The Makers of Jihadist Strategy

February 4, 2014

Michael W. S. Ryan, Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

These days, westerners write more about jihadist strategy than the jihadists do.  In fact, just as the study of jihadist strategy was taking off in the West, the golden age of strategic studies within the jihadist world was coming to an end.  Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America, by Michael W. S. Ryan of the Jamestown Foundation, is one of the most recent contributions to western literature on a jihadist strategy.  It can almost be thought of as the Makers of Modern Strategy for the al Qaeda world.

Like innumerable books on modern jihadism, Ryan’s book discusses the works of Sayyid Qutb and Ayman al-Zawahiri, but its core is an exegesis of the written works of four of the most prominent strategic thinkers in the al Qaeda world: Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi, Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin, Abu Bakr al-Naji, and Abu Musab al-Suri.  Interestingly, even though the struggle against al Qaeda continues unabated, by 2005 all of the writers highlighted in this book had gone silent—captured, killed, or vanished—and no comparably big names have since arisen to take their place.

Ryan is diligent in noting the many shortcomings in the strategic thought of the individuals he discusses.  However, two of these thinkers, al-Qurashi and al-Muqrin, are undeniably the intellectual inferiors among the quartet.  In many ways, al-Qurashi is more of a pundit than a full-fledged strategic thinker in his own right, and Ryan doesn’t portray him as any deeper in this book.  Al-Qurashi’s modus operandi was to appropriate western works on military strategy or ideas current in western military thought and then show how they indicated the inevitable victory of the mujahideen.  As far as al-Muqrin is concerned, his work is basically an Islamist rehashing of traditional insurgency concepts of individual countries.  Al-Muqrin’s intellectual contribution seems to have been little more than making the ideas of Mao and Giap more accessible to Arab jihadists.

Abu Musab al-Suri, however, is a thinker of a much higher order, one who contributes original thought.  Ryan provides a useful chapter-length summary of his work.  (Those eager for more should read Brynjar Lia’s book, Architect of Global Jihad.)  Al-Suri takes a comprehensive look at the last fifty years of Sunni Islamist radicalism and observes that its revolutions have repeatedly been thwarted both militarily and in terms of spreading their message.  He finds that the two main modes of jihadist operations are no longer applicable.  Clandestine terrorist organizations like the Egyptian Islamic Group can no longer achieve their goals given post-Cold War realities.  They cannot play the two superpowers against each other and they are too weak to survive without sanctuary or support.  Meanwhile, the “open fronts” such as Afghanistan in the 1980s (or Syria today) are usually doomed to failure unless they are in far corners of the earth, because the United States and other high-tech powers are militarily undefeatable and willing to intervene almost anywhere.  In fact, in general Al-Suri thinks that modern militaries are essentially unbeatable on their own terms, especially when they operate in concert with the local security services which know the human terrain and have excellent intelligence insights.

Al-Suri’s solution, of course, is individual jihad, or death by a thousand cuts to the enemies of Islam.   This seems to be a somewhat reworked version of the idea of leaderless resistance, a notion that originated in the 1950s with the American far right—which was concerned about a Communist takeover—and later moved to the racist right, which was concerned about other sorts of takeovers.  It is not at all clear, however, that al-Suri was exposed to the American idea of leaderless resistance and Ryan does not address the question.  In fact, al-Suri was very likely not exposed to it, because though he is well read in the field of western and Marxist literature on revolutionary warfare, there is little written on leaderless resistance, and what there is generally is not categorized as military literature.  (One important piece by Simson L. Garfinkel appeared in First Monday in 2003.)  Hence, this may actually be a case of parallel development of comparable ideas.

In any event, the problem with individual jihad is that—as with leaderless resistance—there is no way to translate individual uncoordinated actions into strategic success.  It is a tactically virtuosic and strategically tone-deaf idea.  As Ryan puts it, “all al-Suri’s individual and small unit terrorism accomplishes is a continuation of random terrorist acts to exhaust an enemy…unaccompanied by open-front insurrections, such acts are politically meaningless.”

Of the four thinkers that Ryan discusses, Abu Bakr Naji is the only one who really addresses al Qaeda’s grand strategic problem: how to build a caliphate that would encompass much of the globe.  Naji assesses the global oppression of Muslims and finds the United States to be the linchpin of that system.  He notes that the U.S., much like the USSR in its day, has global power as a result of a combination of actual military strength, a “deceptive media halo” and social cohesion.  However, these determinants of power are also points of vulnerability.  Successful terrorist and insurgency operations can force the United States to overstretch itself, puncture the media halo and allow the fissures in American society to widen, ultimately laying the country low.  This, Naji says, is what the mujahideen did to the Soviet Union, which he claims was twice as strong as the United States.  Once the United States is brought down, then the mujahideen can use classical Maoist insurgency approaches to building the caliphate one country at a time.

There are a number of problems with Naji’s work, however.  First, his prescription for bringing down the United States could rightly have been described as delusional when it was first written and the intervening decade has provided no reason to think otherwise.  Second, Naji writes in excessively general terms.  For instance, though he does recognize that there are various streams of Islam, he tends to think of Muslims as Muslims, full stop, not stopping to consider other sources of identity such as nationalism or ethnicity.  In the real world, the al Qaeda movement has faced significant problems managing these issues, as the fraught relationship between the Arabs of Al Qaeda and Taliban before 9/11 and difficult relations between Arab and Tuareg Islamists in Mali indicate.  More broadly, political, economic, social and geographic conditions differ radically across the Muslim world.  Hence, it is difficult to imagine that a generic blueprint for revolution will work in all countries.  In fact, every international border will be a firebreak for revolution.  New technologies and social media may allow revolutionary zeal to jump borders more easily than it used to, but revolutionary forces manifest themselves differently in every country and revolutions unfold differently in every country.  Compare Egypt and Jordan (for instance) since 2011 and one sees the point immediately.  As a result, building the caliphate would be a slow, slow process, eminently vulnerable to counteraction.

Ryan emphasizes two main themes in Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy.  The first is the debt owed to traditional Maoist thinking on revolutionary warfare by the strategic thinkers that he considers.  He is thoroughly persuasive on this point.  The other theme is the importance of the “deep battle” of ideas.  Ryan rightly maintains that the United States and its partners are excellent at the “close battle,” killing and capturing terrorists.  He also notes that the jihadists have not been particularly successful in attracting support, as Mao would have wanted them to do.  Unfortunately, his argument for the importance of the “deep battle” and the development of an American counter-narrative seems rather tacked on to the beginning and end of a book that is otherwise overwhelmingly military in its flavor.

Nevertheless, this book is a useful addition to the literature.  It also has the merit of containing in its appendices translations of two essays by Al-Qurashi’s: one very early one dating probably from the 1990s on revolutionary war and one on Fourth Generation Warfare.  Perhaps the book’s greatest contribution, however, is in succinctly illustrating the extent to which the jihadists have failed to answer the most important strategic question: how to conduct a global revolutionary war.


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, D.C.


Photo credit: Paolo Porsia