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.