Earning Al Qaeda’s Respect

September 3, 2013
Predator UAV

While the United States is in an immensely stronger position vis-à-vis the al-Qaeda movement than it was ten or twelve years ago, there have been some setbacks recently.  The coup in Egypt has helped resuscitate al-Qaeda’s claim that violent jihad is indispensable in bringing about Islamist government, a claim that had been dealt a serious blow by the Arab Spring.  In addition, President Obama has now punted on military action in Syria.  We know that in the years before 9/11 al-Qaeda looked at the United States and saw a cowardly country that was loathe to use military force and easy to chase away as had happened in Yemen in 1992 (at least the way al-Qaeda read history) and Somalia in 1993.  Accordingly, the President’s move, as sensible as it is on its own terms, is likely to undermine the credibility and thus the deterrent power of American military action against al-Qaeda.

However, there is a longer-term development that has worked very much to America’s advantage: a growing respect for American military prowess on the part of al-Qaeda and its affiliates.  This growing respect for capability should more than compensate for the reduction in military threat credibility.

There was a time when al-Qaeda scoffed at American military ineptitude.  A major component of this was the cowardice that purportedly characterized non-Muslims.  A common phrase was that non-Muslims loved life whereas the mujahideen loved death.  Typical of this view was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s claim in 2006 that “the lack of will to fight is widely spread among the armies of the Crusaders.”  Bin Laden said that Americans were “like little mice.”

What applied to non-Muslims generally applied in particular to American military personnel.  In The Management of Savagery, Abu Bakr Naji maintained that American troops had “reached a state of effeminacy which made them unable to sustain battles for a long period of time.”  Sayf al-Adel felt that “the American soldier is not fit for combat.”Abu Musab al-Zarqawi said in 2004 that Americans “are the most cowardly of God’s creatures.  They are also an easy prey.”

The jihadists pointed to airpower and high technology as the main way by which the Americans tried to stay militarily competitive with al-Qaeda and its allies, despite the cowardice that they claimed characterized both strategic decision-makers and the soldiers on the ground. However, they maintained that this was no real solution for the United States.  Zarqawi said that “advanced technology [and] the intelligent lethal weapons have failed to defend and protect these idiots.”  The Center for Islamic Studies and Research, a group that styled itself as a think tank for al-Qaeda, wrote in 2003 that “the United States’ superiority is in its air power only, and air power, as everyone knows, cannot decide a war.”

At the time there were a few prominent jihadists who argued that the United States and modern “crusader” militaries actually were a great threat.  Abu Musab al-Suri was prominent among them and this belief was a key element in his argument for “individual jihad.” However, these were decidedly minority views.

Some jihadists still think that American and other Western soldiers are cowards.  For instance, earlier this year a statement from Ansar al-Din stated that the French troops operating in Mali were among the “most coward[ly] creatures” and “and if it wasn’t for the indiscriminate bombing that affected trees, farms, animals, wells and unarmed civilians, you would have seen their bodies scattered in the desert and the wolves feeding on them.”  Tellingly, however, the same sentence went on to say that “war has its ups and down[s].”

Today, however, more and more jihadists are taking the United States’ military capabilities very seriously and this new view probably extends to other NATO militaries, as well.  Certainly, there is little scoffing these days at the effectiveness of modern airpower or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. There is a great respect for the U.S.’s ability to win the military campaigns in which it gets involved. Much of this, though not all of it, revolves around drones.

The signs are everywhere.  A few days ago when American strikes on Syria seemed imminent, Fatah al-Islam, among other groups, warned its members to be ready for the possibility that the strikes would be on jihadist targets as well as Assad regime targets.  “Start changing your locations, and use safe houses, and don’t move around in obvious convoys,” was the advice to its members. “Take away mobile phones from the troops, and send them away from the leadership.” The warning went on: “America destroyed jihadi bases in a very short period of time in Afghanistan and Iraq, and killed a large number of them, because they weren’t prepared. So don’t fall in the trap of laziness.” The group’s members were also urged not to shoot at American aircraft as such efforts would “practically be suicidal.” Along similar lines, a “brother” sympathetic to Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS urged “all leaders [to] change their locations… avoid meetings and avoid being present in any area in large numbers… [and] provoke a torrent of misinformation about our plans and locations to confuse the enemy.”

This view is not just localized among jihadists in Syria.  The premiere issue of the Taliban magazine Azan in March 2013 contained an article on drones saying that they were a disaster for the Muslim ummah. A junior British jihadist commented to associates in a 2011 conversation secretly recorded by the British police that Waziristan “hasn’t got no more camps now… the brothers used to be in the mountains [but] the drones just get them straight away, they just bomb the camps, so … they taught us inside houses.”  In addition, among the documents found in Bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad were grim letters from Bin Laden to Atiyah Abd al-Rahman discussing the unblinking eye of American drones and their ability to rain precise death down from the skies.

In the eyes of at least some jihadists, the drones have not just been tactically effective, but also have had operational and even strategic significance.  A document found by the Associated Press in Timbuktu discussed the experience of Ansar al-Sharia with drones in Yemen.  While the United States, the document said, suffered from war fatigue and economic exhaustion, drones provided a very lethal and low-cost method of sidestepping those problems and staying in the fight against the mujahideen.  Similarly, the article in Azan said that the Americans “have decided to re-route their ‘war tactics’.  Possibly exhausted because of the tedious, fruitless killing of innocent men and women for more than a decade, the Americans have thought of new ways to prolong this war.”

In other words, it is not merely that American and other Western forces are good at hitting what they aim at.  They are also victorious in their campaigns against the jihadists.  A letter from Abdelmalek Droukdel, the emir of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to his subordinates in Mali urged them not to provoke a military intervention from any of the “great powers” because that would inevitably lead to the defeat of the effort in Mali.

The great powers with hegemony over the international situation, despite their weakness and their retreat caused by military exhaustion and the financial crisis, still have many cards to play that enable them to prevent the creation of an Islamic state in Azawad ruled by the jihadis and Islamists.

And so, it is very probable, perhaps certain, that a military intervention will occur, whether directly or indirectly, or that a complete economic, political and military blockade will be imposed along with multiple pressures, which in the end will either force us to retreat to our rear bases or will provoke the people against us…

Certainly it appears that that is just what happened at the hands of the French military.

All this is good news for the United States and its NATO partners.  However, there is one downside.  If al-Qaeda and its brethren are finally recognizing the military power that we possess, then it shows that unfortunately we face an enemy who is not stuck on stupid.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC.

Photo Credit: UK Ministry of Defence