-Qaida training manual from a US government website for his research into terrorist tactics.

The case highlights what lecturers are claiming is a direct assault on academic freedom led by the government which, in its attempt to establish a “prevent agenda” against terrorist activity, is putting pressure on academics to become police informers.

Sabir was arrested on May 14 after the document was found by a university staff member on an administrator’s computer. The administrator, Hisham Yezza, an acquaintance of Sabir, had been asked by the student to print the 1,500-page document because Sabir could not afford the printing fees. The pair were arrested under the Terrorism Act, Sabir’s family home was searched and their computer and mobile phones seized. They were released uncharged six days later but Yezza, who is Algerian, was immediately rearrested on unrelated immigration charges and now faces deportation.


Sabir’s solicitor, Tayab Ali, said: “This could have been dealt with sensibly if the university had discussed the issue with Rizwaan and his tutors. This is the worrying aspect of the extension of detention [under the Terrorism Act]. They can use hugely powerful arrest powers before investigating.”

As well as the obvious implications for those conducting such valuable research, and for academic freedom in general, this incident raises other uncomfortable questions.

Since the passing of the Terrorism Act in 2006 it has been clear that the breadth of its provisions could potentially criminalise many people involved in legitimate research, indeed many people doing work in academia and in the private sector that is absolutely essential if we are to make progress in the ongoing ‘long war’. As such, it has also been clear that the authorities would therefore be relying upon a considerable amount of discretionary judgement when determining whether or not someone should actually be prosecuted under this legislation, which in turn raises questions as to how these discretionary judgements are to be made. Such discretionary judgements are not an ideal basis for any law, let alone one so sensitive, and one has to wonder whether in this case it was the Muslim identity of the individuals in question that prompted the arrests.

In many respects the Terrorism Act represents an important step in recognising and addressing the role played by the internet, and by radicalisation processes in general, in the current campaign being waged by Al-Qaeda and its decentralised affiliates. However, as this incident demonstrates, it is potentially highly problematic, and considerable care is going to be required if its implementation is not itself going to be a cause of further alienation and radicalisation among the UK’s Muslims.

Read the Guardian’s coverage of the arrests here.

Update: David here. I’ve blogged this also over at Kings of War:

Student researching al-Qaida tactics held for six days | higher news |

WTF is going on with the police?

A masters student researching terrorist tactics who was arrested and detained for six days after his university informed police about al-Qaida-related material he downloaded has spoken of the “psychological torture” he endured in custody.

Despite his Nottingham University supervisors insisting the materials were directly relevant to his research, Rizwaan Sabir, 22, was held for nearly a week under the Terrorism Act, accused of downloading the materials for illegal use. The student had obtained a copy of the al-Qaida training manual from a US government website for his research into terrorist tactics.

The case highlights what lecturers are claiming is a direct assault on academic freedom led by the government which, in its attempt to establish a “prevent agenda” against terrorist activity, is putting pressure on academics to become police informers.

I don’t get the reasoning behind this action. How can he be prosecuted for downloading something from a US government website? Why do those responsible not recognize that the AQ manual is required reading for anyone in this field? Get a grip!

Update: The more I think about this case the more puzzled I get. The article is portraying this as a threat to academic freedom and our commenters reckon its an example of profiling in action. Probably true on both counts but possibly defensible also (there really is a terror threat and radicalism is prevalent in universities). That said, the article mentions a ‘1,500 page’ Al Qaeda training manual which I am assuming (because its logical and about the right length) must be the Encyclopedia of Jihad downloaded from a ‘US gov’t website’. But I cannot find the full-length document on any government website. If anybody has a link please send it to me. What’s available are heavily redacted and translated versions. The real thing is available, I am told, in Arabic, on Jihadi websites. So, is the article wrong and he did not get it off a US government website? Or is the article wrong and what he had access to was the redacted version (which would be less worrisome and make the police look even worse)? Or something else? The story as reported just doesn’t add up. In any case, the basic point remains that discouraging precisely those students who possess the language skills and background from doing research on AQ terrorism is self-defeating.

Documents of Note #3

3 May, 2008

The following is the latest in a periodic round-up of reports, papers, monographs, etc likely to be of interest to IRG members and the wider COIN/CT community.


RAND has published Volume 5 in its Counterinsurgency Study series of monographs, which is co-authored by IRG founder John Mackinlay and Alison Al-Baddawy.

Rethinking Counterinsurgency

The May-June edition of the US Army Combined Arms Center’s Military Review includes the following piece by Philip Seib:

The Al-Qaeda Media Machine [PDF]

The Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College has published the following studies:

Precision in the Global War on Terror: Inciting Muslims through the War of Ideas – Dr. Sherifa D. Zuhur [PDF]

Global Climate Change: National Security Implications (ed. Carolyn Pumphrey) [PDF]

The SWJ Magazine has published interim versions of the following papers:

Social Epidemics and the Human Element of Counterinsurgency – CPT Nils French

Iraqi Non-Lethal Contributions to the Counterinsurgency – CPT Justin Gorkowski

The Counterinsurgency Cliff Notes – CPT Craig Coppock

The US Department of State has released the latest in its annual series of terrorism assessments:

Country Reports on Terrorism 2007

The International Crisis Group has released two new reports on Iraq:

Iraq after the Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape

Iraq after the Surge II: The Need for a New Political Strategy

The Combined Arms Research Library has made the following documents available. Original date of publication is provided if the document is not new.

Pacification in Algeria, 1956-1958 – David Galula, 1963 (2006 Rand edition with foreword by Bruce Hoffman)

War by Other Means: Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency – RAND

55 Trends Now Shaping the Future of Terrorism – Dr. Marvin Cetron and Owen Davies

Defeating Cross Border Insurgencies – Thorsten Joergensen, 2007

Tactical Handbook for Operations Other Than WarUK Ministry of Defence, 1998

Strategic Assessment of the Mau-Mau Rebellion – Robert Eatman, 2007

Chechen Suicide Bombers – Robert W. Kurz and Charles K. Bartles, 2007

The Evolution of Al Qaeda – Sean Wilson, 2007

Globalization and Asymmetrical Warfare – William Hartman, 2002

Piracy and Maritime Terrorism: A Seamless TransitionJohn Hahn, 2004

Asymmetric Warfare: An Historical Perspective – Frankling Miles, 1999

Why Insurgents Fail: Examining Post-World War II Failed Insurgencies Utilizing the Prerequisites of Successful Insurgencies as a Framework – Frank Zimmerman, 2007

Secrecy News
has made available the following reports from the Congressional Research Service:

Operation Iraqi Freedom: Strategies, Approaches, Results, and Issues for Congress [PDF]

Iraq: Regional Perspectives and U.S. Policy [PDF]

High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) and High Power Microwave (HPM) Devices: Threat Assessments [PDF]

The Taliban, Executions & the UN

21 April, 2008

Reuters ran a story yesterday that caught my eye. It seems the Taliban have appealed to the UN, the EU, and just about anyone else who will listen, to place pressure on President Karzai in order to try and prevent him from approving the execution of around 100 (mainly Taliban) prisoners whose death sentences have recently been approved by the Afghan supreme court.

A statement on their web site read:

“We … demand the UN, the European Union, Red Cross and human rights organisations to take quick steps for stopping this barbaric act and stop the killing of innocent prisoners.”

While not personally in favour of the death penalty, my first reaction was a certain wry amusement that the Taliban – who are not exactly known for their liberal sentiments, or for their sense of restraint when it comes to executing criminals or prisoners of war – should take such a moral stance against “this barbaric act”.

However, beyond the apparent hypocrisy, this story is also of interest on another level. Irrespective of the content of the Taliban’s complaint, the actual appeal to the UN itself is highly significant.

A central and non-negotiable tenet of radical Islamist groups, from the Al-Qaeda nexus through to legal entities such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), is a rejection of all ‘man-made’ rules and organisations – particularly democracy, and its globalised embodiment, the UN – which are seen by the Salafists as rivals to the word of God, as dictated in the Qur’an.

This position is set forth by one of the most influential jihadi ideologues, Abu Muhammad ‘Aasim al-Maqdisi, in his treatise Democracy: A Religion! [PDF]. Similarly, Article 186 of the draft HT constitution reads: “The State is forbidden to belong to any organisation that is based on something other than Islam or which applies non-Islamic rules”.

As such, while it may seem a small matter, the Taliban’s appeal to the UN, which in and of itself is a de facto recognition of the UN’s authority, clearly distinguishes it from groups such as Al-Qaeda and HT, who on point of principle would never appeal to the UN under any circumstances. Taken in isolation this might not be regarded as significant, however, as has been detailed in earlier posts on this blog, it is symptomatic of an emerging cleavage between the Taliban – whose goals are essentially local – and Al-Qaeda type groups, whose goals are more disembodied and transnational.

Arab Public Opinion, Al-Qaeda & the Long War

19 April, 2008

A recent opinion poll surveying Arab public opinion provides some fascinating insights on a range of issues relevant to anyone with an interest either in the region, in the countering of Al-Qaeda inspired transnational militancy, or in information operations.

The poll was conducted in March 2008 by the University of Maryland, in conjunction with Zogby International, and queried 4,046 people from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Outlined below are some of the findings I found particularly interesting.


Only one question directly polled attitudes towards Al-Qaeda, but the responses are revealing:

When you think About Al Qaeda, what aspect of the organization, if any, do you sympathize with most?

30% – That it confronts the US.
21% – I do not sympathize at all with this organization.
18% – It stands for Muslim causes such as Palestine.
10% – Its methods of operation.
07% – It seeks to create a Taliban-style Islamic state.

Firstly, it is highly significant that the single most significant reason given for sympathising with AQ is its opposition to the US, rather than any inherent qualities of AQ itself. A similar result (33%) was returned in the 2006 version of the survey.

Taken in conjunction with the fact that only 7% of respondents sympathised with AQ’s ultimate goal of recreating a Salafist caliphate (also 7% in 2006), and the fact that 83% of respondents had either a ‘very’ or ‘somewhat unfavourable’ view of the US (see below), this would suggest that the single most effective strategy for countering AQ is not attacking either its ideology or its network – important as such efforts are – but reducing antipathy towards the US among AQ’s targeted constituencies.

Secondly, and most worryingly, the 21% of people claiming to have no sympathy with AQ at all is markedly less than the 33% who expressed no sympathy with AQ in 2006, suggesting that passive support for at least some aspects of AQ’s agenda is actually rising.

Much has been made of the suggestion that AQ’s brutal tactics, particularly the casualties inflicted on other Muslims, is turning ordinary Muslims against the organisation, with the rise of the Awakenings Movement in reaction to Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) excessess rightly cited. However, while those who always had reservations about AQ’s tactics may have been further repelled by AQ’s escalating brutality, the fact that 10% of respondents sympathised with its methods of operation in 2008 – down only 1% from 2006 – suggests that few of those who previously sympathised with the use of terrorism as a tactic have been dissuaded by the increasing barbarity.

Also interesting is the fact that 18% of respondents sympathise with AQ because they believe it stands for Muslim causes such as Palestine, up from 14% in 2006. Recent AQ communiques have placed greater emphasis on AQ’s support for the Palestinian issue than has been usual in the past, and it would seem the propaganda is getting results.

The US, Foreign Policy & Information Ops

Bearing in mind the apparent importance in the struggle against AQ of improving perceptions of the US, it is worth examining those questions in the poll which provide an insight into the nature of anti-US sentiment.

Generally speaking, what is your attitude toward the United States?

64% – Very unfavourable.
19% – Somewhat unfavourable.
11% – Somewhat favourable.
04% – Very favourable.

Would you say your attitudes toward the US are based more on American values or American policy in the Middle East?

80% – Based on American policy.
12% – Based on American values.

The United States has been actively advocating the spread of democracy in the Middle East, especially since the Iraq War. Do you believe that?

65% – I don’t believe that democracy is a real American objective.
20% – This is an important American objective, but the United States is going about it the wrong way.
08% – This is an important objective of American foreign policy that will make a difference in the Middle East.

Which TWO of the following factors do you believe are most important in driving American policy in the Middle East?

50% – Controlling oil.
47% – Protecting Israel.
33% – Weakening the Muslim world.
30% – Preserving regional and global dominance.
12% – Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
07% – Fighting terrorism.
06% – Promoting peace and stability.
04% – Spreading human rights.
04% – Promoting democracy.

While the extent of antipathy towards the US is discouraging, particularly since the respondents all come from countries whose governments have favourable relations with the US, the fact that only 12% of respondents objected to US values, compared to the 80% who objected to US policies, indicates that this situation is eminently reversible.

In part this requires not a change in policy, but a change in the way policy is presented and communicated. Redressing the fact that 33% of respondents believe that US policy in the Middle East is aimed at weakening the Muslim world would seem a good place to start. The fact that this allegation is one of the key platforms in the Al-Qaeda narrative is indicative of just how far our information operations lag behind those of AQ in influencing the populations that form the long war’s centre of gravity.

Regarding policy itself, the following policy shifts were advocated by the respondents:

What TWO steps by the US would improve your views of the US most?

50% – Brokering a Comprehensive Middle East Peace with Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 border and establishing a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capitol.
46% – Withdrawal of US forces from the Arabian Peninsula.
44% – Withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.
28% – Stopping economic and military aid to Israel.
13% – Pushing even more to spread democracy in the Middle East.
13% – Providing more economic assistance to the region.

Other Findings

The following are some of the key findings of the survey, as selected by the survey’s publishers. Particularly interesting is the fact that in Lebanon only 9% express sympathy with the majority governing coalition, while 30% sympathize with the opposition led by Hizballah, and that Nasrallah has increased his popularity as the most admired leader in the Arab world, being nominated by 26% of respondents.

Iraq: Only 6% of Arabs polled believe that the American surge has worked. A plurality (35% ) do not believe reports that violence has in fact declined. Over 61% believe that if the US were to withdraw from Iraq, Iraqis will find a way to bridge their differences, and only 15% believe the civil war would expand. 81% of Arabs polled (outside Iraq) believe that the Iraqis are worse off than they were before the Iraq war.

Iran: In contrast with the fears of many Arab governments, the Arab public does not appear to see Iran as a major threat. Most believe that Iran has the right to its nuclear program and do not support international pressure to force it to curtail its program. A plurality of Arabs (44%) believes that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, the outcome would be more positive for the region than negative.

The Arab Israeli conflict: There is an increase in the expressed importance of the Palestinian issue, with 86% of the public identifying it as being at least among the top three issues to them. A majority of Arabs continues to support the two‐state solution based on the 1967 borders, but an increasing majority is pessimistic about its prospects. If the prospects of a two state solution collapse, 50% believe it would lead to a state of intense conflict for years to come, while only 9% believe it would lead to a one‐state solution, and only 7% believe that the Palestinians would eventually surrender.

Palestinian Divisions: In the conflict between Hamas and Fatah, only 8% sympathize with Fatah most, while 18% sympathize with Hamas, and 38% sympathize with both to some extent. In so far as they see Palestinians as somewhat responsible for the state of affairs in Gaza, 15% blame Hamas’s government most, 23% blame the government appointed by President Mahmoud Abbas, and 39% blame both equally.

The Lebanese Crisis: Only 9% express sympathy with the majority governing coalition in the current internal crisis in Lebanon, while 30% sympathize with the opposition led by Hizbollah, 24% sympathize with neither side, and 19% sympathize with both to some extent.

Popular Leaders: Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, increased his popularity as the most admired leader in the Arab world (26%). There was also an increase in the popularity of President Bashar Assad of Syria. Also striking, however, was the emerging popularity of modernizing Sunni Arab leaders, particularly Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai, when respondents identify the two leaders they admire most.

Attitudes toward the US: 83% of the public has an unfavorable view of the US and 70% express no confidence in the US. Still, Arabs continue to rank the US among the top countries with freedom and democracy for their own people. 32% believe that, from the point of view of advancing peace in the Middle East, American policy will remain the same, no matter who wins the US elections. 18% believe that Barack Obama has the best chance of advancing peace, 13% believe Hillary Clinton has the best chance, while 4% identify John McCain as having the best chance for advancing peace.

Global Outlook: France continues to be the most popular country, China continues to make a good showing, and views of Pakistan have declined.

Media: Al‐Jazeera continues to command the largest share of the Arabic news market, with 53% of Arabs polled identifying it as their first choice for news, with practically no change from last year. Egyptian Television and Al‐Arabiya have made some gains over last year. To a plurality of respondents, the quality of both Al‐Arabiya and Al‐Jazeera has improved over previous years, with only a small minority perceiving a decline.

Download the full survey here [PDF].


The Economist has an article on the increasing attention being paid to assessing opinion in the Muslim world by polling organisations such as Gallup and Zogby International.

Al-Qaeda, al-Suri & Insurgency Doctrine

11 April, 2008

The Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) has published two pieces by Dr. Brynjar Lia, whose work on Al-Qaeda usually provides some of the more perceptive commentary available within a crowded field.

The first paper, Al-Qaida’s Appeal: Understanding its Unique Selling Points [PDF], examines how Al-Qaeda has managed to elicit sympathy and support from a broad global constituency despite its record of slaughtering civilians, including Muslims, on a massive scale.

I argue in this presentation that al-Qaida’s continuing appeal is a result of three key factors. First, al-Qaida propagates a simple popular message, which resonates strongly with deeply held grievances in the Muslim world. The organisation strives to follow the popular mood in many respects. Secondly, al-Qaida has created for itself a powerful and captivating image. It has become the world’s most feared terrorist organisation, which is an immense attraction for certain groups of young people. In some countries in Europe, it has become “cool” to be a jihadi. Thirdly, the strength of al-Qaida’s appeal lies in its global character; unlike most terrorist groups of today, membership of al-Qaida is open to virtually everyone, irrespective of ethnicity and nationality. As long as one is willing to accept its extremist ideology, anyone can, in principle, become an al-Qaida member.

While acknowledging Al-Qaeda’s successful emergence as a global terrorist ‘brand’, Lia argues that its emphasis on mass casualty terrorism has created schisms within the jihadist movement, and that its failure to develop a coherent political platform will eventually undermine its support.

Another inherent weakness of al-Qaida is that it does not seem able or willing to prepare for a future transition to politics. Al-Qaida’s appeal is totally dependent on the continuation of violence. Its brandname is simultaneous car bomb attacks with suicide bombers, not state building and party politics. Bin Laden has said that al-Qaida’s victory is simply to inflict pain and economic losses on the enemy, and undermine its political resolve. But this also means that al-Qaida’s appeal will diminish quickly wherever the population grow tired of violence that does not lead anywhere. At some point, al-Qaida’s image will inevitably fade; just as all extremist ideologies have a limited life span, so too does al-Qaida’s extremist interpretation of Islam.

Although the first paper provides a useful perspective on the al-Qaeda phenomenon, the second paper, Dissidents in al-Qaida: Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri’s Critique of bin Ladin and the Salafi-Jihadi Current [PDF], is the more interesting of the two.

While al-Qaeda represents an innovative form of global insurgency, paradoxically it has produced few thinkers who themselves may be considered truly innovative, or who may be judged to have made an original contribution to insurgency doctrine. One of the exceptions is Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri, who is in essence the insurgent’s T.X. Hammes or William Lind – an exponent of fourth generation warfare (4GW) who, prior to his capture, was one of the few individuals within the jihadist movement prepared to challenge the strategic vision of bin Laden.

The scholarly literature on al-Qaida has recently begun to pay more attention to internal divisions and ideological schisms in the global Jihadi Current. This literature has uncovered important fault-lines between al-Qaida strategists on issues such as the primacy of media and propaganda efforts versus the building of an effective military organization. Differences over the primacy of religious-theological purity versus military-strategic effectiveness have also come to light.

This paper aims to contribute to this literature by discussing these internal clashes through the writings of one of al-Qaida’s most articulate and prolific writers: Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Sethmariam Nasar, better known by his pen names Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri and Umar Abd al-Hakim. Until his arrest, presumably in Quetta, Pakistan in late 2005, al-Suri was one of the most outspoken voices in the Jihadi Current. His critical analysis of previous jihadi experiences, especially of Algeria, provoked strong responses and debates. Furthermore, his ambitions to integrate Marxist guerrilla warfare theory into the jihadi war-fighting doctrine, to introduce self-criticism as an accepted genre and method in jihadi thinking, and his attempts critically to analyze the Jihadi Current ‘objectively’, inevitably led to numerous clashes with orthodox and conservative elements, especially the strong Salafi current in al-Qaida.

Lia’s biography of al-Suri, Architect of Global Jihad, is the definitive work on this key figure, and this paper provides a useful introduction to the man. It also serves to counter the tendency common among analysts to represent al-Qaeda, and the jihadist movement, as a single monolithic entity.

The Al-Qaeda Media Nexus

6 April, 2008

Daniel Kimmage has produced an interesting paper, entitled The Al-Qaeda Media Nexus: The Virtual Network Behind the Global Message, on behalf of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). The 22-page paper examines the ‘guerrilla media network’ that has evolved around Al-Qaeda and the various localised Salafi Jihadist groups with which Al-Qaeda is affiliated.

This brief study surveys a representative sample of Arabic language jihadist media from July 2007 and attempts to answer two simple, yet crucial, questions: What does the structure of jihadist media tell us about the relationship between Al-Qaeda central and the movements that affiliate themselves with it? And what can the priorities of jihadist media tell us about the operational priorities of Al-Qaeda and affiliated movements?

The paper pays especial attention to the role played by ‘Media Production and Distribution Entities’ – organisations that serve as the virtual interface between the jihadist groups and their target audiences – particularly the three MPDEs that produce or distribute media products on behalf of more than one jihadist group – i.e. the Global Islamic Media Front [GIMF], Al-Fajr Media Centre [Fajr], and Al-Sahab Institute for Media Production [Sahab].

Banner of the Global Islamic Media Front

Banner of the Global Islamic Media Front [GIMF]

In addition to examining the way in which these MPDEs operate – including the scrupulous care they take over branding, and their attempt to control unregulated ‘media exuberance’ on behalf of their followers – the paper has some useful things to say about the role they play in creating a coherent virtual movement out of a distributed emergent network.

the Al-Qaeda media nexus accurately reflects the loose structure of the would-be movement itself. The nexus links a variety of entities, some real and some virtual, through a decentralized web of connections that were likely spontaneous ties of both convenience and contrivance at their origination but have since hardened into ties of convention….

Despite this decentralization, the network’s activists attempt to pursue common goals through the coordinated use of online media. MPDEs maximize synergies that would otherwise be lost if armed groups simply posted statements on their own. An MPDE such as Fajr, which distributes statements by a number of groups operating in different theaters, creates an implied link and suggests a larger movement. At the same time, the links created by MPDEs, which post media products to recognized jihadist forums through “accredited” correspondents, establish the authenticity of the media products and make it difficult to introduce spurious offerings that might confuse the information battlespace. [p17]

As a result of his analysis, Kimmage comes to the following conclusions:

  • The ”original” Al-Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden accounts for a mere fraction of jihadist media production.
  • Virtual media production and distribution entities (MPDEs) link varied groups under the general ideological rubric of the global jihadist movement. The same media entities that “brand” jihadist media also create virtual links between the various armed groups that fall into the general category of Al-Qaeda and affiliated movements.
  • Three key entities connect Al-Qaeda and affiliated movements to the outside world through the internet. These three media entities — Fajr, the Global Islamic Media Front, and Sahab — receive materials from more than one armed group and post those materials to the internet.
  • Information operations intended to disrupt or undermine the effectiveness of jihadist media can and should target the media entities that brand these media and act as the virtual connective tissue of the global movement.
  • While video is an important component of jihadist media, text products comprise the bulk of the daily media flow. Within text products, periodicals focused on specific “fronts” of the jihad are an important genre that deserves more attention from researchers.
  • The vast majority of jihadist media products focus on conflict zones: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
  • The priorities of the global jihadist movement, as represented by its media arm, are operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and North Africa.
  • Jihadist media are attempting to mimic a “traditional” structure in order to boost credibility and facilitate message control. While conventional wisdom holds that jihadist media have been quick to exploit technological innovations to advance their cause, they are moving toward a more structured approach based on consistent branding and quasi-official media entities. Their reasons for doing so appear to be a desire to boost the credibility of their products and ensure message control.
  • In line with this strategy, the daily flow of jihadist media that appears on the internet is consistently and systematically branded.

Read the whole paper here [PDF], or RFE/RL’s interview with Kimmage about the project here.

Al-Qaeda’s Rising Ideologue

5 April, 2008

The New York Times has a profile of Abu Yahya al-Libi, one of the most important figures within the core Al-Qaeda organisation. If you’re not already familiar with him, he’s worth finding out about. Once an obscure preacher, following his escape from American custody at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in July 2005 he has quickly risen to prominence, and is likely to become increasingly influential in the future.

Al-Qaeda Ideologue, Abu Yahya al-Libi (IntelCentre)

Al-Qaeda Ideologue, Abu Yahya al-Libi (IntelCenter)

According to Evan Kohlmann of the NEFA Foundation, Abu Yahya emerged as the de facto leader of the Libyan contingent in the Aghan-Pakistan borderlands following the death of fellow Libyan, Abu Laith al-Libi, in a recent US air strike. However, it is his skill as an orator, and his religious credentials, that have propelled him into his current role as Al-Qaeda’s most prominent ideologue after Bin Laden and Zawahiri.

Libi, a Libyan believed to be in his late 30s, is now considered to be a top strategist for Al Qaeda, as well as one of its most effective promoters of global jihad, appearing in a dozen videos on the Internet in the past year, counterterrorism officials said.

At a time when Al Qaeda seems more inspirational than operational, Libi stands out as a formidable star whose rise to prominence tracks the group’s growing emphasis on information in its war with the West.

“I call him a man for all seasons for AQ,” said Jarret Brachman, a former analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency who is now research director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and whose provocative studies on Al Qaeda have drawn praise from U.S. counterterrorism officials. “He’s a warrior. He’s a poet. He’s a scholar. He’s a pundit. He’s a military commander. And he’s a very charismatic, young, brash rising star within A.Q., and I think he has become the heir apparent to Osama bin Laden in terms of taking over the entire global jihadist movement.”

The secrecy that still envelops Al Qaeda’s leadership structure makes such estimates speculative, other analysts noted.

But one Islamist insider said that in addition to youth and charisma, Libi had one skill that Al Qaeda’s top leadership had been lacking: religious scholarship. Perhaps with this in mind, Al Qaeda is featuring Libi in as many of the videos as the group’s two top leaders, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri.

Read the full article here.


The NYT has a video report entitled ‘The Battle for Hearts and Minds’ which takes a look at Abu Yahya, and at the efforts of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point to outwit him in the war of perceptions. Click here to view.

Hassan Butt & Counter-Radicalisation

5 April, 2008

Reuters has a short interview with Hassan Butt, the reformed former British jihadist who spent 10 years recruiting and organising the training of European militants.

Hassan Butt (BBC)

Former radical, Hassan Butt (BBC)

Butt describes how he turned his back on extremism following the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, and how he has since devoted himself to convincing others to do the same, despite death threats from his former peers, and the ongoing threat of prosecution for his past activities.

Since he turned his back on extremism, Butt has become a touchstone for young Muslims looking to escape militant groups.

He has met the government’s counter-terrorism minister to discuss “outreach” to hardened British Islamists — estimated to number at least 2,000 — and taken his ideas into prisons and mosques, where much of the radicalization is said to go on.

Butt says he has helped 15 young men in Manchester alone extract themselves from their extremist ideology, potentially thwarting attacks.

“Of the 15, 11 had been sent for terrorist training. I know because I personally sent these guys to camps,” he says.

With more support and funding, he is convinced he could establish outreach countrywide.

“With everything else in Britain — gangs, drugs, domestic violence — there’s an outreach program. But when it comes to Islamic radicalism, there is no credible program because no one has any idea how to run one properly,” he says.

Read the interview here. For a more in-depth interview with Butt, check out this 2005 piece by Aatish Taseer in Prospect magazine.