Publications and Media
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “How Al-Qaeda Works: The Jihadist Group’s Evolving Organizational Design,” The Hudson Institute, May 30th, 2018
While Leaderless Jihad both reflected and influenced the thoughts of a growing number of terrorism analysts and journalists,3 it also provoked a blistering rebuttal from Georgetown University terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman. Hoffman objected to Sageman’s central claim that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership had become “neutralized operationally.”4Instead, he argued that al-Qaeda was a “remarkably agile and flexible organization,” and that its leadership had rebounded from personnel losses, retained operational control over affiliates, and sustained its ability to plan external operations against the West. While Hoffman acknowledged the threat posed by local and regional terrorist networks, he argued that al-Qaeda continued to pose a greater challenge to American and European security.
The Hoffman-Sageman debate remains largely unresolved a decade after the publication of Leaderless Jihad, as analysts continue to debate fundamental questions about the relevance of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and the structure of the organization. Is al-Qaeda a top-down, centralized organization or a collection of flat, information-age networks? Do its leaders remain linked with and provide strategic direction to the organization’s affiliates or have they been reduced to a symbolic role? Is al-Qaeda even a single, coherent organization or is it more akin to a social movement, devoid of hierarchy and without a concrete structure?
The lack of consensus on these questions within the analytic community impedes our ability to anticipate the behavior of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and to counter their future operations. If we do not accurately understand fundamental aspects of al-Qaeda’s structure, we will be unable to either identify and target the organization’s center of gravity or predict how strategic directives from its leadership will affect the behavior of affiliates. As documents recovered from Abbottabad become accessible and first-hand accounts from jihadist movement insiders proliferate, we now have enough information to more definitively answer pressing questions about al-Qaeda’s organizational design.
Close analysis of these primary source materials, which include a vast trove of documents produced by al-Qaeda’s top officials, has yielded two important findings that we present at length in this article. First, al-Qaeda remains a coherent and centralized organization, albeit one that is not perfectly centralized. Second, al-Qaeda’s leadership continues to be essential in determining both the trajectory of the organization as well as its strategic direction. While al-Qaeda sometimes fails to resolve its internal disputes before they boil over into the public eye—a phenomenon seen in earlier years as well (there were highly public disputes in the 1990s in both Sudan and Afghanistan over the state and trajectory of the global jihadist movement)—its affiliates generally continue to adhere to the goals, objectives and strategies outlined by the organization’s senior leadership.5 At the same time, al-Qaeda’s flexible organizational model allows affiliates to adapt their tactical approach to local dynamics.
Though al-Qaeda’s organizational structure has undergone several significant changes since its inception, the current structure continues to reflect the strategic vision of its founders. From the outset, al-Qaeda adopted a unique organizational design, whereby its senior leadership outlined a strategic course for the organization a whole, but empowered mid-level commanders to execute this strategy as they saw fit. “Centralization of decision and decentralization of execution,” as this organizational principle has been described, remains operative today.6 Indeed, in adhering to this principle, al-Qaeda has been able to maintain both organizational and strategic coherence even in the face of considerable internal and external challenges.
This article charts al-Qaeda’s development over its nearly thirty-year existence, placing special emphasis on its early history. The organization’s initial structure, we argue, would have an enduring influence on how the organization functioned and developed as time passed. This article begins with an exploration of the strategic and ideological rationale behind the establishment of al-Qaeda. We consider, in particular, how this rationale informed the organization’s early emphasis on “centralization of decision and decentralization of execution.” Next, we examine how al-Qaeda’s organizational structure was transformed both by new challenges, like its loss of Afghanistan as a safe haven after the 9/11 attacks, and by its expansion to include new affiliates. Finally, we explain the important ways in which our explanation of al-Qaeda’s organizational structure should shape future assessments of the challenges that al-Qaeda faces, and of the challenges that it poses.
Creating the Vanguard
Al-Qaeda’s raison d’être is rooted in the concept of an international vanguard charged with taking the first steps necessary to sweep an un-Islamic world order from power (including the secular governments of the Middle East and the influence of Western powers that support them), and usher in Islamic governance across the globe. The international jihadist army that al-Qaeda seeks to build bears close resemblance to the vanguards of early Islamic history, and also closely resembles the vanguard concept that features prominently in the writings of two prominent jihadist theorists of the twentieth century, Sayyid Qutb and Abdullah Azzam.
Qutb, an Egyptian scholar who is often considered the ideological forefather of the modern jihadist movement, believed that the Muslim world had descended into a state of jahiliyya, or ignorance, a pejorative term that Muslims identify with life in the Arabian Peninsula prior to the advent of Islam. Qutb argued that only a vanguard, composed of a small number of pious Muslims, could awaken the Ummah and rescue it from this state of darkness. In Qutb’s words: “It is necessary that there should be a vanguard which sets out and then keeps walking on the path, marching through the vast ocean of jahiliyya which has encompassed the entire world.”7
Qutb likely borrowed the term vanguard from Marxism, which averred that a small core of committed individuals was necessary to mobilize the masses to communist revolution. But in his estimation, as well as that of other influential Islamist thinkers, the concept of a vanguard can actually be traced back to the early years of Islamic history, when the Prophet Muhammad and a small coterie of followers overcame the opposition of Arab tribes, and spread Islam across the Arabian Peninsula. Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna drew an explicit comparison between the Prophet’s earliest followers and the movement he sought to build, explaining: “We try to make of this modern proselytizing a real echo to the early proselytizing.”8
Qutb’s discussion of how this vanguard would form and operate was, like much of his writing, heavy on theory, tending toward diagnosis rather than prescription. It was left to later figures, like Abdullah Azzam, to determine how to put the idea of a vanguard into practice.
Azzam—who was once bin Laden’s mentor, before running afoul of the young Saudi in the late 1980s9—emerged as the most influential jihadist theoretician and strategist of the 1980s. His writings touched on a wide array of subjects, but his most extensive discussion of the purpose and function of a vanguard appeared in an article titled “al-Qaeda al-Sulbah” (The Solid Base), which was published in 1988 in al-Jihad magazine, a publication Azzam founded to report on the mujahedin’s anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. In the article, Azzam explained the need to have a vanguard to bring about revolution in the Islamic world:
For every invention there must be a vanguard to carry it forward and, while forcing its way into society, endure enormous expenses and costly sacrifices. There is no ideology, neither earthly nor heavenly, that does not require such a vanguard that gives everything it possesses in order to achieve victory for this ideology. It carries the flag all along the sheer endless and difficult path until it reaches its destination in the reality of life, since Allah has destined that it should make it and manifest itself. This vanguard constitutes the solid base (al-qaeda al-subah) for the expected society.10
This vanguard, Azzam wrote, would first galvanize the people, serving as the “spark that ignites the energies of the Ummah.”11 The vanguard’s job, according to Azzam, would not end there. As he explained in Join the Caravan, a short book published in 1987, once the Muslim community had been spurred to action, the vanguard would serve as the “beating heart and deliberating mind,” providing strategic and ideological guidance to the Ummah.12
Al-Qaeda sees itself as a manifestation of this vanguard. The organization’s goal, according to its founders and strategists, is to galvanize the Muslim masses to revolt against the existing international system, which is corrupt and impious, and to inspire the Ummah to replace this system with an Islamic caliphate. Al-Qaeda is to be the vanguard of this revolution, the “organization and leadership leading change,” as Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s current emir, explained in Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, his treatise on the history and future of the jihadist movement.13
Al-Qaeda’s perception of itself as a vanguard has clear implications for the group’s organizational structure. Al-Qaeda’s leaders agreed with Qutb and Azzam that the Islamic revolution could not be leaderless: A revolution that lacked both ideological and strategic guidance would exhaust itself. As Azzam explained in “al-Qaeda al-Sulbah,” an ideology without a vanguard to promote and propagate it would be “stillborn, perishing before it sees light and life.”14 Al-Qaeda viewed, and continues to view, the leaderless jihad model as strategically infeasible.
Instead, al-Qaeda sought to build a robust organizational structure that would enable it to fulfill its self-proclaimed role as the revolution’s vanguard. Three principles shaped the creation of this structure. First, al-Qaeda needed to establish a propaganda apparatus that would allow the group to convey its messages throughout the globe, and inspire the Ummah to join its revolution. Zawahiri articulated the importance of propaganda in a 2005 letter to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, explaining that “we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.”15 Second, al-Qaeda needed command-and-control mechanisms to direct the activities of its subordinates, and to provide strategic guidance to those involved in its revolution, regardless of where they were operating. Third and finally, the organization would need to be resilient. Azzam recognized that the path to an Islamic revolution would be “endless and difficult.”16 If its ultimate objectives were to be achieved, al-Qaeda would need to be able to endure repeated challenges and great losses.
While al-Qaeda has undergone numerous transformations since its inception, the organization has held steadfastly to its overarching goal: to serve as the vanguard of an Islamic revolution. Further, the three core organizational principles that first shaped al-Qaeda continue to guide the group. Al-Qaeda’s propaganda efforts, though they remain essential, are largely beyond the scope of this paper. This paper focuses, instead, on how al-Qaeda has maintained its command-and-control mechanisms and continued to implement reforms aimed at improving its resilience, even as the group has expanded its geographic reach, suffered the loss of key leaders, and adapted its strategic approach in response to shifting geopolitical dynamics.
Building a Durable Organization
Al-Qaeda’s founding documents make clear that al-Qaeda leaders prioritized building a coherent and resilient organization. In contrast, the minutes from al-Qaeda’s first meetings in August 1988 are somewhat ambiguous about the group’s specific objectives. Though these minutes record that al-Qaeda’s overarching goal is to make Islam “victorious,” they lack any explanation of what victory means or how it might be achieved. The minutes reveal, however, that considerable attention was devoted to the organizational structure that al-Qaeda would adopt, attesting to the importance its founders placed on developing standard bureaucratic practices and procedures.
Al-Qaeda’s first meeting began with a discussion of the limitations of the Maktab al-Khidamat al-Mujahedin, an organization created and run by Abdullah Azzam that coordinated both international fundraising for the Afghan jihad and recruitment of Arab fighters. For al-Qaeda’s founders, the Maktab al-Khidamat’s history served as a cautionary tale. Bin Laden and other Arabs in Afghanistan were frustrated with the “mismanagement and bad treatment” that occurred within the Maktab al-Khidamat, which by 1988, had become mired in infighting.17 At their first meeting, therefore, al-Qaeda’s founders emphasized the need to establish a formal organization to avoid these kinds of deficiencies. Bin Laden and his colleagues sought to design an organization equipped to overcome the challenges that had plagued the Maktab al-Khidamat.
Al-Qaeda’s founders envisioned a hierarchical, rules-based organization. The minutes from al-Qaeda’s first meetings reveal that all members would have to obey the group’s “statutes and instructions.” They also show al-Qaeda’s early efforts to facilitate specialization through the establishment of committees, including an advisory council and a mobilization committee, each of which would be responsible for different tasks. A subsequent undated document, believed to have been written in the late 1980s or early 1990s, provides a more extensive description of the roles and responsibilities of each of al-Qaeda’s committees and sections.18 It explains, for example, that al-Qaeda’s military committee would consist of four sections: general combat, special operations, nuclear weapons, and the library and research section. It also stipulates that the commander of the military committee would be required to have a minimum of five years of military experience, be at least 30 years old, and hold a university degree.19
Another founding document, labeled by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point as al-Qaeda’s structure and bylaws, goes into greater depth about al-Qaeda’s decision-making processes and command structure.20 It makes clear that al-Qaeda’s emir is the ultimate authority on strategic decisions and the appointment of leaders. One of the emir’s additional responsibilities is to “discuss and implement” al-Qaeda’s annual plan, budget, and internal structure. Additionally, the emir is given the authority to appoint all members of the leadership council, al-Qaeda’s most senior decision-making body. Though the leadership council is ostensibly authorized to replace the emir if he “deviates from sharia,” the emir’s ability to unilaterally hire or fire members of the council significantly blunts any potential curb on his power. Similarly, the emir wields full control over his deputy, whose duties, the document states, are “delegated by the emir.” These two clauses ensure that there are few checks on the emir’s power. Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (a.k.a. Fadil Harun), a high-ranking al-Qaeda official who helped orchestrate the 1998 Embassy bombings in East Africa, later confirmed that the emir’s authority was unrivaled, and that bin Laden was not bound by the decisions made by al-Qaeda’s leadership council.21
While the structure and bylaws make clear that the emir’s word on strategic matters is essentially irrefutable, it also limits the emir’s involvement in day-to-day operations. The emir should, according to the document, take a largely hands-off approach at the operational and tactical level. His involvement, furthermore, should be limited to participation in “periodic meetings” and to reviewing the performance of subordinates and committees. Responsibility for day-to-day operations fell to the chairmen of the various committees (e.g., military, security, political, economic) and to their deputies, who are generally referred to as supervisors. The chairman and chief of staff of the military committee are responsible for developing al-Qaeda’s military policy. Then, the leadership council is supposed to approve and oversee the implementation of this policy. Finally, the training and combat supervisors are tasked with developing operational plans through which to achieve the goals and policies articulated by the chairman and chief of staff.
Putting Doctrine into Practice
Relatively little is known about al-Qaeda’s internal dynamics during its early years in Afghanistan.22 However, an account of the organization’s first attempted international operation provides some insight into how its earliest external operations were arranged. In November 1991, Paulo Jose de Almeida Santos, a Portuguese al-Qaeda recruit, was arrested in Rome after he tried to assassinate Mohammed Zahir Shah, the former Afghan king. In an interview with the Portuguese magazine Expresso, Santos, who wanted to kill the king to prevent his return to Afghanistan, explained that he had proposed the plot to his commanders in al-Qaeda. He was then brought to Peshawar to meet Abu Hafs al-Masri and bin Laden, who asked about the rationale for the assassination, as well as Santos’s plans for carrying out the attack.23
Santos interpreted the fact that he was able to propose a plot directly to bin Laden as a sign that al-Qaeda, in 1991, was “disorganized” and lacked a “well-defined hierarchy.” There is undoubtedly some truth to Santos’s assessment. In 1991, al-Qaeda was in a state of flux as it tried to navigate the increasingly fissiparous and violent Afghan mujahedin landscape. Just months after Santos’s failed assassination attempt, al-Qaeda pulled a significant portion of its assets out of Afghanistan and Pakistan.24
There are, however, other possible interpretations of the facts that Santos describes. For one, the ease with which Santos, a largely insignificant foot soldier, was able to interact with bin Laden may have represented an intentional feature of al-Qaeda’s organizational design. Indeed, before 9/11, bin Laden sought to foster a culture of entrepreneurship, encouraging al-Qaeda’s rank and file, and even individuals who had not officially joined, to present him with ideas for plots and operations.25 Nasser al-Bahri, who served as bin Laden’s bodyguard prior to the 9/11 attacks, explained that individuals who developed attack plans could bypass al-Qaeda’s bureaucracy and present their proposals directly to bin Laden and his senior commanders.26 Bin Laden or one of his trusted deputies would then judge whether the proposed attack fit within the contours of al-Qaeda’s military strategy, and if the attack was approved, responsibility was delegated to a subordinate to plan and execute the operation.27
Bin Laden’s willingness to defer to subordinates on issues of operational planning is also consistent with Santos’s experience. In his interview with Expresso, Santos explained that bin Laden “did not give any orders,” and said that when it came to planning operations, Abu Hafs al-Masri “was the real chief of al-Qaeda.”28 On the basis of his interactions with these two men, Santos concluded that “whether bin Laden gave the green light or not is not important.” Santos’s interpretation of al-Qaeda’s power dynamics based on his limited interactions with its upper echelons, however, was inaccurate. While bin Laden rarely involved himself in the minutiae of operational planning, in 1991, while he was al-Qaeda’s supreme authority, his approval was required for all operations carried out in the organization’s name. This was certainly true for Santos’s plot as well, which marked the first time that al-Qaeda attempted an attack outside of Afghanistan. Again, there certainly was a degree of disorganization within al-Qaeda at the time. But the fact that Abu Hafs, rather than bin Laden, served as Santos’s primary point of contact may well have been an intended aspect of al-Qaeda’s design, rather than an indication of bin Laden’s insignificance.
Indeed, Santos’s narrative fits with al-Qaeda’s model of “centralization of decision and decentralization of execution,” as described by bin Laden’s former bodyguard Nasser al-Bahri.29 This phrase accurately explains al-Qaeda’s unique management structure, whereby bin Laden would assess the feasibility and strategic value of proposed missions and offer funding as well as institutional support for plots he approved, but would then allow his deputies to execute the mission as they saw fit.
The experiences of several other al-Qaeda operatives over the years closely mirror the model that Bahri described and Santos unknowingly echoed. Mohammed al-Owhali, one of the plotters involved in the 1998 attacks on United States embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, explained that mid-level commanders in al-Qaeda planned the attacks. He also reported that it would have been unusual for bin Laden to give instructions directly to low-level operatives like himself.30 Owhali conceded that he “was never specifically told that [the embassy attack] was bin Laden’s mission,” indicating the degree to which bin Laden removed himself from operational planning. The 9/11 Commission report, meanwhile, dedicated an entire section to “terrorist entrepreneurs,” who, according to the Commission, “enjoyed considerable autonomy” in their operational planning.31
The “centralization of decision and decentralization of execution” operational management model endures to this day. Indeed, it is a key source of al-Qaeda’s resilience and capacity for innovation. For one, the devolution of responsibility for day-to-day operations to mid-level commanders allows al-Qaeda to remain adaptive, enabling operatives to modify tactics and operational plans in response to shifting ground conditions. This management model also has a profound impact on al-Qaeda’s overall capacity for learning. It encourages what Assaf Moghadam describes as bottom-up innovation, wherein al-Qaeda’s foot soldiers and mid-level commanders are able to “experiment locally” without bureaucratic constraints.32 Experimentation at the local level increases the rate at which al-Qaeda can develop new tactics and strategies to overcome obstacles introduced by counterterrorism actors. It also prevents the group from falling into fixed patterns of behavior that can be identified and then disrupted by local security services.
Relatedly, al-Qaeda’s decentralized management model has positioned the organization to recover efficiently after leadership decapitation. Al-Qaeda empowers junior officials to take risks, bestowing responsibilities on commanders that may far exceed their experience and knowledge. This baptism by fire involves some risk, as some young commanders are ill equipped to handle these duties or may prove too zealous in executing them. Nevertheless, this approach also produces experienced young officials capable of filling a leadership vacuum should their superiors be removed from the battlefield. The oft-cited assessment that al-Qaeda has a “deep bench” should, therefore, be understood in the context of al-Qaeda’s management style.33 Al-Qaeda’s success in replacing key leaders is to a considerable extent a product of its focus on professional development of junior commanders.
Within the analytic community, Al-Qaeda’s decentralized operational model has created confusion about the relative influence of its senior leadership. The hands-off role played by bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda commanders in operational planning has often been interpreted, especially in the post-9/11 era, as a sign of a growing disconnect between al-Qaeda’s leadership and regional affiliates.34 This interpretation, however, fundamentally misconstrues the nature of al-Qaeda’s decision-making processes. By design, Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership is not intimately involved in the day-to-day operations of affiliates and cells across the globe. Measuring the leadership’s involvement in operational planning is thus an inaccurate means of assessing the leadership’s overall role in the global network. The extent to which the operations and actions implemented by al-Qaeda’s various affiliates align with and advance broader strategic aims is a more meaningful metric. As al-Qaeda’s founding documents make clear, the primary role of the emir—and, by extension, deputy emir and leadership council—is to craft a strategic vision through the development of annual plans, budgets and structures. Once this vision has been articulated, the emir is expected to serve in an oversight capacity, “following up on the work of supervisors in the leadership, executive and regional councils in implementing the plans and resolutions.”35 Here, a distinction can be drawn between the individual who reigns and the individual who rules. The emir reigns by serving as the supreme authority, while designated subordinates rule by setting and executing policy.
Bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have put this operational model into practice. They outline strategic priorities and guidelines, and give regional commanders broad leeway to adapt these priorities to local conditions. Many analysts, both in and outside government, have long argued that this management style has caused al-Qaeda to become increasingly decentralized and diffuse.36 But Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of the planners of the 1998 embassy bombings, presents a compelling counterargument. In his memoirs, Fazul claimed that al-Qaeda did possess a centralized organizational structure, but he distinguished al-Qaeda’s structure from “a dull form of centralization.” Fazul explained that “each person in al-Qaeda is responsible for his own work and has complete authority to carry out his tasks.”37 Assaf Moghadam has similarly argued that al-Qaeda’s management style is top down, in the sense that the top requires the bottom to execute missions. In other words, authority to carry forth a plan is delegated to subordinates.38 (You might recall that Moghadam was quoted earlier in this article explaining that al-Qaeda’s management model encourages bottom-up innovation. Far from contradicting himself, his point is that, for al-Qaeda, “innovation was a multi-directional process,” with both bottom-up and top-down elements.)39
Al-Qaeda operates more efficiently by empowering middle managers and junior commanders. On the one hand, this arrangement certainly creates opportunities for rogue subordinates to disobey the leadership’s dictates, a risk that has materialized in the occasional heated dispute between senior leadership and affiliates. In the case of the Islamic State (ISIS), there was a complete break between the leadership and an affiliate. But on the other hand, this structure can also—perhaps counterintuitively—amplify the influence of al-Qaeda’s leadership. When commanders responsible for implementation adhere to the strategic guidelines articulated by the leadership, al-Qaeda’s power projection capabilities are enhanced beyond what the leadership, on its own would, have been able to achieve.
To assess al-Qaeda Central’s command and control capabilities within its existing organizational framework, two factors are relevant. The first factor concerns al-Qaeda’s capacity for vertical communication, the organization’s ability to disseminate information between different levels of its hierarchy. Al-Qaeda’s senior leaders need to be able to communicate effectively with subordinates to ensure that decisions made at the operational level align with and support overarching objectives. Communication from subordinates to leadership is also essential. Though al-Qaeda’s battlefield commanders are given broad flexibility in adapting strategic plans, they still need to be able to engage with their superiors to convey changes in the operating environment and to discuss future plans. If vertical communication is disrupted or too sporadic, command and control capabilities will be compromised, opening up greater possibilities for operational commanders to deviate from al-Qaeda’s strategic priorities.
The second factor relates to al-Qaeda’s ability to ensure that subordinates act in a manner consistent with the group’s strategic interests. Al-Qaeda’s organizational model makes it susceptible to preference divergence. That is, the interests of actors tasked with implementing al-Qaeda’s strategic plan may be incongruent with those of the leadership, which designed the plan.40 Some degree of preference divergence is inevitable, as actors in different operating environments will have different priorities and concerns. Problems emerge when operational commanders undercut al-Qaeda’s broader objectives by consistently making decisions that further their own interests and contradict the leadership’s guidelines. In most organizations, this conflict between principal (al-Qaeda’s leadership) and agent (battlefield commanders) exists, but in al-Qaeda’s case, it is particularly pronounced. This is because the leadership delegates considerable responsibility to subordinates, and has constraints on its enforcement power outside its small geographic stronghold.
In order to contain and effectively manage preference divergence, Al-Qaeda leadership must carefully adhere to its organizational procedures while also retaining the loyalty of its subordinates. Before 9/11, al-Qaeda’s leadership systematically criticized and sanctioned operational commanders who strayed from strategic guidelines.41 Over time, however, al-Qaeda Central has become less able to effectively discipline its affiliates. The task of disciplining has grown more difficult as the organization continues to expand geographically to include more affiliates. Al-Qaeda Central’s reduced financial leverage also limits its direct coercive power over subordinates. Furthermore, since 9/11, al-Qaeda’s senior leadership has had to dedicate attention to protecting itself, as it is a major target of counterterrorism efforts. Notwithstanding these challenges, a public reprimand from a senior al-Qaeda leader still carries considerable weight in the organization.
Al-Qaeda cultivates loyalty and allegiance amongst its affiliates in order to manage the risk of preference divergence. Over the course of several decades, al-Qaeda’s leaders have built enduring relationships with jihadists across the globe. These personal relationships, which are often solidified on the battlefield or through marriage and extended family networks, serve as a binding force and a buffer against disobedience in al-Qaeda’s ranks. Al-Qaeda has been effective in building a brand and mission to which its affiliates are generally strongly committed. This allegiance has been a powerful source of organizational cohesion and one that analysts have underestimated. For example, analysts massively overestimated the draw of ISIS during its competition with al-Qaeda, which led them to overstate the likelihood of al-Qaeda branches defecting to their jihadist rival in between 2014 and 2016.42
In cultivating loyalty and allegiance amongst its affiliates, al-Qaeda Central gains indirect coercive power. A jihadist group that defects from al-Qaeda or clashes with its leadership may be unable to establish new relationships with regional jihadist groups that remain aligned with al-Qaeda. Both al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Shabaab, for example, helped to bolster Boko Haram organizationally when the Nigerian government cracked down on it in 2009. Boko Haram subsequently defected to ISIS in 2015, a decision that may have impeded its ability to be succored by al-Qaeda-aligned jihadist organizations, particularly when the group confronted a four-country offensive against it.43
The history of al-Qaeda’s organizational structure is one of a struggle to maintain robust networks of communication, effectively discipline affiliates, and encourage unity in the face of significant internal and external challenges. As state actors improved their electronic surveillance capabilities, al-Qaeda’s ability to communicate across its network was noticeably impeded. Repeated physical displacement took its toll on the organization’s cohesion. Internal dissent has, at times, threatened to tear the organization apart. Despite these disruptions, however, the foundational organizational structure upon which al-Qaeda was built has remained intact. Indeed, al-Qaeda has frequently defied analysts’ predictions, and demonstrated the effectiveness of the “centralization of decision and decentralization of execution” model.
The First Test
It is often assumed that al-Qaeda’s organizational cohesion was first threatened following the United States invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, but the first real test of al-Qaeda’s resilience actually occurred about a decade earlier. In 1989, bin Laden became persona non grata in Pakistan after he allegedly bribed parliamentarians to support a no-confidence vote against the government of Benazir Bhutto.44Following bin Laden’s return to Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda’s infrastructure in Afghanistan and Pakistan remained largely intact only for a short time. Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri and Abu Hafs al-Masri, both skilled Egyptian military commanders, ran the organization’s training camps after bin Laden left.45 But as tensions between mujahedin factions escalated into violence in 1992, after Mohammad Najibullah’s Communist government collapsed, Arab militants began leaving Afghanistan (though quite a few remained and thrived there). Another significant blow to al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan-Pakistan network came in 1993, when the Pakistani government, in response to accusations that it was harboring terrorists, began expelling Arabs from the country.46These two events significantly diminished al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan-Pakistan safe haven.
Al-Qaeda adapted to this setback relatively quickly, largely by shifting its operational hub to Sudan, where bin Laden had been living since 1992. From Sudan, bin Laden and other al-Qaeda commanders strengthened the organization through three lines of effort. First, bin Laden increased al-Qaeda’s involvement in Sudan’s licit economy through investments in the agricultural and construction industries.47 Second, al-Qaeda attempted to solidify relationships with other jihadist groups harbored in Sudan, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), two groups that had had previous contact with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. These efforts to build bridges with other jihadist groups had mixed success during this period. The third and most important effort to strengthen the organization involved its international outreach efforts. Working through small reconnaissance teams and front organizations like those provided by the Benevolence International Foundation, al-Qaeda developed relations with like-minded militant groups, and assisted jihadists fighting military campaigns across the globe. As the 9/11 Commission Report explains, bin Laden accomplished this through the creation of what he dubbed the Islamic Army Shura:
In Sudan, he established an “Islamic Army Shura” that was to serve as the coordinating body for the consortium of terrorist groups with which he was forging alliances. It was composed of his own al Qaeda Shura together with leaders or representatives of terrorist organizations that were still independent. In building this Islamic army, he enlisted groups from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Oman, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Somalia, and Eritrea. Al Qaeda also established cooperative but less formal relationships with other extremist groups from these same countries; from the African states of Chad, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Uganda; and from the Southeast Asian states of Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Bin Ladin maintained connections in the Bosnian conflict as well. The groundwork for a true global terrorist network was being laid.48
These nascent engagements laid the groundwork for al-Qaeda’s later efforts to further expand through affiliations with jihadist groups across the globe.
One of al-Qaeda’s more robust international outreach efforts during this period took place in the Horn of Africa. In late 1992, bin Laden deployed a team of operatives, led by the Egyptian Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, to develop a new safe haven for al-Qaeda in the region. The Horn of Africa was to be used as a staging ground for operations in the Arabian Peninsula.49 Over the next few years, al-Qaeda sought to embed itself within the Somali militant landscape, and build operational and support networks in the region.50 The networks and relationships that al-Qaeda developed in East Africa in the early 1990s would prove useful several years later, when al-Qaeda deployed a new team to plan attacks against United States interests in the region. Their efforts ultimately led to the bombing of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and also created the basis for the emergence of Somalia-based militant groups. Among these groups were the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and al-Qaeda’s powerful Somali affiliate al-Shabaab, which itself grew out of the ICU’s youth wing.51 Despite the early challenges, al-Qaeda’s efforts in the Horn of Africa were overwhelmingly successful over the long term.
Contemporary analysts took a dim view of al-Qaeda’s organizational structure during the group’s time in Sudan, and of the jihadist movement’s cohesion during this period. A 1995 National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the jihadist movement was composed of “transient groupings of individuals” that lacked “b> organization but rather are loose affiliations.”52 Some United States officials also viewed bin Laden as a bit player on the jihadist scene, an ambitious and wealthy individual who gained little by throwing around his money. In 1998, Vince Cannistraro, who held a senior position at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center until 1991, claimed that “a group can con someone like bin Laden for funds to carry out an operation on an individual basis… And [bin Laden] will do it as long as it fits with his religious objectives.”53 These dismissive assessments of al-Qaeda and bin Laden both during and just after his time in Sudan mark the first, but not the last occasion on which the analytic community underestimated the al-Qaeda organization. It should be noted that al-Qaeda’s organizational structure was, indeed, less robust, and its membership roll smaller, than would be the case after it moved back to Afghanistan. Even so, al-Qaeda proved capable of organizing international operations, fundraising for jihadist campaigns across the globe, and facilitating military training.
Court testimony given by Jamal al-Fadl, an al-Qaeda member who became an informant for the United States government after embezzling over $100,000 from the jihadist organization, provides insight into al-Qaeda’s reach and capabilities during its time in Sudan. Al-Fadl’s testimony indicates that the group was intimately involved in moving recruits, weapons, and materiel to battlefields across the globe. For instance, al-Fadl explained that al-Qaeda operated an office in Baku that purchased weapons and supplies, and smuggled materiel and recruits into Chechnya.54 To avoid drawing attention to its activities in Chechnya, al-Qaeda worked through the Benevolence International Foundation (BIF), which functioned as one of its front organizations in Baku. BIF also played a major role in supporting jihadist actors in Bosnia. The organization produced propaganda materials aimed at attracting donors to the Bosnia conflict; purchased weapons and other military material; provided financial support to the families of militants fighting in Bosnia; and organized training camps for local and foreign fighters.55
The strengths of al-Qaeda’s organizational capabilities in Sudan are further evidenced by its ability to adapt to different contexts, and sustain military training under difficult circumstances. According to al-Fadl, the Sudanese government grew leery of allowing al-Qaeda to conduct robust training programs in Sudan. This was likely due to the political fallout with the Egyptian government following the unsuccessful assassination attempt on Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak in June 1995, which was linked to Sudan-based Egyptian militants.56Nonetheless, al-Qaeda, in tandem with other militant groups that sought refuge in Sudan, was able to establish several training facilities there. Al-Fadl noted that these facilities primarily provided refresher courses to militants who already had battlefield experience. Al-Qaeda also used its camps in Sudan to test chemical weapons, which, if developed, were to be provided to the Sudanese government to support its fight against rebels in southern Sudan.57 Along with their work in Sudan, al-Qaeda operatives maintained a training presence in eastern Afghanistan despite the group’s aforementioned reduction in presence in the country, provided assistance to Islamist militant groups in Somalia, and received training from Hizballah operatives in southern Lebanon.58 Thus, while it was based in Sudan, al-Qaeda conducted training in multiple countries, tailoring its activities to the demands and challenges of the local environments in which it operated.
Al-Qaeda’s international operations and growing profile ultimately drew unwanted attention to its presence in Sudan. As a result, in 1996, the Sudanese government, facing pressure from the United States and other countries, demanded that al-Qaeda leave the country. Losing its Sudanese safe haven was a setback, but the organizational infrastructure and global network that al-Qaeda had cultivated served as a foundation, which the jihadist group would continue to build upon its return to Afghanistan.
The Jihadist Behemoth
In Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, al-Qaeda reached its high point as a hierarchical and bureaucratic organization. Operating from safe havens in southern and eastern Afghanistan, al-Qaeda further professionalized its bureaucratic structure and established a comprehensive, multi-phased training process for members and recruits. The infrastructure that al-Qaeda developed in Afghanistan allowed it to absorb hundreds of new recruits, improve the capabilities of current members, and orchestrate a series of complex operations, most prominently the 9/11 attacks. As al-Qaeda’s bureaucratic structure expanded, it retained the “centralization of decision and decentralization of execution” management model, and remained agile and innovative.
While the move to Afghanistan would eventually be a boon to al-Qaeda, the transition from Sudan was fraught with challenges. Al-Qaeda had to invest significant resources in rebuilding training camps in Afghanistan, while simultaneously navigating the country’s volatile political landscape. The power of some mujahedin commanders with whom al-Qaeda had developed a close rapport had waned, while the Taliban rapidly gained territory. Al-Qaeda also encountered financial difficulties as it relocated. Some of bin Laden’s assets in Sudan—over $30 million, according to one estimate59—were frozen when he left for Afghanistan, which offered few new economic opportunities.
Al-Qaeda’s successful expansion in the face of these obstacles is testament to its resilience. Within four years of moving to Afghanistan, al-Qaeda had established an extensive network of training camps that offered courses in explosives-making, guerilla warfare, and document forgery, among other specialties. Al-Qaeda also offered train-the-trainer courses aimed at enhancing its own capabilities, as well as those of other militant groups.60 As al-Qaeda’s network of training camps grew, senior leaders considered how they could improve management of the organization’s expanding activities. In a letter written in November 1998, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, a senior al-Qaeda member and a trainer at several camps, urged prominent Egyptian military commander Saif al-Adel to establish a personnel management system to document incoming recruits and current members.61 Al-Iraqi noted that each member’s personnel file should include information on training and battlefield experience, as well as performance assessments from supervisors. This system, al-Iraqi hoped, would prevent an arbitrary promotion process, and streamline the handling of new recruits.
Numerous documents discovered after 9/11 demonstrate that al-Qaeda implemented al-Iraqi’s recommendations and also sought to further professionalize its personnel system. One document that provides insight into al-Qaeda’s bureaucratic practices is an application filled out by José Padilla, an American-born convert, in July 2000.62 This document, which was issued by the personnel branch of al-Qaeda’s military wing, required Padilla to provide information on his educational and religious background, foreign travels, health status and military experience, among other things. It also included a section to be filled out by al-Qaeda administrators, which required information on Padilla’s passport, visa and ticket status.
Wall Street Journal reporter Alan Cullison, who serendipitously obtained two of al-Qaeda’s most valuable computers after damage to his own laptop forced him to get to know Kabul’s computer dealers, discovered further evidence of al-Qaeda’s meticulous administrative practices.63Cullison explained that al-Qaeda’s digital files included a “network of folders and subfolders that neatly laid out the group’s organizational structure,” and discussed “budgets, training manuals for recruits, and scouting reports for international attacks.”64 Al-Qaeda integrated these bureaucratic processes into its day-to-day operations. Anne Stenersen notes that recruits had to pre-register for training camps at the Office of Mujahedin Affairs, before reporting to their camp on a “designated date.”65
The extensive training and organizational infrastructure that al-Qaeda developed in Afghanistan was integral to the organization’s efforts to expand its membership ranks. In the pre-9/11 period, al-Qaeda was one of several jihadist groups competing for recruits in Afghanistan. According to Abu Musab al-Suri’s estimate, fourteen different groups operated training camps in the country by the end of 1999.66 Al-Qaeda’s capacity to absorb new recruits, however, was superior to that of other groups. Al-Qaeda’s training programs were also more comprehensive, and its trainers more experienced, than what other militant groups offered.67 Moreover, al-Qaeda’s transnational vision appealed to fighters of all nationalities. For these reasons, al-Qaeda was able to capitalize on the influx of new recruits streaming into Afghanistan after the 1998 Embassy attacks.
From its safe haven in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda engaged in organizational learning and improved its operational capabilities. Cullison found that al-Qaeda operatives discussing sensitive operational issues used code words and a cryptographic system to communicate. Though al-Qaeda’s cryptographic system was rather basic, it still required coordination, indicating that the organization had established standard operating procedures for internal communications. One of the more chilling documents on the computers discussed al-Qaeda’s nascent efforts to develop a biological and chemical weapons program. In a letter to Abu Hafs al-Masri, Ayman al-Zawahiri outlined the “destructive power” of these weapons, and provided a brief review of articles that could help al-Qaeda improve its unconventional weapons capabilities.68 American forces later discovered a videotape documenting al-Qaeda testing chemical weapons on dogs.69
As al-Qaeda’s bureaucracy became more professionalized, it encountered an issue familiar to many growing organizations: micro-management. In one letter stored in the data files recovered by Cullison, Zawahiri took a Yemeni operative to task for failing to provide a comprehensive accounting of recent expenses. Zawahiri’s criticisms included questions about why the Yemeni had renovated a computer and bought a new fax machine, when, according to Zawahiri, the Yemeni cell already had two fax machines.70
Micro-management aside, al-Qaeda sought to maintain a culture wherein lower-level commanders were empowered to take initiative and shape the implementation of strategic plans. Indeed, the story behind the conception of the 9/11 attacks illustrates al-Qaeda’s efforts to maintain a bottom-up innovation model even as it pursued greater bureaucratization. In 1996, as al-Qaeda was getting settled in Afghanistan, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed approached bin Laden with a grandiose plan to hijack planes and crash them into prominent buildings in the United States.71 Bin Laden initially rejected Mohammed’s proposal, reportedly because al-Qaeda lacked the necessary funds. By early 1999, however, al-Qaeda had received an infusion of money from external sources, and when Mohammed approached bin Laden again with a less ambitious version of his initial plan, he was given a green light to proceed.72
Other al-Qaeda operatives were similarly empowered to innovate and think creatively about external operations planning. Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the mastermind behind the USS Cole attack, was first dispatched to Yemen in 1998, and tasked with scoping out potential American targets. Over the next two years, Nashiri conducted reconnaissance and built his network in Yemen, regularly returning to Afghanistan to report to bin Laden. Bin Laden assisted Nashiri in his operational planning—when Nashiri struggled to find United States naval vessels off the western coast of Yemen, bin Laden suggested that he instead focus on the Port of Aden—but Nashiri “retained discretion in selecting operatives and devising attacks,” according to the 9/11 Commission Report.73
A close review of the three most prominent attacks engineered by al-Qaeda while the group was in Afghanistan—the 1998 Embassy bombings, the USS Cole attack, and the 9/11 operation—reveals another aspect of the organization’s management approach. The 9/11 Commission Report indicates that bin Laden personally selected the hijackers who would carry out that operation. Similarly, bin Laden attempted to replace the operatives whom Nashiri selected to carry out the USS Cole attack, though he was ultimately rebuffed by Nashiri.74These two actions seem to contradict al-Qaeda’s principle of “decentralization of implementation,” since picking foot soldiers for an attack is generally assumed to be a responsibility of the field commander. But bin Laden’s involvement in selecting operatives for these plots may in fact reinforce, rather than undercut, the al-Qaeda leadership’s hands-off approach to operational planning. Bin Laden planned to delegate almost all responsibilities for coordinating and preparing attacks to subordinates, but he had to ensure that the individuals who assumed these duties were competent and trustworthy. Hand picking operatives for an attack, therefore, was an exercise in quality assurance. That bin Laden appears not to have involved himself in selecting operatives for the 1998 embassy attacks may imply that he did not deem it necessary.75 At the time, al-Qaeda’s East Africa network was directed by Abu Muhammad al-Masri, one of the jihadist organization’s original members. He had been operating in East Africa for several years by that point, and had likely earned bin Laden’s confidence long before the attacks were launched. The logic behind selecting operatives for the aforementioned attacks is similar to that behind al-Qaeda leadership’s current involvement in picking or, at least, approving the emirs of regional affiliates.76
Despite al-Qaeda’s continued efforts to support decentralization of implementation, there should be little doubt that al-Qaeda functioned as a hierarchical, and increasingly professional, organization during its later years in Afghanistan. Yet some observers continued to view al-Qaeda as a diffuse network, and discounted its organizational capacity. Perhaps the most misleading characterization of how al-Qaeda functioned at the time appeared in a January 2000 New Yorker profile of bin Laden, which claimed that al-Qaeda lacked a robust internal structure.77 The article included several quotes from former State Department counterterrorism official David Long, who argued that al-Qaeda resembled “an informal brotherhood [rather than] a clear, sterling network,” and asserted that the group was best understood as a “clearing house from which other groups elicit funds, training, and logistical support.”78
The tendency among some government officials to downplay al-Qaeda’s organizational structure and capacity may have affected the ability of the United States intelligence community to anticipate a complex operation like 9/11. Some pre-9/11 intelligence assessments did make note of al-Qaeda’s training activities and budding organizational structure. For example, one CIA report, entitled Afghanistan: An Incubator for International Terrorism, determined that Afghanistan “provide[d] bin Laden a relatively safe operating environment to oversee his organization’s worldwide terrorist activities,” and emphasized that training camps in the country “form the foundation of the worldwide mujahidin network.”79 While desk officers at the CIA and other agencies documented al-Qaeda’s increasingly sophisticated training activities, it is not evident that senior policymakers fully appreciated “the gravity of the threat.”80 As the 9/11 Commission Report explained, government officials were still debating whether al-Qaeda was “a big deal” as late as September 4, 2001.81
Unsurprisingly, the 9/11 attacks eliminated any doubt about al-Qaeda’s capabilities. The attacks also quickly rendered obsolete the paradigm that had governed al-Qaeda’s activities and capabilities prior to September 2001. The United States invasion of Afghanistan rapidly dismantled al-Qaeda’s physical infrastructure, and disrupted the bureaucracy that the group had spent years building. Al-Qaeda’s senior leaders scattered across the Middle East and South Asia.
Remarkably, Al-Qaeda adapted to these challenges, maintaining its organizational cohesion and decision-making approach at the same time that it expanded its geographical presence and reach. The organization that analysts confronted in the aftermath of 9/11, however, would be significantly more difficult to interpret than the organization that had operated prior to 9/11.
Al-Qaeda in Flux
In November 2002, several senior al-Qaeda leaders and associates gathered for a meeting in Iran, where the organization had found space to continue operating after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.82 While the meeting was not a full gathering of al-Qaeda’s shura council—bin Laden, Zawahiri and other top members were in Pakistan at the time—it nonetheless marked a rare occasion on which multiple al-Qaeda leaders convened in person to discuss the organization’s affairs. One participant was Abu Musab al-Suri, who had urged al-Qaeda to cease planning external operations while the group was under the protection of the Taliban.83 Suri’s concerns about what would happen if al-Qaeda launched a major attack from Afghanistan had been borne out in the aftermath of 9/11. As he had predicted, the Taliban’s emirate collapsed following the United States invasion and al-Qaeda’s training camp infrastructure was crushed along with it. By the time of the November 2002 meeting in Iran, American and allied forces were hunting down al-Qaeda’s members.84 By then, several prominent jihadists, including general manager Abu Hafs al-Masri, had been killed or captured. Suri believed that under these circumstances, al-Qaeda could not survive as a centralized organization. He proposed that al-Qaeda dismantle its hierarchy, disperse its networks across the globe, and pursue a model of leaderless jihad, where individuals and small cells that were not directed by al-Qaeda would assume responsibility for continuing the military campaign.
Suri presented this proposal for leaderless jihad at what was likely the most vulnerable point in al-Qaeda’s history. Its leaders were dispersed and inter-organizational communication was growing increasingly perilous as the United States ramped up its electronic surveillance capabilities. United States Special Forces routinely conducted raids to kill or capture al-Qaeda commanders and used information gathered during one operation to prompt additional raids. A leaderless organizational model, which would have permitted members to sever ties with one another and operate autonomously, may have addressed these issues.
The fact that al-Qaeda did not adopt Suri’s proposal and has never considered such a policy since the November 2002 meeting in Iran is significant. Even when its organizational structure was under immense strain, al-Qaeda’s leadership never considered using its diminished influence as a justification for transforming the organization into a decentralized movement. Doing so would contradict its raison d’être. As the self-styled vanguard of the global jihadist revolution, al-Qaeda considers its strategic and ideological guidance essential to the global movement. In Zawahiri’s words, al-Qaeda must serve as the “organization and leadership leading change.”85
Instead of dismantling its hierarchy in the aftermath of the United States invasion of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s leadership regrouped. The best account of how al-Qaeda members escaped Afghanistan comes from Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark’s The Exile, a 2017 book that draws heavily from primary sources, including interviews with al-Qaeda members and associates. Levy and Scott-Clark found that most al-Qaeda members moved to one of three locations: Iran, the tribal areas of western Pakistan, and cities in the Pakistani provinces of Sindh and Punjab.
One group of al-Qaeda members, which included security chief Saif al-Adel, Abu Muhammed al-Masri (a key figure in the 1998 Embassy bombings), and Abu Khayr al-Masri, fled first to Pakistan, and then made its way to Iran via Quetta Province.86 Iran provided these militants a refuge from American forces, but also closely monitored their activities. The Iranian government’s relationship with al-Qaeda militants would oscillate over time. Though a complete story of the relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda has yet to be told, it is clear that the al-Qaeda contingent in Iran was often effectively incarcerated. Even under these controlled conditions, however, these al-Qaeda operatives managed to maintain frequent communications with their counterparts elsewhere,87 helped to facilitate the movement of fighters and funds between different conflict zones,88 and were even involved in directing attacks.89
A second contingent of al-Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan found refuge in the tribal areas of western Pakistan, which would eventually become al-Qaeda’s new global command hub. Hassan Ghul, an al-Qaeda facilitator arrested by the United States in early 2004, told American officials that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi and over 200 al-Qaeda fighters and associates had settled in the Shakai Valley in South Waziristan. This region was also home to Nek Mohammed, a Pakistani militant and al-Qaeda sympathizer who had become a major irritant to the Pakistani military.90 The Pakistani military and American drones targeted al-Qaeda safe havens in the tribal areas, forcing Zawahiri and his contingent out of the Shakai Valley. These al-Qaeda members were forced to resettle numerous times, but even as they moved locations, Zawahiri and other senior operatives continued to coordinate with al-Qaeda commanders outside the tribal areas. They coordinated, for example, with bin Laden, who himself had bounced between safe houses in Pakistan before settling in Abbottabad in 2005. They also oversaw the al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Middle East.
A key node in this transnational network was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is believed to have taken over al-Qaeda’s external operations portfolio after the 9/11 attacks. Mohammed, drawing on pre-existing relationships with Pakistani militant groups and kinship ties with members of his Baluch ethnic group, developed a robust operational network based in Karachi and extending to cities across Pakistan. Almost immediately after 9/11, Mohammed mobilized the cells under his command, which executed a series of attacks across the globe. This network was eventually degraded, as Pakistani and United States operatives successfully worked their way through Mohammed’s couriers and facilitators, before finally ensnaring Mohammed himself in 2003. But Mohammed’s frenetic planning in the months leading up to his arrest demonstrated that al-Qaeda had retained its external operations capabilities despite having been displaced from Afghanistan.
That al-Qaeda managed to survive and then rebuild its organization after 9/11 reflects the organization’s penchant for adaptability. For instance, it quickly recognized that American and allied forces often identified operatives who used mobile phones. Many al-Qaeda members, including bin Laden, thus eschewed cell phones in favor of human couriers, radios and the like.91 For his part, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed secured his communications and protected his network by constantly switching sim cards in his cell phone, rotating between a vast number of safe houses, relying heavily on couriers and using email dead drops.92 Through these adaptations, al-Qaeda slowed the disruption of its network. The adaptations, though, also came at a cost to information flow within the organization, making it more difficult to coordinate strategy internally. This underscores the tension between security and efficiency that jihadist groups confront.93
Also contributing to al-Qaeda’s resurgence was the manner in which the group exploited territorial safe havens. The tribal areas of Pakistan offered an ideal location to rebuild the organization and reestablish structured decision-making processes. In the immediate post-9/11 period, the Pakistani army was reluctant to intervene in the tribal areas, and proved to be largely ineffective when it conducted military operations there. The ability of the United States to collect and act on intelligence in the tribal areas was also limited. Moreover, some of the local Pakistani population was sympathetic to the Arabic-speaking foreigners who sought shelter and protection there after the United States invasion of Afghanistan. In the tribal areas, therefore, al-Qaeda found a permissive environment in which to operate. Al-Qaeda commanders could conduct in-person meetings, reinitiate training exercises, and plan military operations without attracting the attention of counterterrorism forces.
Strategic errors that the United States committed during the early years of the “global war on terror” further enabled al-Qaeda to rebuild itself. The most glaring mistake was the diversion of critical resources from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iraq. The negative consequences of the invasion of Iraq from a counterterrorism perspective are well established, and do not need to be reiterated here at length. Still, it is worth noting that the United States began to shift counterterrorism resources to Iraq in late 2002, several months before the invasion—and at a time when the hunt for al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan was just gaining momentum. This decision to divert resources away from Afghanistan and to Iraq slowed the hunt for al-Qaeda commanders still on the lam. According to retired general Wayne Downing, who helped lead the post-9/11 counterterrorism campaign, it left “reams of material waiting to be exploited.”94
The organizational structure to which al-Qaeda adhered was a final factor contributing to its recovery. United States officials continuously overestimated the strategic impact of the death or capture of al-Qaeda leaders. After the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), for instance, Porter Goss, then-chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, declared that “the tide has turned in terms of al-Qaeda.”95 It is true that the capture of Mohammed helped slow al-Qaeda’s external operations, given his outsize role in coordinating and supporting attacks across the globe. But the U.S. government has consistently overestimated the impact that the loss of a single leader, regardless of how senior, would have on al-Qaeda’s organizational capacity. Al-Qaeda had cultivated a cadre of skilled commanders in Afghanistan, many of whom gained battlefield experience fighting against the Northern Alliance. Al-Qaeda’s “deep bench” allowed the group to replace commanders who had been taken off the battlefield without sacrificing institutional knowledge or suffering major disruptions to its operations.
Al-Qaeda’s External Operations Chiefs After KSM
Head of External Operations
|Abu Hamza Rabia96||2003-2005|
|Abu Ubaydah al-Masri97||2005-2007|
Other key post-KSM external operations planners include Younis al-Mauritani, Abd al-Rahim al-Sharqi, and Faruq al-Qahtani.99 Many analysts, however, have discounted al-Qaeda’s structural resilience, and have argued that its post-9/11 losses heralded the organization’s collapse. Journalist Jason Burke articulated an extreme version of this theory, claiming that al-Qaeda as an organization had “existed for a short period, between 1996 and 2001,” and met its demise in the mountains of Tora Bora in late 2001. Al-Qaeda had been replaced by “a broad and diverse movement of radical Islamic militancy,” according to Burke.100
While more extreme than widely held contemporary views of al-Qaeda, Burke’s argument relates to another theory about al-Qaeda that retains some popularity among analysts. This theory holds that al-Qaeda had evolved from a hierarchical organization into a networked social movement. According to this theory, after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s leaders no longer maintained and commanded a formal organizational structure. Instead, bin Laden and others served as spiritual and ideological guides for a motley crew of militant groups, small cells and radicalized individuals, all of which adhered to a salafi jihadist worldview but maintained their own parochial interests.
There were important implications of this networked social movement theory for jihadist strategy. Decentralized movements, especially those that are transnational, do not possess the organizational structure, communications capabilities, and internal discipline needed to coordinate and pursue a common strategy. Adherents to such movements share a common worldview, but both their goals and their means of pursuing those goals differ and may even conflict with one another. In short, an implication of this argument was that as al-Qaeda’s organizational structure withered, the jihadist movement would no longer have an actor able to coordinate the activities of disparate groups and cells.
This theory of al-Qaeda as a social movement became the prevailing wisdom within the analytic community within a few years the 9/11 attacks. An August 2003 symposium featuring five RAND Corporation terrorism scholars and produced in coordination with FrontPage Magazine (a publication that was then less strident than is the case in 2018), illustrates the prevalence of this view. When the symposium moderator asked panelists how to define al-Qaeda, almost all of them offered some version of the social movement theory.101 To William Rosenau, al-Qaeda was a “worldview, not an organization.” John Parachini argued that since 9/11 al-Qaeda had “evolved from a loosely aligned network of militant Islamic terrorists who shared the formative experience of expelling Soviet forces from Afghanistan to a movement with adherents around the world enabling a global reach.” Even Bruce Hoffman—who, as we referenced in our introduction, is well known for his arguments against the leaderless jihad hypothesis—said, “Al Qaeda is an ideology more than army; a transnational movement and umbrella-like organization, not a monolithic entity.”102 Although Rohan Gunaratna had produced a rather comprehensive account of al-Qaeda’s pre-9/11 organizational structure, by 2004 he suggested that al-Qaeda had fulfilled its goal of spearheading a jihadist uprising, and had transformed into a movement.103
The “al-Qaeda as a movement” theory is flawed, because it relies on incomplete and inaccurate information about the organization. The theory is based on the assumption that al-Qaeda had no involvement in several prominent terrorist attacks carried out between 2001 and 2004, and that these attacks were, instead, orchestrated by local militant groups that shared a common worldview with al-Qaeda but little else. These attacks include the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2002 attacks on an Israeli-owned hotel and airline in Mombasa, multiple attacks in Turkey in 2003, the 2003 Riyadh bombings, and the 2004 Madrid bombings. The claim that al-Qaeda was not involved in these attacks appears less credible when each attack is scrutinized:
- Hambali, the 2002 Bali bombings mastermind, admitted in interrogations that al-Qaeda provided $30,000 to fund the attack, and gave him another $100,000 afterward to support new operations.104
- The suicide bomber who killed 19 in an attack on the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba was in regular contact with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Christian Ganczarski, an al-Qaeda member who maintained close ties with bin Laden, Saif al-Adel and Abu Hafs al-Masri.105
- Al-Qaeda’s East African network, which was led by Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and answered directly to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, perpetrated the Mombasa attacks.106
- The operatives who carried out the 2003 bombings in Turkey had met with bin Laden and Abu Hafs al-Masri in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, and had received training in bomb construction during that time. Luayy Sakka, a veteran al-Qaeda member who also maintained close ties with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, financed the operations, and housed some of the operatives who fled Turkey to Syria after the attacks.107
- An al-Qaeda cell in Yemen, which had been operating in the country prior to 9/11 and had perpetrated the USS Cole attack, carried out the 2003 Riyadh bombings. Those bombings may in fact have been ordered by Saif al-Adel and other al-Qaeda commanders based in Iran.108
- Fernando Reinares, Spain’s foremost scholar of jihadism, has documented al-Qaeda’s role in supporting and approving the Madrid attacks at length in his 2014 book Al-Qaeda’s Revenge.109
While the degree of al-Qaeda’s importance differs from one plot to another, some of the aforementioned attacks clearly reflected the creativity and expertise of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Though KSMenjoyed significant autonomy while he was in Karachi, he continued to coordinate with and seek approval from bin Laden. According to The Exile, bin Laden surreptitiously traveled to Karachi in late 2001 to meet with Mohammed.110 During these meetings, bin Laden and KSMdiscussed current and future operational planning, and bin Laden signed off on a plot to hijack planes and crash them into Heathrow airport.111 Bin Laden allegedly also met with Richard Reid and Saajid Badat in Karachi before they departed for Europe, where they were charged with bringing down planes by detonating bombs implanted in their shoes.112 Bin Laden’s trip to Karachi indicated that the al-Qaeda emir maintained some degree of influence over external operations even while the organization had made a strategic decision to significantly limit its communications in an effort to avoid detection. (It also highlights his extraordinary freedom of movement in the settled areas of Pakistan.)
At best, the premises upon which the theory that al-Qaeda had been transformed into a movement are based are oversimplified. Recently declassified evidence recovered from bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout cuts against this hypothesis. Al-Qaeda actually played a role in most of the major jihadist attacks that occurred between late 2001 and 2005. The organization leveraged its financial, logistical and operational networks to enable and direct attacks on multiple continents. Sometimes, however, al-Qaeda’s involvement in plots was not discovered until months or even years after the attacks occurred.
Even as new evidence emerged that contradicted the “al-Qaeda as a movement” theory, the theory continued to flourish, clouding future analysis. The notion that al-Qaeda’s organizational structure had been dismantled featured heavily in the investigation into the July 7, 2005 terrorist attacks on London’s mass transit system. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw noted on the day of the attacks that the bombings bore “the hallmarks” of al-Qaeda.113 A subsequent New York Times article about the investigation, however, noted that many intelligence officials interviewed described al-Qaeda as a “badly hobbled, barely functioning organization.” A senior counterterrorism official claimed, “Al Qaeda is finished. But there is Al Qaedaism. This is a powerful ideology that drives local groups to do what they think Osama bin Laden wants.”114 Some intelligence services considered Abu Musab al-Suri’s Call to Global Islamic Resistance to be the new blueprint for the jihadist movement. This was the 1600-page treatise in which Suri articulated his theory of leaderless jihad, which, as explained earlier, al-Qaeda explicitly rejected.
Though intelligence agencies were initially skeptical that al-Qaeda possessed the organizational capacity to carry out the 7/7 attacks, subsequent evidence demonstrated that the group played a central role in the plot. Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, the ringleaders of the 7/7 cell, had traveled to Pakistan. There, they met with senior al-Qaeda member Abu Ubaydah al-Masri, who convinced the two men to carry out an attack in England. Rashid Rauf, a British al-Qaeda operative, then took responsibility for overseeing the logistical and operational aspects of the plot, remaining in contact with Tanweer and Khan after they returned to the UK, and coaching the men as they built their explosives.115 On the one-year anniversary of the bombings, Al Jazeera posted a video from al-Qaeda featuring footage of the attackers before they struck. Ayman al-Zawahiri appeared on the tape, explaining that Khan and Tanweer had visited an al-Qaeda camp “seeking martyrdom.” Comparing the revelations in this tape to the conclusions of officials’ inquiry into the 7/7 attacks, Bob Ayers, a security expert at London’s Chatham House think tank, commented, “It makes the police look pretty bad. It means the investigation was either wrong, or they identified links but were reluctant to reveal them.”116
A Global Organization
Despite evidence that connected the 7/7 attacks to al-Qaeda, the theory that al-Qaeda was organizationally fragmented remained popular. To the contrary, the theory gained new life as al-Qaeda embarked on its next phase of organizational development.
In bin Laden’s words, the Iraq war presented the organization a “golden and unique opportunity,” particularly at a time when al-Qaeda leadership was under immense pressure in Pakistan and Afghanistan.117 As the insurgency gained momentum, al-Qaeda recognized an opportunity to capitalize on widespread popular discontent, attack U.S. forces in Iraq, and galvanize a new generation of jihadists. Al-Qaeda’s decision to formalize its relationship with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s organization in 2004 was thus both opportunistic and prudent. The relationship between Zarqawi and al-Qaeda dated to the late 1990s, when al-Qaeda funded Zarqawi’s training camp in Herat, and had grown stronger after Zarqawi and his men fought alongside al-Qaeda members at the battle of Tora Bora. Senior leaders of al-Qaeda always had trepidations about Zarqawi. They harbored reservations about his background as a street thug, as well as his lack of formal education, and bin Laden found Zarqawi’s boisterous and brazen nature off-putting.118Ultimately, these concerns gave way to the attractive strategic position that Zarqawi had achieved in Iraq, as al-Qaeda’s senior leaders chose to capitalize on the robust network that Zarqawi had built. Zarqawi’s group became known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
Al-Qaeda’s senior leaders, however, quickly found themselves at odds with Zarqawi. Zarqawi’s proclivity for extreme violence, his reluctance to cooperate with other militant groups in Iraq, and his slaughters of the Iraqi Shia were all incongruent with al-Qaeda’s preferred methodology for the Iraq jihad. Fearing that al-Qaeda’s reputation in the Muslim world would be tarnished by AQI’s actions, al-Qaeda Central’s leaders sent at least two letters to Zarqawi counseling him to moderate his approach. In the first letter, Ayman al-Zawahiri urged Zarqawi to build public support, and to avoid inflaming tensions with the Shia.119Zawahiri was no pacifist—he advised Zarqawi to shoot prisoners rather than behead them—but he feared that Zarqawi’s proclivity for brutality would alienate the population. Zawahiri stated, “the strongest weapon which the mujahedeen enjoy … is popular support from the Muslim masses.” Jihadists, therefore, “must avoid any action that the masses do not understand or approve.” Later that year, senior al-Qaeda official Atiyah Abd al-Rahman wrote a harsher letter to Zarqawi echoing Zawahiri’s advice.120 Atiyah told Zarqawi that military policy was subordinate to political objectives, and exhorted the Jordan-born leader to rein in his violent tendencies or risk eroding public sympathy for al-Qaeda. He counseled Zarqawi to overlook the “mistakes and flaws” of the population, and to tolerate “a great deal of harm from them for the sake of not having them turn away and turn into enemies on any level.” He also criticized Zarqawi for failing to consult with al-Qaeda’s leadership before acting on any “comprehensive issues.”
The interactions between Al-Qaeda Central, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and AQI illustrate both the organizational opportunities and challenges that al-Qaeda faced then and continues to face now, as it continues to expand its geographical reach and formalize its relationship with allied jihadist groups across the globe. On the one hand, the strategy of developing alliances made it possible for al-Qaeda to project its influence into new theaters, demonstrate (or, in some cases, simply create the perception of) momentum, and expand the pool of resources on which it could draw. It also helped al-Qaeda move closer to its foundational goal of becoming the vanguard organization. Al-Qaeda could provide strategic and ideological guidance to organizations under its umbrella, thus giving it greater influence and control over the trajectory of the jihadist movement. On the other hand, this strategy complicated al-Qaeda’s efforts to maintain organizational cohesion and strategic unity.
One challenge that al-Qaeda encountered, for example, was its ability to establish and then maintain lines of communications with an ever-growing number of affiliates. While the organization employed couriers to communicate in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the courier strategy has proven riskier and less reliable when communicating with affiliates in Iraq and other countries further afield from the senior leadership. Couriers tasked with passing letters between al-Qaeda leadership and its affiliates were sometimes arrested, and the content of their communications were revealed to the public. In some cases, security conditions actually prevented al-Qaeda from dispatching envoys (who, in contrast to couriers, are formal representatives) to meet with affiliates. In his letter to Zarqawi, for example, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman explained that al-Qaeda’s leadership was unable to send an envoy to Iraq, and, therefore, encouraged Zarqawi to send a courier to Pakistan, instead, to reopen lines of communication.121 Zarqawi did send the requested courier, and al-Qaeda Central sent Zarqawi’s successor multiple envoys once the security situation improved.
The challenges associated with establishing reliable lines of communication increased the likelihood that al-Qaeda’s affiliates would deviate from the strategic course outlined by al-Qaeda Central. Affiliates could, in certain circumstances, also be left unaware of dictates issued by al-Qaeda Central, and thus, adopt measures that unintentionally undercut the interests of the organization as determined by senior leaders. Such communications barriers could similarly inhibit al-Qaeda Central’s ability to effectively advise affiliates on how to respond to events as they unfolded. This could then result in missed opportunities and strategic confusion. For affiliates that disagreed with and wanted to ignore strategic advice from al-Qaeda Central, real communications issues served as an ideal excuse for actions that contravened the dictates of senior leadership.
The decision to acquire affiliates also raised the possibility that al-Qaeda would experience preference divergence and strategic incoherence. Prior to its geographic expansion, the risk and potential impact of preference divergence between al-Qaeda and its affiliates were limited. Field commanders tasked with conducting attacks abroad were often hand-picked by bin Laden or by one of his lieutenants. Even if a commander deviated from the operational playbook while carrying out an attack, the impact this single attack would have on either al-Qaeda’s image or its strategy would be minimal.
But geographic expansion increased the possibility that affiliates would have interests that differed significantly from those of al-Qaeda Central. Local cultural, social and political dynamics have a profound effect on the strategy, tactics, and concerns of affiliates. Affiliates may be inclined to prioritize their local considerations over the global agenda of al-Qaeda Central. Preference divergence may also result from regional commanders who begin to view themselves as autonomous from—or even superior to—the core organization. Al-Qaeda Central can use sticks and carrots—like withholding funds and other resources—to deter affiliates from going rogue, but such coercive power is greatly diminished when affiliates develop alternative sources of funding.122
The potential impact of preference divergence on al-Qaeda’s image and long-term prospects also increases as the organization expands geographically. Some affiliates have control over their own media outlets, which can effectively restrict the ability of al-Qaeda Central to sustain a common narrative across all public lines of communication. Should affiliates choose not to comply with al-Qaeda’s agenda, or unknowingly engage in behavior that undercuts it, the consequences for al-Qaeda Central can be considerable. For this reason, some scholarship argues—incorrectly, in our judgment—that al-Qaeda’s expansion, both before and after the Arab Spring, should be understood to reflect the organization’s weakness, rather than its strength.123
This skeptical view of al-Qaeda’s expansion has been rather consistent over time. By 2004, al-Qaeda was widely perceived as deeply fragmented and decentralized. The decision to establish a formal alliance with Zarqawi’s group in Iraq was interpreted by many observers as a last-ditch effort to allow al-Qaeda to remain relevant in the eyes of its followers. During AQI’s period of strength, many observers believed that Zarqawi had eclipsed bin Laden. Indeed, one analyst asserted that al-Qaeda’s base had shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq.124 To be clear, al-Qaeda’s senior leadership clearly did have trouble controlling AQI at key times, particularly when al-Qaeda Central tried to reign in its affiliate’s ultraviolent methods.
But arguments that al-Qaeda’s decision to ally with Zarqawi was a sign of weakness do not consider the wide variety of factors that may be indicative of its organizational strength. For example, a powerful Iraqi-based militant group thought it advantageous to bring the al-Qaeda brand to Iraq. Further, while al-Qaeda’s association with AQI did ultimately damage its brand, what were the intermediate benefits to al-Qaeda? What were the immediate financial implications of this decision?
Many analysts also interpreted al-Qaeda Central’s decision to formalize its relationship with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in 2007 and with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2009 in a similar manner. Bin Laden’s death in May 2011 cemented the view of many observers that al-Qaeda Central wielded little to no control over its affiliates. An August 2011 New York Times article entitled “Al Qaeda Affiliates Growing Independent” articulated the conventional wisdom in that regard.125Terrorism experts both within and outside of government, the article reported, had come to view al-Qaeda Central as increasingly marginalized, while the affiliates were “gaining in stature.” Brian Fishman, then at the New America Foundation, said, “it’s increasingly likely that the Al Qaeda affiliate groups are just going to start doing their own thing,” and added that “at some point, the guys in Pakistan might be reduced to issuing a lot of public statements and hoping for the best.” Scholar Barak Mendelsohn wrote, “rather than a demonstration of al-Qaeda’s prowess, as some scholars view it,” the organization’s expansion was “in fact a sign of great difficulties.” Through expansion, he continued, al-Qaeda “has been considerably weakened.”126
But the principle of “centralization of decision and decentralization of execution” proved to be well suited to the organization’s strategy of establishing affiliations. The primary responsibilities of al-Qaeda’s leadership, according to this model, are to provide strategic guidance to affiliates and to advise them on major personnel and operational decisions, including the appointment of local leaders. The affiliates are then charged with putting al-Qaeda’s strategic plan into action. In doing so, the affiliates are given considerable autonomy with only limited oversight. This management structure, which closely mirrors al-Qaeda leadership’s relationship with cell leaders tasked to carry out specific attacks, has allowed the group to maintain command and control of the expanding organization. The leadership’s role in determining the military, political and propaganda strategy of the organization allows it to shape the behavior of affiliates, to mitigate preference divergence, and to avoid the kind of strategic incoherence that could taint al-Qaeda’s global image. Al-Qaeda Central’s involvement in selecting or at least approving the appointment of its affiliates’ emirs similarly reduces the likelihood that commanders will deliberately deviate from al-Qaeda’s strategic guidance.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda’s decentralized approach positioned the organization to more effectively deal with communications barriers between the leadership and its affiliates. Since al-Qaeda Central’s role is restricted to providing guidance to affiliates on strategy and major personnel and operational issues, the amount of communication needed between the leadership and affiliates is fairly limited. It seems, though, that in the post-Edward Snowden world, al-Qaeda may be capable of communicating with its affiliates daily if need be.127 Moreover, because al-Qaeda has authorized its affiliates to adapt strategic plans to local contexts, the organization as a whole remains flexible. This “glocalized” model—a global strategy and outlook integrated into a local environment—has also served as an additional buffer against preference divergence.
Al-Qaeda Central has, in many regards, effectively managed its affiliates. But some affiliates have engaged in behavior that contravenes al-Qaeda’s objectives and the group’s overall brand. In the mid-2000s, AQI’s brutal violence and sectarian tendencies illustrated how harmful such deviance could be to the organization. Al-Qaeda Core attempted to “rebrand” the organization after AQI’s failure. Extreme preference divergence emerged again under ISIS, ultimately producing a complete breakup between al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Rather than over-interpreting well-known cases in which preference divergence between al-Qaeda and its affiliates produced open conflict, it is worth asking why this does not occur more frequently. Al-Qaeda’s internal documents, including the trove of information seized from bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, contain the strongest evidence of how al-Qaeda maintained relative organizational cohesion with its affiliates. A small subset of the Abbottabad documents –17 documents released in 2012—was initially used to advance the theory that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership was out of touch with and had lost control of its affiliates.128This early theory proved to be misleading. At the time, Bruce Hoffman argued that public pronouncements by individuals who did not have the opportunity to view the entirety of the Abbottabad document collection should have been far more cautious, especially since their assessments were at odds with the initial conclusions drawn by intelligence officials. Indeed, the early pronouncements by intelligence officials who reviewed the documents, which appeared in print even before the theory emerged that the documents showed that al-Qaeda Core had lost touch, held that they showed bin Laden to be highly involved and perhaps even a “micro-manager.”129
These discrepancies were resolved when new tranches of documents were released—in 2015, 2016, and 2017. The new documents illustrated bin Laden and other core al-Qaeda leaders’ extensive involvement in—and sometimes micro-management of—affiliates’ strategic and operational decisions. It also became clear that al-Qaeda’s chain of command was still intact, despite leadership losses suffered by the group prior to 2011, and that affiliates and operational commanders generally considered bin Laden’s directives and advice binding. The insights that the Abbottabad documents have provided include the following revelations:
- Around May 2010, bin Laden ordered a senior al-Qaeda commander to establish external operations wings throughout Africa that would allow al-Qaeda to target Western and U.S. interests across the continent.130Abdelmalek Droukdel was charged with directing external operations in North Africa, while Shabaab was given responsibility for the Horn of Africa, and Yunis al-Mauritani was given control of the rest of Africa. In the years following bin Laden’s directive, al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa carried out several sophisticated attacks against Western targets, including the Westgate Mall massacre in Nairobi and the siege on the In Amenas gas facility in southern Algeria.
- Bin Laden was directly responsible for determining al-Qaeda’s policy toward state actors, including their truce negotiations with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, as well as separate talks with Nawaz Sharif’s brother in his capacity as the Governor of Punjab. Bin Laden also often instructed affiliates to refrain from targeting states with which al-Qaeda was not engaged in active conflict. In an October 2007 letter to Abu Ayyub al-Masri, AQI’s war minister, bin Laden called for AQI to avoid carrying out attacks in Turkey, “unless there is a chance for a large operation against the Jews or the Crusaders.”131 He also advised Masri not to target or threaten the Iranian regime, as Iran served as a “main artery for funds, personnel, and communication” for al-Qaeda.132 In several other letters written around 2010, al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and affiliates discussed the merits and religious legitimacy of a truce, which was ultimately approved, between al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Mauritanian government.133 Both AQIMand AQI appear to have followed Bin Laden’s guidance. Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a former AQI member who became ISIS’s chief spokesman, said in a May 2014 statement that AQI had complied with bin Laden’s request not to target Iran, prior to that organization splitting from al-Qaeda.134 Similarly, AQIM refrained from targeting Mauritania for several years following internal deliberations about the truce.135
- Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership engages in an extensive process of internal deliberation before making decisions, and sometimes consults leaders of affiliates about other affiliates’ affairs. A 2010 letter from Shabaab emir Ahmed Abdi Godane explained that Atiyah Abd al-Rahman and Abu Yahya al-Libi, two senior al-Qaeda officials based in Afghanistan/Pakistan, were “tasked” (presumably by bin Laden or Zawahiri) to write a report on the prospective Mauritanian truce from an Islamic legal perspective.136 The report was to be submitted to al-Qaeda’s leadership, which would discuss the matter further and convey its decision to Abdelmalek Droukdel. In the letter, Godane weighed in on the prospective truce as well, which indicated that the leaders of al-Qaeda’s affiliates were consulted on major strategic issues, even if these issues did not directly impact them. As documents related to al-Qaeda Core’s recent dispute with Syrian affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham make clear, this practice continues today.
- Bin Laden involved himself in tactical and operational decisions, which is why some in the intelligence community characterized him as a micromanager. For instance, in late 2010, bin Laden wrote two letters to Atiyah instructing his subordinates to move al-Qaeda operatives out of North and South Waziristan, two tribal agencies that were under constant surveillance by American drones, and to safer locations in Pakistan and the eastern Afghan provinces of Nuristan, Kunar, Ghazni and Zabul.137
- Relatedly, bin Laden was intimately involved in personnel decisions, including the vetting of emerging leaders. One telling exchange involved Anwar al-Awlaki, the prominent American-born cleric who had joined AQAPin the late 2000s. With Awlaki’s star rising, AQAP emir Nasir al-Wuhayshi suggested that he step aside and allow Awlaki to take over as AQAP’s leader. Wuhayshi argued that this would allow al-Qaeda to capitalize on Awlaki’s popularity.138 Bin Laden responded in an August 2010 letter to Atiyah, instructing him to tell Wuhayshi to remain AQAP’s leader. Bin Laden also requested that Wuhayshi provide bin Laden with Awlaki’s resume, as well as specific reasons why Wuhayshi recommended Awlaki.139 This letter reflected bin Laden’s cautious approach to the selection of al-Qaeda leaders, as well as his wariness of Awlaki.
- Though bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders based in Pakistan experienced challenges trying to communicate with affiliates and operatives in the Middle East and North Africa, they developed a way to overcome these difficulties. For instance, Atiyah served as an intermediary between bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa. The decision to create a degree of distance between bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s affiliates was probably intended to reduce the chances that bin Laden’s communications would be intercepted and his location revealed. In a letter, bin Laden explained that the two couriers whom he used to pass statements to the media were only willing to carry messages every three months, and he asked a subordinate to identify other means of publicizing his statements.140
The Abbottabad documents, as well as other primary source materials, offer additional insight into the relationship between AQI and al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. AQI’s insubordination at the height of the Iraq war, which prompted rebukes from Zawahiri and Atiyah, has long been cited as evidence that al-Qaeda Central maintained little to no control over its affiliates. Indeed, some have argued that even after Zarqawi’s death and prior to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ascendance, al-Qaeda Central could not rein in its Iraqi affiliate. Further, some observers have argued that al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate declared the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq in October 2006 without consulting bin Laden, Zawahiri or other al-Qaeda leaders.141 The Abbottabad documents, however, suggest that coordination between al-Qaeda Central and AQI after Zarqawi’s death and prior to bin Laden’s was more robust than previously assumed. For instance, as previously noted, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani said in a 2014 statement that the Iraqi affiliate had eventually complied with bin Laden’s 2007 mandate to stop targeting or threatening Iran.142 (While ISIS’s idea of compliance may differ from our own, Adnani’s statement at least shows that al-Qaeda’s directives were able to influence its actions while it remained an affiliate.) In another 2007 letter, bin Laden instructed Zawahiri to “remove ambiguity” concerning al-Qaeda’s ties with the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI)—the name by which al-Qaeda in Iraq was known at the time—and to come to the defense of ISI in his future public statements.143 A letter from bin Laden to an unknown recipient, written sometime after April 2010, reveals the most about continuity in the al-Qaeda-ISIrelationship.144 In the letter, bin Laden commented on reports of the deaths of ISI’s emir and war minister, and discussed al-Qaeda’s succession plan for its affiliate, wherein ISI would establish a “temporary administration” to manage the organization’s affairs while ISI and al-Qaeda Central worked to appoint a new emir.
These revelations from the Abbottabad documents highlight the need for a more nuanced assessment of the historical relationship between al-Qaeda Central and its Iraqi affiliate. There is little doubt that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership faced persistent struggles in preventing AQI/ISI from acting on its more destructive impulses. Similarly, al-Qaeda’s leadership experienced difficulties communicating with its Iraqi affiliate, which likely further affected the former’s ability to shape events in Iraq. At the same time, though, AQI still complied with some key instructions from al-Qaeda Central, and bin Laden retained the ability to appoint the group’s leaders. Only in late 2013, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi openly defied Ayman al-Zawahiri’s guidance concerning the organization’s expansion into Syria, did the relationship between al-Qaeda Central and its Iraqi affiliate fray completely.
The Abbottabad documents also clarify the details of another relationship: al-Qaeda Central’s relationship with Shabaab prior to the latter’s February 2012 announcement of affiliation with al-Qaeda. The Combating Terrorism Center’s report, Letters from Abbottabad, concluded that bin Laden was wary of formalizing al-Qaeda’s relationship with Shabaab because he saw Shabaab’s “poor governance and inflexible administration of hudud” as a potential liability for al-Qaeda’s brand.145 The report, which based its findings on an August 2010 letter from bin Laden to Godane, also suggested that bin Laden may have been stringing Shabaab along in order to ensure that Shabaab continued to provide al-Qaeda with funding, even though al-Qaeda had no intention of making it an affiliate.
Subsequently released documents show that at the time of bin Laden’s letter to Godane, al-Qaeda Central had already privately accepted Shabaab’s bayat, thus making it an undeclared—but nonetheless official—al-Qaeda affiliate. For instance, Godane was consulted on the merits of the Mauritanian truce proposal, a sensitive subject that would have only been shared with official affiliates.146 Similarly, in a letter to Atiyah written in 2010, bin Laden discussed how Shabaab and AQIM could work to obtain pledges of bayat from other actors in their respective theaters who supported the jihadist cause.147 The fact that bin Laden mentioned Shabaab alongside AQIM, which had publicly joined al-Qaeda in 2007, and wished to advise Shabaab on expanding its network, makes clear that al-Qaeda already considered the Somali group to be a bona fide affiliate.
These findings cast bin Laden’s directive to Shabaab to conceal its ties with al-Qaeda in a different light. Bin Laden’s efforts to mask the Shabaab-al-Qaeda relationship were likely intended to help Shabaab develop its network without attracting the attention of counterterrorism forces or scaring off local allies. Evidence gathered prior to the Abbottabad raid also supports this interpretation. In August 2010, the Long War Journal reported that al-Qaeda officials told Shabaab to “maintain a low profile on al Qaeda links,” and that al-Qaeda reasoned that any public statements linking it to Shabaab would “draw international scrutiny” to the Somali group’s activities.148 Bin Laden’s words in his letter to Godane in 2010 are consistent with this view. He wrote that once al-Shabaab’s relationship with al-Qaeda “becomes declared and out in the open, it would have the enemies escalate their anger and mobilize against” it.149
Al-Qaeda’s Covert Growth Strategy
Al-Qaeda’s efforts to mask its ties with Shabaab foreshadowed the strategy that al-Qaeda would adopt after the Arab Spring. The collapse of autocratic regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya presented al-Qaeda with an unprecedented opportunity to expand its presence into countries that had previously been difficult to penetrate. Al-Qaeda also understood that it had to be cautious as it built its networks in North Africa. Any public advertisement of its activities in the region risked triggering attention from local and international security forces. Al-Qaeda did not want to risk having its nascent affiliates outlawed before they hit a critical mass. Al-Qaeda, therefore, opted for a covert growth strategy. The group would deploy envoys to countries affected by the Arab Spring and establish affiliates there, but no public announcement about these new relationships would be made. The covert affiliates—which included Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, the Ansar al-Sharia factions in the eastern Libyan cities of Benghazi and Derna, and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria—were instructed to mask their links with al-Qaeda.
Today, a sizable body of evidence highlights al-Qaeda’s covert growth strategy in the post-Arab Spring period and its ties with affiliates, all of which were once covert. In 2013, Zawahiri wrote a letter scolding Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the emir of Jabhat al-Nusra, for publicly revealing the Syrian organization’s ties with al-Qaeda without first asking permission from al-Qaeda Central.150 Meanwhile, al-Qaeda’s ties with Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia became increasingly clear by 2013. The Tunisian government had captured documents, subsequently reported in the Tunisian media, showing that Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, Ansar al-Sharia’s emir, had secretly pledged allegiance to Abdelmalek Droukdel, AQIM’s emir.151 Additionally, a 2012 report produced by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress detailed al-Qaeda’s extensive activities and network in Libya, including its ties with Ansar al-Sharia.152
In the immediate post-Arab Spring period, however, analysts were slow to recognize the relationship between al-Qaeda Central and its covert affiliates. Ansar al-Sharia groups in both Tunisia and Libya were labeled localized jihadist groups that shared al-Qaeda’s ideology, but operated independent of al-Qaeda’s command structure.153 The question of al-Qaeda’s links with its covert affiliates in Libya became highly politicized following the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. While the intelligence community immediately concluded that al-Qaeda had been involved in the attack,154 spokespeople for the Obama administration initially declared that the attack occurred when spontaneous protests escalated into violence. Numerous journalists and analysts subsequently repeated the line that Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi and Derna were “purely local extremist organizations.”155
Why did some observers initially conclude that the Ansar al-Sharia factions in Libya and Tunisia were not linked organizationally to al-Qaeda? At least three factors explain this error. First, al-Qaeda was largely successful in masking its ties, at least initially, with its covert affiliates. As one of the authors of this article noted at the time, terrorism analysts were “stuck reading shadows” as they tried to assess the relationship between al-Qaeda and jihadist groups that had popped up in Libya, Tunisia and Syria.156 With only incomplete and ambiguous information about Ansar al-Sharia’s origins and relationships, observers resorted to what had become a default assessment about the jihadist movement: that al-Qaeda Central possessed little control over militant groups operating outside Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Second, the analytic community’s misguided view of how the Arab Spring would impact the jihadist movement may have led many to overlook key shifts in al-Qaeda’s strategy. As autocratic regimes in Egypt and Tunisia succumbed to the pressure of largely peaceful protest movements, analysts, pundits and journalists came to an early consensus that al-Qaeda’s revolutionary model, which revolved around the notion that only violence could uproot regimes, had lost its appeal in the Muslim world. The Arab Spring and bin Laden’s death were perceived as the “final bookends” to the war against al-Qaeda.157 Such an optimistic view failed to seriously consider how al-Qaeda might seek to exploit the tumult and instability that followed the Arab Spring revolutions. This impulse to view regional events through an optimistic lens where jihadism was concerned, coupled with the assumption that the organization was struggling to assert its relevance in this new environment, may well have helped lead the analytic community to miss critical signs that al-Qaeda was pursuing a covert growth strategy as it sought to gain a foothold in post-revolutionary countries.
Third, analysts adopted an overly simplistic view of al-Qaeda’s global strategy, which prevented them from understanding how Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia and other covert affiliates fit into the organization’s growth model. Many observers asserted that al-Qaeda was exclusively focused on striking the “far enemy” (i.e., the United States and its allies in Western Europe), and was largely disinterested in carrying out governance projects in the Middle East. Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, however, had a locally-oriented strategy—which one of us analyzed as a progression from dawa to hisba to jihad in one of the earliest full-length studies on the group158—that appeared incongruent with al-Qaeda’s global activities and aims. President Obama articulated this sentiment in a May 2013 speech on terrorism in which he noted that the jihadist movement in the post-Arab Spring period consisted of “collections of local militias or extremists interested in seizing territory” that operated “perhaps in loose affiliation with regional networks.”159
This limited view of al-Qaeda’s strategy persists to this day. In a 2016 monograph heralding al-Qaeda’s decline, scholar Jarret Brachman argued: “Al-Qaeda’s primary affiliates have turned inward and are concentrating more on making territorial gains locally, appealing to the local populous [sic] and consolidating themselves through low-level criminality than they are on advancing al-Qaeda’s grandiose global agenda.”160 Georgetown University scholar Daniel Byman has similarly asserted that al-Qaeda is on the decline because its “affiliate organizations focus on their local and regional concerns rather than attacking the West.”161
Such assessments define al-Qaeda’s strategy in the post-Arab Spring period too narrowly, and thus overlook both the organization’s rationale for violence against the West, as well as the possible ways in which the Arab Spring may have altered these dynamics. Al-Qaeda’s strategy of attacking the “far enemy” was motivated by a strategic belief that al-Qaeda could only topple local regimes and establish Islamic emirates if it first crippled the West, because Western military and economic support would prevent “near enemy” regimes from falling. The “far enemy” strategy was, in other words, a means to an end, rather than an unalterable commitment to prioritize attacks against the West. The events of the Arab Spring shifted al-Qaeda’s calculus, because it revealed that Western states would not necessarily step in to save the autocratic regimes against which al-Qaeda also wages jihad. In the case of Libya, Western governments actually stepped in to topple Qaddafi; while they did not intervene at all when Hosni Mubarak fell in Egypt. The enormous opportunities that exist for al-Qaeda in the post-Arab Spring world mean that attacks against Western countries may be deprioritized for the time being, as the jihadist movement exploits opportunities in the region.
Al-Qaeda’s new opportunities for growth, of course, presented their own set of challenges. Following a period of mounting tensions between al-Qaeda and ISIS, in February 2014, al-Qaeda expelled its Iraqi affiliate from the organization. The dramatic rise of ISIS thereafter led many observers to conclude that the breakaway group had usurped its parent organization between 2014 and 2016, and that various al-Qaeda branches would likely break away and join ISIS. We have already written a lengthy analysis in these pages about how al-Qaeda survived the ISISchallenge, after having survived two other significant challenges (the black mark on the organization’s reputation after AQI’s 2007-09 defeat and the Arab Spring revolutions).162 In successfully navigating the ISISchallenge, al-Qaeda again proved resilient. This time, however, it showed resilience in an area where analysts had previously been skeptical about its capabilities: in the relationship between parent organization and affiliates.
There are again storm clouds surrounding al-Qaeda’s core-affiliate relations, as its leadership clashes with Syrian affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).163 Most analysts have interpreted this dispute in a manner consistent with the field’s ingrained tendency to perceive al-Qaeda’s senior leadership as marginal. But one immutable lesson of past struggles within al-Qaeda and other jihadist organizations is that their meaning is not best understood through the lens of analysts’ immediate response, but their significance becomes clearer over time. Suffice it to say that disputes like this raise the risk for al-Qaeda that, if insubordination and rebellion goes unpunished, other branches will perceive the cost of acting against al-Qaeda Core’s directives as lower.164Conversely, al-Qaeda’s multiple networks are interlocking. See, for example, the relationship between Shabaab and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or between AQIM and the Sahelian jihadists. If al-Qaeda’s affiliates step out of line, as Boko Haram did, then al-Qaeda Core can withdraw its support and invest its resources with competitor organizations. Only time will tell which of these two countervailing considerations will prove more decisive in resolving the conflict with HTS, and managing other affiliate relationships beyond Syria.
While questions persist about the direction that the jihadist movement will take—questions magnified by the fact that jihadist organizations are clandestine in nature—al-Qaeda has, thus far, been able to sustain an overall trend toward greater relevance. This article outlines the formula that the organization has followed to remain important. As we examine current and future challenges facing the organization, it is crucial to bear in mind the logic of al-Qaeda’s organizational design, and also the various advantages that spring therefrom. In order to stop almost willfully perceiving al-Qaeda as weak, we must continue to work towards better understanding how the organization actually functions. Equipped with more accurate analyses, we will put ourselves in a position to more effectively weaken al-Qaeda.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Terrorists Are Going to Use Artificial Intelligence,” Defense One, May 3rd, 2018
Machine-learning technology is growing ever more accessible. Let’s not have a 9/11-style ‘failure of imagination’ about it.
There is a general tendency among counterterrorism analysts to understate rather than hyperbolize terrorists’ technological adaptations. In 2011 and 2012, most believed that the “Arab Spring” revolutions would marginalize jihadist movements. But within four years, jihadists had attracted a record number of foreign fighters to the Syrian battlefield, in part by using the same social media mobilization techniques that protesters had employed to challenge dictators like Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Qaddafi.
Militant groups later combined easy accessibility to operatives via social media with new advances in encryption to create the “virtual planner” model of terrorism. This model allows online operatives to provide the same offerings that were once the domain of physical networks, including recruitment, coordinating the target and timing of attacks, and even providing technical assistance on topics like bomb-making.
Many analysts—and I fell prey to this error—brushed aside early concerns about the global diffusion of drone technology. The reason? We imagined that terrorists would use drones as we did, and believed that superior American airpower would blast theirs from the sky. But instead of trying to replicate the Predator, the Islamic State and other militant groups cleverly adapted smaller drones to their purposes. In the 2017 battle for Mosul, for example, the Islamic State (ISIS) dispatched small and agile consumer drones armed with grenades to harry the Iraqi forces assembled to retake the city.
These uses of social media, encryption, and drones illustrate a key pattern: As a consumer technology becomes widely available, terrorists will look for ways to adapt it. Artificial intelligence will almost certainly end up fitting into this pattern.
So how might terrorists use AI?
Perhaps they will start with social-network mapping. ISIS’s early battlefield victories were enabled, in part, by ex-Baathist intelligence operatives who mapped a city’s key players and power brokers, monitored their pattern of life—and then helped ISIS to arrest or kill them. Similarly, when North African ISISoperatives attacked the Tunisian town of Ben Gardane in March 2016, the available evidence—including the efficient way they assassinated key security officials—suggested that the militants had similarly worked to learn the human terrain in advance. Will social networks built using AI capabilities reduce the intelligence burden on militant groups and make it easier for them to conquer towns and cities?
What of the next generation of terror drones? Will they use AI-enabled swarming to become more powerful and deadlier? Or think bigger: will terrorists use self-driving vehicles for their next car bombs and ramming attacks? How about assassinations?
Max Tegmark’s book Life 3.0 notes the concern of UC Berkeley computer scientist Stuart Russell, who worries that the biggest winners from an AI arms race would be “small rogue states and non-state actors such as terrorists” who can access these weapons through the black market. Tegmark writes that after they are “mass-produced, small AI-powered killer drones are likely to cost little more than a smartphone.” Would-be assassins could simply “upload their target’s photo and address into the killer drone: it can then fly to the destination, identify and eliminate the person, and self-destruct to ensure that nobody knows who was responsible.”
Thinking beyond trigger-pulling, artificial intelligence could boost a wide range of violent non-state actors’ criminal activities, including extortion and kidnapping, through the automation of social engineering attacks. The militant recruiters of the near-future may boost their online radicalization efforts with chatbots, which played a “small but strategic role” in shaping the Brexit vote.
The 9/11 Commission’s report famously devoted an entire section to discussing how the 9/11 attacks’ success in part represented a failure in imagination by authorities. In recent years, we have seen multiple failures in imagination as analysts tried to discern what terrorists will do with emerging technologies. A failure in imagination as artificial intelligence becomes cheaper and more widely available could be even costlier.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Vivian Hagerty, Logan Macnair “The Emigrant Sisters Return: The Growing Role of the Islamic State’s Women,” War on the Rocks, April 2nd, 2018
During the Islamic State’s (ISIL) brief but bloody rule as a self-described caliphate, it boasted of keeping Yazidi women as sex slaves. Female Yazidis were subjected to forced conversions, while Sunni women in areas under ISIL’s control were subjected to the militant group’s draconian restrictions. After interviewing female Sunnis who fled ISIL’s misrule, Human Rights Watch reported, “all of the Sunni women and girls reported severe restrictions on their clothing and freedom of movement,” and were further “only allowed to leave their houses dressed in full face veil (niqab) and accompanied by a close male relative.” Even women who joined the organization and lived voluntarily in ISIL-held territory were required to adhere to strict and repressive rules about a woman’s role in society. Yet as the caliphate collapsed, women appeared to start playing a greater part in ISIL’s military operations than the group had previously allowed. The role played by the women of ISIL may continue to grow.
This article seeks to contextualize ISIL’s increasing use of women in kinetic activities — such as suicide attacks — and show the main ways in which this shift could pose a greater threat to Western countries. The group may start selecting more women as operatives in external operations plots; returning female “emigrants” may radicalize or recruit others; and women may take on “virtual planner” responsibilities. We argue that governments should be wary of succumbing to a “positive security bias,” that is, applying far less scrutiny to women than they do to men under the assumption that women are less threatening. The signs that women are now playing a greater role in ISIL are plain to see in the group’s propaganda, and are being increasingly recognized in media reports. We ignore these signs at our own peril.
Women have long held both leadership and combat positions in terrorist organizations, from the anarchist movements starting in the late 1800s to the anticolonial independence movements of the mid-20th century to the left-wing and ethno-nationalist terrorist groups of the 1960s through 1980s.
Jihadist organizations, which espouse conservative gender roles (both societally and within their groups), often relegate women to support roles. But the leaders of these groups have frequently reversed course and allowed women to participate in terrorist acts, often in the role of suicide bomber. The first reports of female suicide bombers emerged in the 1980s in places like Lebanon, Turkey, and Sri Lanka. These women were not affiliated with Sunni jihadist organizations, but rather with a diversity of extremist groups of varying nationalist, political, and religious outlooks. In the early 2000s, some Islamist organizations began employing female suicide bombers to evade security measures. Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) used a 19-year-old female operative to kill 3 people in a mall in 2003. Similarly, while Hamas originally refused to allow women to serve as operatives, the organization reversed its decision around the same time that PIJ started using female attackers. In 2002, Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin was vehement about not allowing women to perpetrate suicide bombings. But just two years later, in 2004, Hamas deployed its first female suicide bomber.
A year later, in September 2005, al-Qaeda in Iraq — ISIL’s parent organization — followed suit. The same year, a Belgian woman named Muriel Degauque became the first European female suicide bomber when she attacked a U.S. military convoy near Baghdad. In the following years, al-Qaeda in Iraq steadily increased its use of female suicide bombers. Similarly, since 2014 Boko Haram has reportedly utilized more female suicide bombers than any other terrorist organization. Indeed, while Boko Haram only began using women for this purpose in recent years, they reportedly already comprise the majority of suicide bombers that the organization has used throughout its history. Female suicide bombers have also frequently struck in the Caucasus, and two female combatants reportedly participated in the notorious Beslan school massacre in September 2004.
When ISIL declared its caliphate in 2014, the organization formed two female battalions known as Al-Khansaa and Umm al-Rayan. Rather than engaging in combat, the women in these brigades were used as hisba forces, charged with ensuring that other women followed ISIL’s version of sharia (Islamic law). A 2015 manifesto by one of the female battalions embraced ISIL’s ultraconservative view of gender, asserting that women were only permitted to leave their homes and fight under very specific circumstances. But more recently, ISIL may have opened the door to more direct female battlefield involvement.
Early Female Participation in ISIL
While the role of women appears to have increased recently, ISIL has always had a significant female presence. Though most foreign fighters and emigrants who traveled from abroad to ISIL’s caliphate have been male, the number of female recruits is substantial. A recent study indicates 11 percent of American foreign fighters and emigrants to ISIL’s territory are women. According to French law enforcement, around 43 percent of the 690 French emigrants remaining in Syria are women. While France has produced the largest number of European female ISIL recruits, other European countries have also reported significant figures. Open-source accounts suggest that more than 500 women total have left Western Europe to join ISIL since 2013.
One well-known case is Emilie König of France, who in 2012 became one of the first known European women to emigrate to Syria. König, who worked as a server in France, had converted to Islam as a teenager. After several years of troublesome behavior, including distribution of jihadist propaganda at her local mosque, König decided to emigrate. In Syria, she worked actively as a recruiter, spending much of her time online trying to persuade other women to join ISIL. Kurdish forces recently captured König in Syria, and she has pleaded with the French government to allow her to return.
In 2013, Scottish teenager Aqsa Mahmood dropped out of university and emigrated to Syria, where she was quickly married. She began working as an online recruiter, providing tips and “how-to” guides to other European women who were considering emigrating. Also in 2013, British national Sally Jones emigrated to ISIL-held territory, taking her young child with her. While in the caliphate, Jones married fellow British emigrant Junaid Hussain. Jones worked as an active propagandist until her death in 2017. A woman from Alabama, Huda Muthawny, was also reportedly responsible for recruiting American women to travel to the caliphate.
As these examples illustrate, while there may be archetypes that help us understand the kind of women who are drawn to ISIL, there is no single profile of the female recruit. Women who decide to emigrate come from a range of backgrounds and exhibit various motivations. According to unpublished data that George Washington University’s Program on Extremism provided to us, the average age of American women who attempted to travel to Iraq and Syria is 23, with a range from 15 to 38. Their demographics, the Program on Extremism told us, “are remarkably diverse, hailing from a wide array of ethnic and national backgrounds.” In contrast, there are more female European recruits, and they are often substantially older than the female American emigrants.
Some female emigrants are motivated by their desire to marry jihadist fighters, who are portrayed in ISIL’s propaganda in a romanticized, honorable, and attractive light. But it is not clear that this is the motivation for most women who join, and numerous other reasons can be easily discerned. König reportedly made the decision to emigrate on her own, without the pressure or lure of a husband or boyfriend. Indeed, in some cases women pressure their husbands to emigrate with them. Many women join ISIL for the same reasons as men do: out of a feeling of religious obligation, as revenge for perceived wrongdoings against the global Muslim population, as a means of finding existential or spiritual meaning, or to advance ISIL’s state-building project.
Once they made it to ISIL-held territory, female emigrants took on several roles. Most female emigrants found themselves in traditional and limited roles, with the expectation they would remain at home supporting jihadist husbands and raising children. This emphasis on a familial role for women was, in part, intended to ensure ISIL’s survival through future generations that the women would raise and indoctrinate. Other women, however, took on the additional responsibility of recruiting more women online. König, Mahmood, Jones, and Muthawny all worked as propagandists and recruiters, where they were well placed to answer questions from potential female emigrants. It is easiest for researchers to study female ISIL members with prominent public profiles, so the four women highlighted in this article should not cause us to overestimate the active roles that women played in ISIL. In particular, their absence from the battlefield during ISIL’s glory days was conspicuous.
Women, Militant Operations, and ISIL Propaganda
Though ISIL maintained its ban on female fighters during its early years, this policy seems to have been softened over the past year. There is an important debate about how significant a shift has occurred, with Charlie Winter and Devorah Margolin representing one pole of the debate, while Simon Cottee and Mia Bloom represent another. While this discussion is quite worthy of the reader’s exploration, what is not in question is that ISIL has begun to feature women in combat operations in its propaganda. For instance, the October 2017 issue of ISIL’s newsletter al-Naba endorses women in combat operations and military roles under certain conditions.
Subsequently, a recent ISIL video, released in February 2018, for the first time promoted footage of what appears to be women on the front lines fighting alongside male combatants, praising them for their contributions. As Kiroloi Ingram has shown, some analysts are debating whether the burka-clad figures may in fact be men disguised as women. But Ingram correctly argues that ISIL’s propaganda claiming female combatants is significant regardless of on-the-ground realities. The February video’s English-speaking narrator explains that any female combatant is “a chaste mujahid woman journeying to her Lord with the garments of purity and faith, seeking revenge for her religion and for the honor of her sisters imprisoned by the apostate Kurds.”
There are questions about whether ISIL deployed female suicide bombers in the Battle of Mosul. Toward the end of this fight, as it became clear ISIL was losing control of the city, an Iraqi security official told The Times of London that dozens of female suicide bombers were deployed in a last-ditch effort. Cottee and Bloom caution that while reports of female ISIL suicide bombers striking in Mosul “may well turn out to be true … it would be unwise to take them at face value.” Most significant to Cottee and Bloom is the fact that “nowhere on its social media, encrypted platforms or internal discussions has ISIS acknowledged the use of female suicide bombers.” But Elizabeth Pearson is correct that if the reports are true — and she does not assume that they are — it would represent a “turning point” for ISIL.
Thus, while there is significant debate about the extent, it seems ISIL has softened its initial decision to prohibit women in combat roles — and has certainly loosened this constraint in its public messaging. The reasons for this are likely rooted in practicality, as a way to address the group’s recent struggles with recruitment and territorial losses. ISIL’s reversal is likely to present new challenges for Western counterterrorism efforts, which will be compounded by the inconsistency of Western legal systems’ treatment of returnees — female returnees in particular.
In a number of European countries, traveling to ISIL’s territory is not a crime in itself, which means female returnees have often faced charges such as child endangerment rather than terrorism. Other European countries have indicated that women may be able to return home without fear of severe legal punishment. British authorities claimed in 2016 that, if there was no evidence to link them directly to violent activities, three British teenagers who left for ISIL’s caliphate in 2015 would be able to return with relatively few legal repercussions. The discrepancies in sentencing will allow some women to be released much earlier than those who committed similar crimes but hold different citizenship.
Future Threats from Jihadist Women
Increased female participation in jihadist activities may heighten ISIL’s threat in three ways. The first is external operations plotting. Terrorist organizations have historically used female operatives in cases when it would be difficult for men to infiltrate a target. Indeed, it was this consideration that often prompted them to use female operatives in the first place. For example, some security checkpoints in combat zones lack female security officials, which — due to traditional Muslim beliefs regarding gender relations — made it nearly impossible to effectively screen women passing through, making them more effective operatives.
Similarly, as male returnees are now facing scrutiny from Western security forces, ISIL may use what Florence Gaub and Julia Lisiecka term the “positive security bias” — the conscious or unconscious notion that women are inherently less threatening or capable of violence than men — to their advantage. ISIL could do this by encouraging would-be female attackers to play the role of a victim or naive traveler returning from a misadventure abroad. Gaub and Lisiecka explain this bias is a problem because “violent attacks by women conducted by other radical organisations are known to be more lethal, less likely to fail and garner more media coverage.” As female emigrants return to the West, ISIL’s external operations planners may instruct them to play to the positive security bias by tapping into the gendered assumption that women do not pose a real threat.
A second kind of threat is female returnees working to radicalize and recruit others in their home countries, serving as the connective tissue between the newly radicalized and established jihadists. These women may attempt to avoid Western security scrutiny by claiming to have repented or reformed, reinforcing the female victim narrative undergirding the positive security bias. As many female emigrants have recently expressed a desire to return home, Western security services should be aware of attempts to play to these biases.
A third threat is that women may be sought out by, or even become, virtual planners. As a War on the Rocks article outlined last year, the virtual planner model involves operatives connected to ISIL’s leadership assisting lone-actor or small-group attackers. Virtual planners harness digital connections and advanced encryption to perform the functions of supporting an attack that were once undertaken by physical networks. These planners have played intimate roles in the conceptualization, target selection, timing, and execution of attacks, and they can also provide direct technical assistance. Though virtual planners were in the past usually based in Iraq or Syria, they will almost certainly begin operating from a wider range of countries as ISIL’s emigrants disperse.
With coaching from virtual planners, women can carry out attacks in the West without having to travel to conflict zones. For instance, Rachid Kassim — who before his death was one of ISIL’s most prolific and successful virtual planners — directed a small cell of three French women to carry out an attack in Paris. Ines Madani, Sara Hervouet, and Amel Sakaou were arrested for their involvement in a plot to blow up the Notre Dame Cathedral in September 2016. Kassim was their connection to ISIL, and none of the women had known each other before the plot. The attack showed the capability of a skilled virtual planner to organize unconnected lone actors into a functioning cell.
In the future, both male and female virtual planners may seek to mimic Kassim’s efforts, directing operatives to conduct attacks in the West. Since female propagandists and recruiters have often had a knack for ingratiating themselves with other women, if women begin to act as virtual planners, it is more likely that the West will witness more female attackers.
Conclusion: The Dangerous Future of the Women of ISIL
Women’s involvement in ISIL’s recruitment efforts and, more recently, their increasing participation in militant operations complicate the threat that returning fighters and emigrants pose to the West. As ISIL continues to lose territory, and emigrants return home in greater numbers, Western security services must be wary about falling prey to the positive security bias. Returning female emigrants may play into misperceptions about women’s vulnerability or victimhood by claiming to have been naively lured to ISIL territory. But, once home, women who continue to adhere to the group’s ideology may remain in touch with their online networks, positioning them to serve as recruiters, attack planners, or even operatives.
To avoid being blindsided by women-organized plots and female attackers, the West must consider the unique ways in which returning women may seek to undermine security measures. Since many Western countries have yet to develop consistent legal and social procedures pertaining to the return of ISIL’s emigrants, the probability remains high that some individuals — especially women — will slip through the cracks. As a result, it is possible women will play a larger role in future ISIL-directed or ISIL-inspired operations. Whether their involvement is limited to recruitment, radicalization, facilitation, and communication roles, or includes more active engagement in attack planning, direction, and implementation, we are likely only beginning to see the extent to which women can further ISIL’s efforts after the caliphate has fallen. The positive security bias should not lead us to misjudge this threat.
Image by Hani Amir/Flickr
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the chief executive officer of the private firm Valens Global. Vivian Hagerty is the deputy research manager at Valens Global. Logan Macnair is a Ph.D. student at Simon Fraser University’s International CyberCrime Research Centre who specializes in extremist media.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Spike in African Terrorism Highlights the Importance of Jihadist Innovation,” War on the Rocks, February 26th, 2018
In early 2011, as the Arab Spring revolutions were just beginning, a New York Times article concluded that for most analysts, “the past few weeks have the makings of an epochal disaster for Al Qaeda, making the jihadists look like ineffectual bystanders to history while offering young Muslims an appealing alternative to terrorism.” The vast majority of terrorism experts believed the revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa were the death knell not only for regional despots, but also for the jihadist movement.
In fact, the opposite occurred. The significant spike in terrorism in Africa since the onset of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions is as undeniable now as it was unanticipated at the time.
The numbers speak for themselves. In a new study titled Evolving Terror, three colleagues and I found that between January 2007 and December 2011 — as the impact of the Arab Spring revolutions was just beginning to be felt — jihadists carried out 132 successful, thwarted, or failed attacks against Western interests in Africa. This figure nearly tripled to 358 attacks between January 2012 and October 2017.
The chaos wrought by the revolutions provided jihadist groups with unprecedented opportunities in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Mali (where regime change in Libya had a spillover impact), and they capitalized. Some of the post-2011 spike in terrorist violence is unrelated to the Arab Spring. In Somalia, for example, the militant group al-Shabaab’s increasingly frequent and lethal attacks are largely independent of the revolutions in other African countries (though in the future we may learn that there was more cross-pollination between Somali and extra-regional jihadists than is apparent today).
Our findings highlight not only the political context in which these attacks took place, but also the importance of how jihadist organizations learn, which remains underemphasized in the terrorism studies field. Learning processes have not only been important strategically — allowing jihadist groups to capitalize on the changes wrought by the Arab Spring despite such vulnerabilities as negative public perceptions — but can also be discerned at the level of tactics.
In addition to the sheer number of terrorist attacks in Africa increasing, the attacks have also grown more sophisticated as jihadist groups adapted to countermeasures employed against them. For example, in 2012 Shabaab increasingly began to attack establishments popular among foreigners — which are often heavily guarded — using a combination of weapons and tactics. Previously, the group had relied mostly on single-method attacks, such as bombs or gunmen deployed in isolation of one another. Beginning in 2012, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices would often first “soften” a target, destroying barricaded entrances and striking security personnel, thus allowing armed assailants to storm it.
One emblematic attack occurred on June 25, 2016, when a Shabaab vehicle-borne explosive destroyed the gates to the Nasa Hablod Hotel near the Mogadishu airport, where foreigners stay relatively frequently. The explosion allowed several gunmen to enter the premises and shoot hotel guests while seizing hostages. Positioning snipers on the roof and exploiting the hotel’s own defenses for cover, including sandbags and blast walls, the gunmen engaged police in a shootout that lasted five hours.
For jihadist groups, the ability to innovate is a necessity rather than a luxury. As preeminent terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman has noted, terrorist groups have a “fundamental organizational imperative” to learn. Facing an array of internal and external challenges, these groups must adapt quickly and creatively or suffer the consequences. Militant groups that fail to address their vulnerabilities in the face of offensive counterterrorism operations will eventually be degraded to the point of strategic irrelevance. Similarly, organizations that cannot overcome defensive counterterrorism measures — policies aimed at preventing attacks — will become obsolete as more adaptive competitors exploit weaknesses in states’ security architectures.
Jihadist groups can adapt simultaneously to offensive and defensive measures employed against them — shoring themselves up in the face of counterterrorism actions meant to degrade them while overcoming defensive efforts to prevent attacks. For example, as Nigerian security forces became more adept at detecting Boko Haram’s suicide bombers, the group began to employ women and children in this role more frequently. This shift allowed Boko Haram to regain the element of surprise, and to conserve able-bodied men whom it needed to fight against the state. The relative novelty of these “unexpected bombers” further sensationalized Boko Haram’s attacks, amplifying a prevailing sense of insecurity in the population.
The adaptations that we can see African jihadist groups make in attacks on aviation are particularly concerning. The bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268 from Egypt in 2015 is well-known, as a bomb placed near the pressure bulkhead killed all 224 passengers and crew members. The Islamic State was responsible for this attack. Less notorious but also significant are Shabaab’s evolving efforts to strike aviation targets.
Initially, Shabaab unsuccessfully sought to launch projectiles at the Aden Adde International Airport in Mogadishu, often missing its target. But its aviation attacks became increasingly sophisticated. On Feb. 2, 2016, a Shabaab suicide bomber blasted a hole in Daallo Airlines Flight 159’s fuselage 20 minutes after it left the Mogadishu airport. The explosion blew the bomber out of the plane, but the pilot was able to make a safe emergency landing because the aircraft had yet to reach cruising altitude. It seems the bomb’s timer was intended to go off mid-flight, but a delay at the airport resulted in an early explosion. Authorities discovered that the bomber had used a laptop packed with explosives. Despite the attack’s failure, it should be regarded as sophisticated because it succeeded in getting a bomb on board the plane, which jihadists often regard as the key metric of success.
Just a month after the Daallo Airlines attack, another laptop bomb exploded at a screening area in Beledweyne Airport, also in Somalia. During that incident, authorities discovered and defused two more bombs, one of which was hidden in a printer. These designs were reminiscent of those developed by Ibrahim al-Asiri, a member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who is known as one of the most innovative jihadist bomb makers. In one prominent 2010 plot, Asiri hid explosives in printer cartridges. Given AQAP’s proximity and close relationship to Shabaab, it is likely that the two share innovations.
The evolution of Shabaab’s previously crude efforts to strike aircraft clearly show a pattern of learning and adaptation over the past few years. African militant groups are well-positioned to test new tactics against aviation targets, and innovations born in Africa may be exported to other theaters. Better understanding jihadist organizational learning is essential to stopping these groups’ attacks, and to making sure that in the future we do not underestimate them at the strategic level, as most experts did after the Arab Spring.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Jacob Zenn, Sarah Sheafer, and Sandro Bejdic, “Evolving Terror: The Development of Jihadist Operations Targeting Western Interests in Africa,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 2018
Introduction and Executive Summary
After the Arab Spring, North African countries experienced growing instability, and jihadist groups capitalized on both social unrest and local conflicts.1 As these groups strengthened, jihadists expanded their operations into the Sahel, and were able to propagate their transnational ideology to new audiences. The threat that jihadist groups in Africa pose to Western interests has grown over the past decade, as groups operating in North Africa, the Sahel, West Africa, and the Horn of Africa have honed their capabilities. This is reflected in the increased frequency and complexity of attacks against Western interests. Between January 2007 and December 2011, jihadists conducted 132 successful, thwarted, or failed attacks against Western interests in Africa. This figure nearly tripled to 358 attacks between January 2012 and October 2017.
While the 490 total attacks against Western interests in Africa recorded in this study have varied in target type and tactics, jihadist operations have generally become more sophisticated. In some cases, jihadist organizations developed new tactics for penetrating well-guarded facilities. For example, the Somali militant group al-Shabaab has increased its use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), often supplementing such attacks with armed assaults. This adaptation allowed Shabaab to gain entrance to facilities like airports and UN humanitarian compounds, frequently penetrating past guarded gates.
African jihadist groups have also developed innovative ways to thwart the aviation industry’s security measures on the continent. For example, a Shabaab suicide bomber detonated a laptop bomb on Daallo Airlines Flight 159 in February 2016. A month later, Shabaab operatives concealed another bomb in a laptop that exploded at Somalia’s Beledweyne airport, and authorities defused two other bombs in the same incident, including one hidden in a printer. Not only do these events suggest an escalating threat to African aviation, but they also highlight how African jihadist groups learn and innovate. The ability to learn is critical to any violent non-state actor (VNSA), but particularly so for militant groups, which are pursued by state actors and sometimes also by other VNSAs. These groups need to be able to mount successful attacks against foes who constantly refine their defenses. The learning processes of African jihadist groups are evident in this study’s data set, as these groups have engaged in unambiguous adaptations over the course of the past decade. They will continue to engage in organizational learning in an effort to make themselves more effective – and, consequently, more dangerous. But there is also a significant risk that outside jihadist groups are assisting African jihadists’ innovations, and watching carefully to bring these tactics to new theaters after seeing how they fare in a “testing ground.” We return to the topic of jihadist learning processes in this study’s conclusion.
To understand evolving tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), targeting, and jihadist innovation, this report uses empirical and historical analysis to map trends in operations against Western interests over the past decade. The report focuses on five target types: (1) establishments popular among foreigners, such as restaurants and hotels; (2) energy and mineral resources infrastructure and facilities; (3) non-African tourists, expatriates, and NGO workers; (4) national and international government facilities, such as embassies and UN humanitarian compounds; Evolving Terror Page 7 and (5) the aviation industry. This report is based on an extensive list of successful, thwarted, and failed attacks against each target type, and utilizes both quantitative and qualitative analysis to identify trends and draw conclusions about the evolution of targeting preferences and TTPs since 2007.
Summary of Key Findings
• Establishments Popular Among Foreigners. Over the past decade, African jihadist groups attacked establishments popular among foreigners more often than the other four target types. Their TTPs became more complex as they combined multiple tactics and weapon types.
• Energy and Mineral Resources Infrastructure and Facilities. Jihadists primarily attacked poorly defended infrastructure, such as gas pipelines, as opposed to well-guarded energy facilities. While there were fewer attacks on the latter, those that occurred involved more resources on the part of jihadist groups and resulted in a larger number of casualties.
• Non-African Tourists, Expatriates, and NGO Workers. While kidnapping foreigners is not a new tactic in places like Somalia, jihadist groups in the Sahel have recently expanded these operations into atypical areas, such as northern Burkina Faso and Cameroon.
• National and International Government Facilities. Between 2012 and 2017, jihadist operations against embassies, consulates, and UN humanitarian compounds became more complex, as groups like Shabaab developed ways to penetrate well-guarded facilities by combining VBIEDs with armed assaults. These complex attacks were some of the deadliest. But they have remained comparatively rare, as these groups have primarily employed simple bombings.
• Aviation. In recent years, African jihadist groups have demonstrated a greater interest in conducting sophisticated attacks against aviation targets. Techniques have included measures designed to evade airport security by concealing explosives in electronic devices, and the attackers have relied on complicit airport employees in several cases.
Access the full report and footnotes here.
Demystifying al-Qaida in Nigeria: Cases from Boko Haram’s Founding, Launch of Jihad and Suicide Bombings
Jacob Zenn, “Demystifying al-Qaida in Nigeria,” Perspectives on Terrorism Journal, December 2017
Boko Haram was ranked the world’s “most deadly” terrorist group in 2016 and the country where it primarily operates, Nigeria, was ranked the world’s third “most terrorised” nation in 2017. However, for such a significant militant group there is a dearth of research on Boko Haram using document analysis that can shed light on the inner workings and decision-making processes of the group’s leadership. Most researchers have instead examined structural factors in Nigeria to understand Boko Haram. This has led to an academic consensus that Boko Haram was originally peaceful and only marginally benefitted from its ties to al-Qaida – if at all. This article, in contrast, presents documents of the leadership of al-Qaida and Boko Haram that show early and continuing communications between Boko Haram and al-Qaida and al-Qaida had a significant impact on Boko Haram’s founding in 2002, launch of a jihad in 2009 and introduction of suicide bombings in 2011. In addition, the al-Qaida-trained militants in Boko Haram played a leading role in conquering territory in Nigeria in 2013, setting up a line of communication to Islamic State in 2014 and facilitating Boko Haram’s switch of allegiance and merger with Islamic State in 2015.
In the thirty years since al-Qaida’s founding, there has been a significant amount of scholarship on the group and those affiliates and cells that have benefitted from al-Qaida’s funding, training and advice. However, there is one group whose origins and violent rise is still misunderstood. This group is Jamaat Ahl as-Sunnah Liddawah wal-Jihad, which has become known as “Boko Haram” and was ranked the world’s “most deadly” terrorist group in 2016 for the number of people it has killed.
The key debates about Boko Haram reflect the debates surrounding jihadism more generally, such as whether structural and local factors or external influences and individual agency best explain Boko Haram’s origins and violent rise. The former view, which is supported by Alexander Thurston, Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, and Kyari Muhammed, tends to see only a “marginal” role of al-Qaida in Boko Haram’s origins and violent rise and instead sees Boko Haram as the product of “multi-dimensional” factors, such as “religious doctrines, poverty and inequality, post-1999 politics, youth agency, and geography.” The latter view, in contrast, finds Boko Haram to be primarily the result of the individual decisions of militants who sought to engage in a jihad in Nigeria and were empowered to do so because of al-Qaida’s and particularly al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) and al-Shabab’s funding, training and advice. Neither view can be fully correct but this article argues the latter view is more accurate but also underutilised in explaining Boko Haram’s founding, launch of a jihad, and tactical innovations, such as suicide bombings.
The article will present three episodes or cases of Boko Haram from: (i) the group’s founding in 2002-2003, (ii) launch of jihad in 2009-2010 and (iii) introduction of suicide bombings in 2011-2012. It is argued that these three cases exemplify how al-Qaida’s significant impact on Boko Haram has been misunderstood to be “local” phenomena in most previous research on the group. Furthermore, this article discusses obstacles and opportunities for future research on Boko Haram.
All footnotes and the full essay can be found here.
Sarah Sheafer, “Sadat’s War Strategy: Political Gains vs. Military Victory,” The Strategy Bridge, October 21, 2017
On Nov. 20, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat stood before the Israeli Knesset on a historic trip to the country. Addressing 120 Israeli parliamentary members, Sadat said, “I come to you today on solid ground to shape a new life and to establish peace.” Never before had an Arab leader formally visited Israel, and the means by which he arrived at this situation was unorthodox. Just four years prior, Egypt and Israel were at war.
Employing the dictum of Carl von Clauzewitz—war is an extension of policy—Sadat decided to wage a limited war against Israel on Oct. 6, 1973, to achieve political gains as opposed to a decisive military victory. After the humiliating defeat during the 1967 Six-Day War, Sadat sought out to restore Arab self-confidence, shatter the Israeli myth of invincibility, and bring Israel to the negotiating table.
While Sadat ultimately achieved his objectives, his strategy was risky, and one could argue his political gains were a result of sheer luck and mistakes made by his adversary. Despite ultimately signing a long-lasting peace treaty with Israel, Sadat isolated Egypt and himself, with many Arab nations calling him a traitor. Nevertheless, much can be learned from Sadat’s decision making process. With clear, attainable objectives, Sadat’s strategy during the 1973 October War is perhaps a perfect example achieving political gains through limited war by exploiting an adversary’s weaknesses and simultaneously employing clever, diplomatic means.
SADAT’S INHERITANCE: A POOR ECONOMY, HUMILIATION AND UNWANTED SOVIET RELATIONS
When Gamel Abdel Nasser unexpectedly died of a heart attack on Sept. 28, 1970, many viewed his vice president, Sadat, as a temporary replacement. Unlike the charismatic and popular Nasser, Egyptians initially viewed Sadat as ineffectual. This assessment, however, was incorrect, and Sadat’s impact proved to be immense. Not only was Sadat faced with the task of stifling political isolation, he also inherited a number of problems from Nasser.
One of the foremost concerns on Sadat’s mind was Egypt’s failing economy. In Sadat’s memoir, he wrote, “The economic legacy Nasser left me was in even poorer shape than the political.” Sadat largely blamed Egypt’s economic woes on its relationship with the Soviet Union, saying that with “crass stupidity” Egypt had “copied the Soviet pattern of socialism.” Sadat’s distaste of communism was reflected during his early presidency when he carried out the Corrective Revolution, shocking Egyptians by dismissing and imprisoning two powerful officials from Nasser’s old regime—Sharawy Gomaa, the Interior Minister, and Sadat’s vice president Ali Sabry, who had close ties with the Soviets.
To bolster Egypt’s collapsing economy, Sadat reoriented emphasis in Egypt’s relations from the Soviet Union to the Unites States. In his memoir, Sadat described Egypt’s relationship with the Soviets as disadvantageous, because “the Russians had practically no relations with anybody.” Several obstacles, however, stood in his way. Sadat believed the situation after the 1967 defeat needed to be redressed to regain Egypt’s self-confidence and the world’s confidence in Egypt. To Sadat, the economic situation was merely one of the facets of the problem.
Another obstacle in the way of reorienting Egypt to the West was the strong relationship between Israel and the United States. Tensions were still high between Israelis and Egyptians. Israel was satisfied with the status quo after capturing the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula in 1967, which served as potential security buffers. Sadat not only needed to take away Israel’s bargaining chips at the negotiating table, but also convince the United States to pressure Israel to even come to the table. After U.S. President Richard Nixon’s first trip to the Soviet Union in May 1972, however, the policy of détente was issued jointly between the two superpowers, calling for a military relaxation in the Middle East. Sadat viewed this decision as giving in to Israel.
A close adviser to Sadat described him as one who took “big leaps over small steps and often used what he called ‘electric shocks’ to stir up the stagnant waters of diplomacy.” In line with his political style, Sadat decided to wage a limited war against Israel to break the deadlock, forcing the United States to step in and earning a respectable place at the negotiating table at the same time. To achieve a lasting peace with Israel, regain the Sinai, and improve Egypt’s economy, Sadat laid out three objectives:
2. Shatter the Israeli myth of invincibility; and
3. Alter U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.
By achieving these goals, Sadat would ultimately restructure the Middle Eastern regional order.
SADAT’S WAR STRATEGY
After an impressive Israeli performance from June 5-10, 1967, in which Israel destroyed Egypt’s air force on the ground during the first day of war, Westerners praised the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for its decisive victory. Many compared the characteristics of the war to Napoleon Bonaparte’s use of Antoine-Henri Jomini’s principles of war, involving speed, surprise, concentration, and the offensive. Sadat, however, needed to take on a different approach. Eighty-five percent of Egypt’s air force and 80 percent of its ground equipment were destroyed in 1967. While Israel grew even stronger militarily after its victory, Egypt was slow to recover due to its collapsing economy. By 1973, Egypt’s armed forces were still unprepared to fight another war with Israel. Many senior military commanders opposed war when Sadat proposed the idea in 1972.
Considering Egypt’s military weaknesses, Sadat proposed a limited war focused on inflicting the heaviest Israeli losses as opposed to defeating the Israelis. By causing high casualties, Sadat expected to change Israel’s thinking and morale, undermining the country’s belief in its ability to protect itself in the future. To achieve this, Sadat planned for two fronts: Egyptian forces in the south and Syrians in the north. By forming a coalition with Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad, Egypt could offset, to some degree, Israel’s superior forces.
In addition to generating heavy losses, Sadat planned for Egypt’s armed forces to cross the Suez Canal and recapture as much as the Sinai as possible. Sadat used to tell Nasser, “If we could recapture even 4 inches of Sinai territory (by which I meant a foothold, pure and simple), and establish ourselves there so firmly that no power on earth could dislodge us, then the whole situation would change—east, west, all over.” Therefore, Sadat’s goal never called for the ambitious recapture of the entire Sinai. Instead, Egyptian armed forces would focus on casualties rather than terrain, only taking land if the opportunity arose.
The element of surprise was also crucial to offset Israel’s superior forces and produce psychological effects. Sadat implemented several endeavors to deceive the Israelis to thinking Egypt would not wage a war. These efforts will be discussed later, but it is important to note Sadat’s clever manipulations. For example, he strategically chose the month of October because it was during Ramadan, an unlikely time for predominantly Muslim countries to wage a war. In addition, the 6th of October was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Many Israeli soldiers would be home, praying and fasting with family.
Sadat also deceived the Israelis by expelling Soviet military advisers from Egypt in 1972. Israelis interpreted this move as an indication Egypt would not launch a war in the near future. Sadat also made this decision to distance Egypt from the Soviet Union, providing an opportunity for the United States to exert its influence. By expelling the Soviets, a war with Israel would also be seen as purely Egyptian, as opposed to another episode of the Cold War. If the Americans viewed the 1973 war as a proxy with the Soviets, however, the United States would prevent any headway in the region. Despite Sadat’s bold, risky move, the Soviet Union continued to fulfill Egyptian weapons system requests in order not to lose its place in Egypt to the United States.
Another way Sadat used non-military measures to achieve political gains was the opening of backdoor channels to form diplomatic relations with the United States. He also used personal relationships with oil-rich countries to exert economic pressures on the West. Before the start of the war, Sadat enlisted their support, which resulted in an oil price increase of 70 percent on October 17, 1973. Working in tandem with Egyptian and Syrian military efforts, Arab oil-producing states threatened to reduce output 5 percent every month until Israel withdrew from the territories it captured in 1967. The effects of the price increase had a startling impact on markets around the world. On October 19, Saudi Arabia went even further by placing an oil embargo on the United States after Nixon requested from Congress a $2.2 billion emergency aid package for Israel. These economic pressures impacted the U.S. decision to pressure Israel to agree to a cease-fire on October 22.
ADDRESSING “HOW” MILITARILY: EGYPTIANS EXPLOIT ISRAELI VULNERABILITIES
To implement this strategy, the Egyptian armed forces focused on exploiting Israeli vulnerabilities in three areas: intelligence, air power, and armed forces. Israel’s decisive victory in 1967 was largely due to excellent intelligence regarding Arab war plans, capabilities, and vulnerabilities. The tremendous success by Israeli Military Intelligence, however, made the country overconfident. As a result, Israel based its war planning on the assumption of having accurate intelligence, which predicted a 48-hour warning of an impending Arab attack. This would later prove a major impediment in October 1973, when its miscalculation resulted in the inability to mobilize troops in time to fight the Egyptians and Syrians.
Arguably, Egypt’s success in exploiting Israeli vulnerabilities in intelligence was largely due to its adversary’s mistakes; however, as mentioned earlier, Sadat pursued a deliberate plan to deceive Israeli Military Intelligence and disguise his intentions. He started by orchestrating a massive media campaign, which included the planting of information in newspapers to make it seem Egypt was not ready for war. Sadat also made subtle moves, such as telling a foreign minister of a certain European country he was going to be at the United Nations in October 1973 because he predicted the minister would tell Israeli officials. He took several measures to confuse Israel regarding his intentions earlier in May that year by mobilizing Egyptian troops. He did the same in August, and the Israelis responded once again by mobilizing its forces. When Egypt conducted the same move in October, however, Israel did not mobilize. When asked why he made this decision, Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan said Sadat “made me do it twice, at a cost of ten million dollars each time. So, when it was the third time round I thought he wasn’t serious.” Not only did Israel consider the costliness of mobilization, Israeli intelligence pointing to the unlikelihood of war and the specific date also played an important factor. Israel was wary of calling up reserves on Oct. 5, which was the eve of Yom Kippur.
Regardless of whether intelligence could predict an Egyptian attack within 48-hours, Israeli intelligence also failed to calculate the time at which Egyptian troops could cross the Suez Canal. After 1967, Israel set up sand embankments on the eastern side of the canal and a defensive line of fortifications known as the Bar Lev. Breaching the sand embankments would take considerable time, providing a period for Israeli forces to mobilize. Israeli intelligence failed to predict Egypt’s use of an ingenious solution: a water pump. Instead of the five to six hours 600 pounds of explosives and one bulldozer required to clear 1,500 cubic meters of sand, water pumps could clear the embankments within two to three.
Egyptians were also concerned about the Israeli Air Force. In contrast to Egypt, Israel’s war strategy depended on maintaining air superiority. Over half its defense budget went to the air force. For this reason, Israel assumed Egypt would not launch a major war without first ensuring sufficient air power, considering a fight in open desert almost suicidal after lessons learned in 1967. To challenge Israeli air superiority, Egypt employed integrated air-defense systems, comprised of SAM-2s, SAM-3s, SAM-6s, SAM-7s, and ZSU-23-4s. Sadat had to strike a delicate balance with the Soviets after expelling its advisers to continue receiving military aid that provided for these technological means.
Israel’s ground forces were the third element Egyptians needed to address in its exploitation of vulnerabilities. Israel maintained predominantly tank-intensive forces after their successes in 1967, where armored brigades led by tanks with little or no infantry support allowed for the lightning advance across the Sinai desert. Not only did Israel emphasize armor in budget allocations, it also altered its doctrine and reorganized its forces, converting several infantry brigades into armor units. Instead of focusing on future wars, the Israeli Defense Force prepared to fight the last one by relying on what worked best in 1967: intelligence, air power, and tanks. The Egyptians exploited this emphasis by employing Soviet anti-tank missiles such as Saggers and RPG-7s. Israel’s predominantly armored units lacked enough infantry, mortars, and artillery to subdue Egyptian infantry armed with these weapons in 1973.
THE EGYPTIAN ASSAULT AND THE SHATTERING OF ISRAELI INVINCIBILITY
On October 6 at 4:30 a.m., Israeli intelligence reported an impending Arab attack. A source indicated a joint Egyptian-Syrian attack would take place at 6 p.m. that day. Not only did Israeli intelligence fail to issue a 48-hour warning in advance of an attack, it predicted the wrong time of attack, actually scheduled for 2 p.m. Israeli reserves and troops were still mobilizing during the initial assault. Almost every element in the Egyptian crossing operation went according to plan. In Sadat’s memoir, he recalls, “Israel had been boasting of the Six-Day war; now we could boast of the Six-Hour War.” The attack stunned virtually everyone in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir said, “The circumstances could not possibly have been worse. In the first two or three days of the war, only a thin line of brave young men stood between us and disaster.”
Matters for the Israeli military only seemed to get worse as confusion consumed the battlefield. Israeli commanders failed to order the evacuation of strong points, despite the Egyptian surprise attack. It was not until mid-morning on October 7 that Israeli Chief of Staff David Elazar issued the order to evacuate the outposts in proximity of major enemy thrusts. By then, many of the men who had remained at the strong points were surrounded by Egyptian troops or had either been killed or captured. Furthermore, Israeli military doctrine called upon Israelis to never abandon their fellow soldiers. Many Israeli commanders instinctively responded to desperate calls for help, rushing to the strong points. High losses experienced by the Israelis occurred during the first several days of the war in these fortifications, which served as killing grounds for Egyptian troops who ambushed their counterattacks.
Sadat’s goal of striking a psychological blow against Israel started to come to fruition on the second day. The Egyptian troops had already damaged a great deal of Israeli equipment and men. By the end of the morning on the second day, one armored brigade reported its tank count falling from 100 to 23. The heavy losses of men took a toll on Israeli soldiers. General Ariel Sharon recounted that day when he observed troops pulling back from the Suez Canal: “I…saw something strange on their faces—not fear but bewilderment. Suddenly something was happening to them that had never happened before.” Similar sentiment emanated from senior officials. Dayan described October 7 in his morning report as the Day of Judgment and the “fall of the Third Commonwealth.”
The third day of war sealed the full impact of Egyptian and Syrian tactical achievements after a foiled Israeli counterattack. Despite Egyptians clearly holding the initiative on October 8, the Israel Defense Force was determined to stall an expected attack on the passes with its own major countermove. Egyptian resilience and Israeli mistakes, however, ultimately defeated the counterattack. Fog and friction had dominated the battlefield, causing heavy Israeli losses in men and equipment. Despite these losses, the Israelis failed to achieve any tactical or operational gains. Many Israeli historians and analysts consider October 8, 1973, as the worst day in the history of the Israeli military.
THE ISRAELI RESURGENCE AND END OF HOSTILITIES
After three days of surprising successes and soaring confidence, Egyptian commanders and senior officials called for the taking of the Sinai passes. Despite mounting pressure, Sadat remained steadfast, focusing on political ends rather than military means. He preferred caution over a reckless mistake of pushing too fast just for the sake of gaining more territory. Adhering to his original strategy, Sadat told his commanders to continue focusing on Israeli casualties. He wanted time to conduct secret diplomacy with the United States.
By October 9, however, the military situation on the second front was deteriorating. Sadat started to receive Syrian calls for help. A special emissary from Asad traveled to Cairo on October 11, pleading for the Egyptians to relieve Israeli pressure in the Golan. Confronted with the possibility of losing political credibility in the Arab world, Sadat felt compelled to demonstrate solidarity with the Syrians against Israel. Economic factors may also have influenced his decision, because Egypt relied heavily on financial assistance from Arab oil-producing countries. Taking the offensive in the Sinai, however, would significantly alter the course of the war. On October 14, Egyptian forces implemented orders to take the passes, resulting in sheer disaster as a result of attempting an offensive attack too late with insufficient forces. With Israeli troops reinforced with U.S. antitank TOW (Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided) missiles, the Egyptians were unable to penetrate Israel’s defensive positions. Before the end of the day, Egyptian forces were in full retreat to their bridgeheads. In their wake, they left behind some 250 destroyed tanks, which surpassed the 240 tanks they lost from October 6-13.
With an opportunity to seize the initiative, the Israelis devised a crossing operation for October 15. While the assault resulted in intense fighting and heavy losses, Israeli forces were successful. Nevertheless, Sadat’s goal of shattering Israel’s belief in its security was reinforced when Israeli commanders were increasingly concerned about casualties. As a result, Israeli commanders began to gravitate toward operations that favored armored tactics as opposed to infantry support. Despite achieving heavy Israeli casualties, Sadat became increasingly concerned. The Israeli forces had pushed their way to within about a kilometer of the main Cairo-Ismailia highway. Sadat’s hope now rested with the United States and the Soviet Union, who agreed to sponsor a UN resolution calling for a cease-fire. The Americans were crucial in pressuring Israel to abide by the resolution on October 22. Israel, however, broke the ceasefire by continuing its advance after claiming Egypt fired on Israeli forces first.
During this time, the Soviet Union and the United States became increasingly concerned about being drawn into the war. Moscow made it clear to Nixon that if Washington would not pressure Israel to cooperate and stop its violation of the ceasefire, the Soviets might be faced with taking appropriate steps unilaterally. The Soviet Union placed seven airborne divisions on a heightened state of alert and increased its naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea. Responding to Soviet actions, the United States decided to raise the U.S. nuclear alert to Defense Condition 3 (DEFCON3), the first of such an alert since the Cuban Missile Crisis 11 years prior. After U.S. pressure, Israel agreed to a second ceasefire on October 25.
THE WAR’S IMPACT IN ISRAEL
While Israel emerged from the war militarily victorious—encircling Suez City and penetrating 20km into Syria—Sadat achieved his goal of destroying Israeli confidence in its security and reorienting U.S. policy in the Middle East. Over 2,800 Israelis died in the war, and 7,500 were wounded. For a small country like Israel, this figure was immense. If compared to U.S. losses in Vietnam, which numbered around 50,000, Americans would have suffered 200,000 dead in proportion to the number of Israelis killed in 1973. Another type of casualty arose in the Israel Defense Forces. Prior to 1973, there were few psychiatric cases resulting from battle. The war, however, produced a high ratio of cases.
After the war, Israelis became obsessed with the question of what went wrong. With mandatory service, all Israeli homes felt the effects of war and called for accountability and an inquiry to investigate the failure of the government and Israeli military. After a series of protests, Meir agreed to the conduct of an investigation, carried out by the Agranat Commission. The investigation criticized Israeli Military Intelligence for failing to provide accurate information pointing to a high probability of war and recommended the termination of its director’s career, among a few others. Its report also found Elazar seriously negligent in his overconfidence in the Israeli military’s ability to repel an attack on two fronts. It criticized him for not ordering a partial mobilization by the morning of October 5 as a precautionary measure and called for his resignation. The commission also criticized the Israel Defense Force for lacking a detailed plan based on realistic assessments of Syrian and Egyptian capabilities in the event of a surprise attack.
While many other military officials received negative evaluations, the commission failed to indict the Israeli political leadership. As a result, there was public outrage and protests throughout the country. Many Israelis felt the commission used the military leadership as a scapegoat for the failure caused by Meir and Dayan. The national turmoil had already affected politics, with Meir’s Labor Party losing six of its previous 57 Knesset seats in the December elections. Meir was unable to form a coalition until March 10, 1974. With public outrage over the report, however, Meir decided to step down as prime minister on April 11, 1974. When another round of elections occurred in 1977, Menachem Begin and the Likud Party came to power, ending the Labor Party’s control of the country, a tenure that had endured since the establishment of the state in 1948.
It is important to note the formation of the Agranat Commission and the political changes within Israel, because they shed light upon the effects caused by the war. One of Sadat’s main objectives in 1973 was the disintegration of Israeli invincibility and confidence in its security. He achieved this by inflicting heavy casualties in a limited war that came as a surprise to Israel. The war humbled his adversary and altered the Israeli political landscape. Furthermore, it brought the Israelis to the negotiating table.
PEACE AT A HIGH PRICE
After the war, the United States altered its policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. A situation emerged that provided an opportunity to increase U.S. influence at Soviet expense. Washington now worked toward promoting peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt. Despite failing to achieve a military victory in the war, Sadat fulfilled his political objective of reorienting relations toward the West. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was key in the negotiations and intermediated directly between the two countries to keep the Soviets out of the peace process. The war also resulted in mending Egypt’s failing economy, which Sadat had aimed to do by reorienting Egypt’s relationship from the Soviet Union to the United States. Washington began sending Egypt economic assistance, making the country America’s main recipient of foreign aid after Israel.
Not only was Sadat able to attract Western capital, he also restored Egyptian pride. In his memoir, Sadat described the war as changing the world order. He said the “Arab people were no longer a ‘lifeless body’ but a world power—they could fight, and in fact defeat, Israel.” Sadat also noted Egypt did not go to war for the sake of war, but for a “respectable place at the negotiating table.” Sadat’s objective was fulfilled after Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula in September 1978 as a result of the Camp David Accords. On March 26, 1979, Egypt and Israel signed a historic peace treaty.
After making peace with Israel, many in the Arab world viewed Sadat as a traitor, calling him Israel’s man and an American puppet. Sadat also faced opposition at home. Egypt’s National Unionist Progressive Party publicly denounced the peace treaty, saying it was made at the expense of Arabs. After a failed plot to overthrow Sadat and numerous plans to assassinate him, one eventually succeeded. On October 6, 1981, Sadat was assassinated at the annual victory parade held in Cairo celebrating the crossing of the Suez Canal during the 1973 October War.
While Sadat was able to achieve his objectives through a strategy focused on political gains as opposed to military victory, his efforts ultimately cost him his life and isolated Egypt from the Arab world. Furthermore, his bold moves, which involved the delicate balance of secrets and manipulation in order to surprise the Israelis, were risky. If Israeli intelligence had discovered his intent earlier, his plan would have been foiled. Regardless of an intelligence failure, Elazar could have called for partial mobilization on October 5 after witnessing a large number of Arab troops massing on the Syrian and Egyptian fronts. If Elazar had done so, the Egyptians may have been unable to assault the fortified positions along the Bar Lev line. Instead of political gains, Sadat would have incurred heavy human and material losses. He also probably would not have survived politically.
Moreover, Sadat’s strategy hinged on the belief that an Arab initiative in the first 24-hours would result in shattering the myth of Israeli invincibility. Sadat had no way of knowing how Israel would react to heavy casualties, despite achieving a military victory. Sadat’s strategy also relied on Western involvement. If the United States had not pressured Israel to accept a ceasefire, Israeli forces could have made it all the way to Cairo. In such a scenario, Sadat would have placed Egypt at an even lower position at the negotiating table.
Sadat, however, understood these gambles. He once told a close adviser he liked men who took risks: “If they were prepared to do what they believe in and accept the consequences…without the willingness to take such risks, nothing would ever change.” Sadat saw a limited war as the only way to address Egypt’s economic woes, restore Arab self-confidence, and achieve a lasting peace with Israel. According to Clausewitz, military leaders should be “guided by the laws of probability.” In waging war, there is a lack of clarity, and risks must be undertaken. Sadat’s probability assessment ultimately proved correct, and the risks he undertook were crucial in forcing a more powerful adversary and two superpowers to change their attitudes toward the Middle East.
The 1973 October War illustrates how war is an instrument of policy by other means. Other than Sadat, few would have predicted a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel as a result of a fourth Arab-Israeli war. When the Egyptian president addressed the Israeli Knesset on November 20, 1977, he acknowledged his responsibility to employ any instrument necessary to achieve this peace, saying:
“God Almighty has made it my fate to assume responsibility on behalf of the Egyptian people…the main duty of which, dictated by responsibility, is to exploit all and every means in a bid to save my Egyptian Arab people and the pan-Arab nation from the horrors of new suffering and destructive wars, the dimensions of which are foreseen only by God Himself.”
After four Arab-Israeli wars, Sadat could finally conclude his address in Jerusalem with “Salam Aleikum—peace be upon you.”
*All footnotes can be found in the original publication here.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Tens of Thousands of Syrian Rebels Poised to Regroup,” The Cipher Brief, October 12, 2017
Al Qaeda’s role in the Syrian civil war drastically increased after the al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) managed to take control of Syria’s northwestern Idlib province and position itself as the strongest rebel force battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. HTS has built accumulated support in Syria by focusing its attention on battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as opposed to concentrating its efforts on international targets. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with counterterrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross to discuss HTS’ influence in Syria, the organization’s overall strategy, and the group’s short and long-term objectives.
The Cipher Brief: Al Qaeda-linked militants in Syria formed an umbrella group known Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has incorporated several Syrian rebel factions. It has taken hold of Idlib province in northwestern Syria, and now represents the strongest opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. How has the group managed to consolidate power? Does it represent a formidable rebel force?
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross: Many factors contributed to HTS’ creation. One set of factors was endogenous to its predecessor organization, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). JFS leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani faced internal pressures within his organization that moved him toward seeing HTS as strategically necessary. A second set of factors is exogenous to JFS, including the relationships between rebel groups. Five militant factions that were clashing with JFS joined the militant group Ahrar al-Sham, at least in part. This expansion of Ahrar al-Sham with groups hostile to JFS provided the impetus for JFS to accelerate efforts to swell its ranks.
But in addition to these endogenous and exogenous factors, there is a strategic dimension to HTS’ formation, and earlier moves on the part of HTS’ predecessors enabled the group’s later consolidation of power. Prior to JFS’ formation, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria was known as Jabhat al-Nusra. In contrast to the Islamic State’s (ISIS) decision to try to dominate all militant factions on the ground, Nusra adopted more of a big tent approach of cooperation with other rebel groups. A significant step in the group’s evolution toward becoming HTSwas then-Nusra front emir Julani’s emirate plan. Revealed through leaked audio in July 2014, the plan called for the announcement of an emirate in the Levant and implementation of sharia in areas the emirate controlled. To create an emirate, Nusra would have to unify disparate militant efforts in Syria and fend off the challenge posed by ISIS.
Nusra took advantage of the fact that it was then widely regarded as a spent force, so U.S. airstrikes did not focus on it. The only time the U.S. hit Nusra targets during this period was when the U.S. struck at the “Khorasan Group” (affiliated with al Qaeda’s core leadership), which was embedded with Nusra and other rebel groups. The Pentagon said at the time that the Khorasan Group was plotting to attack American and Western interests. The United States’ narrow targeting of the Khorasan Group while Nusra was left largely unchecked was driven in part by the fact that Nusra was heavily intertwined with other rebel factions and the U.S. did not want to be seen as attacking the anti-Assad rebels as a whole. However, this targeting decision also helped Nusra/al Qaeda achieve a stronger base in Syria.
Following the announcement of the emirate plan, Nusra was able to assemble the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in March 2015. As the New York Times has noted, Jaysh al-Fatah was “a loose alliance” rather than a “unified army.” That is, its members shared resources, coordinated military efforts, but remained “independent, and there is no overall military commander.” Jaysh al-Fatah was predominantly composed of Islamist factions, including Nusra and also the group that is now the most prominent Sunni rebel alternative to HTS(other than ISIS), Ahrar al-Sham. One key impetus behind Jaysh al-Fatah’s creation was the fact that ISIS had gobbled up Deir ez-Zor from April to July 2014, taking the governorate from al-Qaeda and other rebels. This defeat made clear that Nusra needed a new military approach. Jaysh al-Fatah began with a bang, capturing the provincial capital of Idlib the same month that it was announced. The coalition was able to carve out a safe haven that was approximately the size of one of the smaller New England states.
Another key step toward HTS’ formation was Nusra/JFS’s public dissociation from al Qaeda. This announcement proved to be a precursor step to the formation of HTS. HTS was initially formed by five rebel factions: JFS, Harakat Nur al-Din al-Zinki, Liwa al-Haq, Liwa Ansar al-Din, and Jaysh al-Sunna. It is unlike Jaysh al-Fatah in the sense that the factions that make up HTS no longer retain a nominal separate identity. Instead, they officially dissolved, becoming part of a new entity.
Does it represent a formidable rebel force? Yes. Ahrar al-Sham has lost a number of fighters to HTS through defection, and as of January 2017 the Middle East newscompany Al-Sharq Al-Awsat estimated that HTS had 31,000 fighters. Though such estimates should be viewed with some caution, as even official estimates of the numbers in Syria-based militant factions have proven to be unreliable in important ways in the past, the core idea that the group has tens of thousands of fighters seems correct.
TCB: What are HTS’ objectives? Does it prioritize ousting Assad from power or attacking regional and international adversaries such as Turkey, the EU, and the U.S.?
Gartenstein-Ross: Objectives and priorities should be understood as separate things. Forsalafi jihadist groups like HTS, their long-term objectives, or ultimate goals, are inherently rooted in their ideology. Salafi jihadism is a violent outgrowth of the salafi movement, and has several long-term objectives that drive its use of violence. One objective is to impose sharia, or Islamic law, a goal that can be seen in Julani’s emirate plan; sharia has also consistently been implemented by al Qaeda affiliates whenever they have been able to capture distinct geographic areas, including in Northern Mali, Somali, Yemen, and elsewhere. Another objective of the salafi jihadist movement is reestablishment of the caliphate. Al Qaeda leaders have made numerous references to the need to reestablish the caliphate, though they rejected ISIS’ claim to have done so as illegitimate because it did not fulfill the necessary prerequisites.
The caliphate’s alleged establishment did not end ISIS’ war against the infidels, nor would it do so for al Qaeda. One work that shows how jihadists envision their fight continuing even after the caliphate has been restored is Jordanian journalist Fouad Hussein’s influential 2005 book Al-Zarqawi: The Second Generation of al-Qaeda, which Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright has called “perhaps the most definitive outline of al-Qaeda’s master plan.” Hussein shows that al Qaeda’s strategists foresaw a “stage of all-out confrontation” with the forces of atheism after the caliphate is established. Hussein writes, “Al-Qaeda ideologues believe that the all-out confrontation with the forces of falsehood will take a few years at most. The enormous potential of the Islamic state—particularly because the Muslim population will amount to more than 1.5 billion—will terrify the enemy and prompt them to retreat rapidly.”
But long-term objectives do not dictate current priorities, which are driven by a group’s situation and strategy. There is no evidence that HTS’ current priority is attacking Turkey, the EU, and the U.S., which would likely be strategically counterproductive. Instead, HTS seems intent on consolidating its power in parts of Syria. Jihadist groups have a tendency to intermingle the local with the transnational, so we should not take its current local prioritization as unchangeable – but the group is currently emphasizing the local, while its overarching objectives remain transnational.
TCB: HTS publicly severed ties with the al-Qaeda network while under its previous name, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Does the group still maintain ties to al-Qaeda?
Gartenstein-Ross: I assess it as highly probable that HTS maintains ties to al Qaeda. When al Qaeda first moved into the Syria theater, its affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra disguised the fact that it was part of the al Qaeda organization. This was designed to allow it to operate as part of a broader rebel coalition. ISIS ultimately forced Nusra to reveal its relationship with al Qaeda when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi publicly claimed that Nusra was subservient to him. In response, Julani acknowledged Nusra’s affiliation with al Qaeda, and appealed to Zawahiri to resolve his dispute with Baghdadi. While Zawahiri did side with Julani, he was not happy that, in responding to Baghdadi, Julani showed “his links to al-Qaeda without having our permission or advice, even without notifying us.”
There are several examples of al Qaeda employing clandestine connections to its affiliates. Indeed, an official al Qaeda publication outlines what may have been intended by JFS’ public dissociation, as Al-Masra (a weekly newsletter of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that is a key source for understanding al Qaeda’s thinking) published an article by the pseudonymous Osama bin Saleh on August 9, 2016. In a section of his letter titled “Not Standing Out,” Saleh reiterated that al-Qaeda never wanted a publicly-acknowledged affiliate in Syria. He quoted the May 2014 passage from Zawahiri reprimanding Julani for announcing al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria without authorization. Bin Saleh also pointed to an August 2010 letter (previously released by the U.S. government) from bin Laden to Ahmed Godane, the emir of Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab. Bin Laden told Godane that Shabaab’s “unity” with al-Qaeda “should be carried out … through unannounced secret messaging.” Godane and his men could spread the news that Shabaab had joined al-Qaeda “among the people of Somalia,” but should not make “any official declaration” of allegiance. The letter to Godane made clear that Shabaab was already part of al-Qaeda at the time, but bin Laden believed ambiguity was a strategic advantage. “If the matter becomes declared and out in the open, it would have the enemies escalate their anger and mobilize against you,” bin Laden wrote. Though bin Laden conceded that “enemies will find out inevitably” about Shabaab’s allegiance to al-Qaeda, he argued that “an official declaration remains to be the master of all proof.” Bin Saleh underlined the point: “Notice that the leadership of the organization [al-Qaeda] was not passionate about declaring their relationship with other factions, in order to avoid confrontation with the enemies and … denying them excuses.”
While open sources do not fully answer the question of HTS’ connection to al Qaeda – just as in the past they did not fully answer questions about al Qaeda’s connection to groups like al-Shabaab or Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia until important documents were later made public – I would advise keeping this strategic calculus in mind when considering the question.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Terrorists Are Using Drones Now. And That’s Not the Worst of It,” Fortune, September 9, 2017
Sixteen years after the 9/11 attacks and the onset of the “war on terror,” the jihadist movement has grown stronger in almost every measurable way. Jihadists enjoy more safe havens throughout the globe, control more territory, are at the forefront of more insurgencies, and have achieved more popular support than they did 16 years ago. The pace and lethality of terrorist attacks in Europe represents something of a nightmare scenario, with hundreds of Europeans dying in the past three years. ISIS’s mobilization of foreign fighters creates a looming security issue across dozens of countries that will have to deal with returning fighters.
While the factors leading us to this alarming state of affairs are many—including ill conceived foreign adventures and critical misreadings by analysts at key junctures, including the lead-up to the Iraq war and early on the Arab uprisings—we cannot overlook how technological advances have provided terrorists with significant new opportunities.
Technology has tended to have an ambiguous impact on sub-state violence. While militant groups seek to capitalize on new advances, states can leverage these same platforms, including for surveillance and getting information from local populations.
One of the most important studies on this issue, by political scientists Jacob Shapiro and Nils Weidmann, used micro-level data from Iraq to compare trends in cell phone network penetration with insurgent violence. The trends in declining violence that Shapiro and Weidmann found suggested to them “that cell phone coverage reduces insurgent violence largely because it enhances voluntary information flow from noncombatants to counterinsurgents by reducing the risks of informing.”
The ambiguous impact of new technologies appears to have given way in recent years, with militant groups capturing the upper hand. This is likely because the world has witnessed breakthroughs across so many spheres at once that exploiting new advances has proven easier for those who would use them to destroy—who have the easier job—than for those who want to use them to protect.
An early sign of this shifting technological advantage was the way ISIS combined a deft exploitation of social media’s potential with advances in DIY video production techniques to craft slick and effective propaganda that helped drive a record number of foreign fighters to the Syria-Iraq theater.
Though suspensions of pro-ISIS accounts by service providers reduced, but did not eliminate, the returns ISIS could expect from social media, the militant group had already found other creative ways to exploit new advances.
The post-Edward Snowden boom in end-to-end encryption allowed ISIS to forge digital methods of providing the same services to remote operatives that physical terrorist networks once provided. Over the past few years, Syria-based ISIS operatives have found recruits online, spurred them to action, and played an intimate role in the conceptualization, target selection, timing, and execution of attacks. They used encrypted communication platforms to assist in bomb-making techniques. Virtual planners have even helped operatives who got cold feet, literally coaching them until the moment they blew themselves up.
The virtual planner model has helped transform lone attackers who rely on the Internet from the bungling wannabes of a decade ago into something more dangerous. These operatives have been seamlessly incorporated into jihadist groups’ global strategy in a way they never were before.
Then there are advances that haven’t yet been used in Western countries, but that militant groups are already beginning to master. As Iraqi forces retook Mosul from ISIS, the militant group used drones to drop explosives on the advancing soldiers. And then there are the powerful, improvised explosive devices that have become all too common in the war zones of the Middle East and South Asia—designs that we fortunately haven’t yet seen successfully migrate to Western cities.
Over time, the advantages of new technologies may swing back in favor of states. It’s possible that this will result from hard work on the part of governments that grapple with whether their organizational design is sufficient to deal with the perils and promises of new technologies. But for now, the efficacy of militant groups continues to rise, and every time you stop to admire a new app or tech toy, someone else is wondering how they can use it to kill.
We should brace for worse.
March 1, 2016: Thomas Joscelyn on the slow release of Osama bin Laden’s trove of documents.
Available through the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ website here.