The members of the Al Qaeda-inspired jihadist movement exist along a continuum of commitment to instrumental thought. At one end are warriors who see participation in violent jihad as an expression of identity and faith. For these expressive warriors, the question of victory is remote. Theirs is a micro-level war oriented around issues such as maintaining solidarity with their friends, demonstrating bravery, and getting martyred.
At the other end of the spectrum are soldiers or strategists who see participation in violent jihad as an instrumental act that can bring a desired end state closer. Not all of these individuals are leaders, though this class of people is disproportionately represented in the leadership. While they also see engagement in jihad as an expressive act, they nonetheless feel obligated to seek victory: the reform of Islam back to what they view as its pure roots and the restoration of an Islamic super-state. This would be the Caliphate or at the very least smaller Islamic emirates such as exist in Syria today, which might someday be part of the Caliphate.
To the expressive warriors, assessments of progress are scarcely relevant. But the soldier/strategists, or at least the elites among them, have very definite ideas about what constitutes progress toward their desired end state. As we continue our efforts to thwart their progress, it would behoove us to understand how they gauge that progress.
Not surprisingly given the loose nature of the Al Qaeda-inspired movement, there is no formal assessment body or assessment mechanism. However, the strategic elites do tend to focus on four measures of merit, particularly when speaking privately among themselves:
1. The degree to which Muslims are expressing discontent with their local “apostate” governments, the United States, and Israel.
A core component of the Al Qaeda ideology is that it is a vanguard movement which has a major purpose of lifting the consciousness of the global Muslim community and making it aware of the need for action. As Ayman al-Zawahiri put it in his September statement, a “basic task” must be “creating awareness within the masses, inciting them, and exerting efforts to mobilize them so that they revolt against their rulers and join the side of Islam and those working for its cause.” Similarly, a captured strategy document from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb calls for “building bridges” to the people of Mali. The fact that awakening and educating the people is considered an inherent good helps explain why some leaders, such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Basir al-Tartusi, have even come around to accepting the Arab Spring as a modest improvement – even though the new governments fall short of their definition of properly Islamic.
2. The number of people in the movement.
Ultimately, the Al Qaeda project is about bringing the world’s approximately 1.5 billion Muslims around to the allegedly correct understanding of the faith. This understanding entails a commitment to action: participation in or support of the violent jihad. This issue of participation is the cause of great disappointment. Doku Umarov, the head of the Caucasus Emirate, lamented in 2010 that “every day I spend in this world brings disappointment with those Muslims who, because of their slumber, because of their sleep, hypnosis that they have [had] thrust on them, lost the greatness of Islam.” The next year he said, “We see in what disastrous state our ummah is. Today, the ummah is 1.5 billion in numbers, and we know that even .05% of these numbers of this ummah do not wage the jihad.” Umarov and, in his day, Abu Musab al-Suri are among the few jihadist elites willing to express such views in such stark terms in public. However, a document found in Abbottabad indicated that in 2010 Bin Laden complained to Atiyah abd al-Rahman, one of his most trusted lieutenants, about “the alienation of most of the nation from the mujahidin.”
3. The degree to which the movement enjoys freedom of operations.
The movement’s elites realize that they cannot advance their cause if they cannot operate. Hence they worry a good deal about the degree to which their operations are impeded. Of course, the most prominent hindrance in recent years has been American drone operations. From Bin Laden to a senior commander in Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to a low-level foot soldier on trial for going to the camps in Pakistan, jihadists have repeatedly commented on the impediments caused by American drones.
However, there are other concerns, too. As Jessica Huckabey and I have written elsewhere, historically the “apostate” security services have been an even greater barrier to action, often playing a major role in inducing jihadists to leave their home countries and conduct their jihad elsewhere. Maqdisi has even written that paranoia about electronic surveillance can needlessly paralyze jihadists.
In addition, as Mao tells us, freedom of movement and operation also depends on the population providing at least passive support. That depends not only on popular political awareness but also on the degree to which the local regime will detect and punish that passive support, as noted in an internal assessment of Al Qaeda in Iraq from about 2007. Finally, this freedom can also depend on the degree to which Al Qaeda can figure out how to operate within existing social structures, such as the tribal systems of Iraq or the clan networks of Somalia.
4. The gain or loss of territory.
Ultimately, the Al Qaeda movement seeks to liberate territory within which true Islam (as they see it) will prevail. These victories and defeats are complex, but territorial victories are celebrated nonetheless. As a senior jihadist put it in a 2012 private letter to his senior subordinate in Mali: “Allah has crowned your jihad with victories and put the country in your hands.” Meanwhile, losses are lamented, whether they be the defeat at the Battle of Jalalabad in 1989 or the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
In themselves, these measures of progress are not particularly surprising, though I hope that it is interesting to see them enunciated. It should also be heartening that the instrumental elites are frequently bearish on items 2 and 3. Still, it is worth taking public expressions of optimism with a grain of salt. Because the Al Qaida movement depends on maintaining the morale of its members and appearing to be on the right side of history, public pronouncements tend toward the positive. For instance, in the same statement in which Doku Umarov complained about the slumbering Islamic nation, he was also careful to say that there were 10-30,000 fighters in the Caucasus and this was all that they needed. When all else fails, the movement will fall back on touting tactical successes—regardless of whether they amount to anything strategically—or to joyous announcements of martyrdoms.
More importantly, it should be noted that the movement suffers from the same problems with strategic compression that the United States does. Elites in the jihadist movement routinely complain about self-inflicted wounds: primarily ill-considered tactical operations conducted by the expressive warriors that kill innocent or protected people, or that give a negative impression of the movement. Such operations negatively affect all the strategic measures of merit listed above. In fact, we might hypothesize that the war in Syria is ultimately harming the Al Qaeda movement by happening at a time and place when news of it can be so widely reported. Perhaps ISIS’ cruelty to the Syrian people and the inevitable splashing of its atrocities all over YouTube hurts Al Qaeda in the long run – and, by extension, serves American interests.
Self-inflicted wounds have long been a problem within the movement, dating back to the 1990s. They represented a particular point of contention between Al Qaeda Central and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. But the problem predated Zarqawi and has long outlasted him, as Nelly Lahoud’s work on Fadil Harun highlights. One of Harun’s motives, indeed, for penning his memoirs was his desire to speak against the many unlawful acts being undertaken in the name of jihad. Similarly, Bin Laden’s 2010 letter to Atiyah blamed Al Qaeda’s alienation from the vast majority of Muslims on the harm that Al Qaeda inflicted on them. He wrote, “It is apparent…that most people in Yemen, if given a choice between a government formed by al-Qaeda or a government formed…by any of the Gulf States…they will choose the government that is formed by the Gulf States.” Adam Gadahn spoke to similar questions in 2011, according to a document found in Abbottabad.
This is not to say that we should encourage the war in Syria to continue in order to damage Al Qaeda’s public standing. On humanitarian grounds alone, that would be unconscionable. But at the least, we should take heart in the fact that the Al Qaeda movement is and always has been in a horrible strategic situation. Not only does it have some powerful enemies, the United States and some very ruthless local governments, but the movement’s very goals and nature are handicaps. Too many of its goals are at cross purposes with one another and the more members of the movement there are, the more opposition it engenders.
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.
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