Strategic Overstretch and the Jihadist Generation Gap

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There has been no shortage of analytical efforts to conceptualize the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in recent months, specifically the ways in which the group differs from its erstwhile ally, al Qaida. In so many ways — tactically, operationally, strategically — ISIL represents a sharp divergence from al Qaida. But perhaps the best way to understand this is simply as a generation gap.

ISIL is like the scruffy teenager who stays out all night without telling his parents what he’s doing, and stumbles home in the morning stinking of alcohol and sporting a new tattoo. Meanwhile, al Qaida Central is the somewhat repressed, cardigan-wearing father who looks up from his copy of The Economist and greets his wayward offspring with, “when will you finally grow up and show some restraint?”

This contrast comes out starkly when comparing the latest issue of Dabiq, ISIL’s online magazine, with the recent inaugural edition of Resurgence, al Qaida Central’s magazine. The former can be summarized as an exhortation to potential recruits: come to Iraq and Syria with your homies to kick some Crusader butt, laugh while platoons of former Syrian soldiers are forced to dig their own graves, lop the heads off of terrified Jews, collect war booty, and relax in your free time with an endless supply of sex slaves. By contrast, the latter is much more staid, appealing primarily to reason rather than passion. The cover story in Resurgence is about “practical steps toward the liberation of Palestine.” The issue also includes an analysis of the vulnerabilities of the international maritime trade system and oil and gas pipelines around the world; a guidance on what to do with NATO shipping containers; and a discussion of the cooperation between the Pakistani Army and the U.S. military, drawing on the work of Bob Woodward, legal scholars from Stanford University, and what seem to be captured Pakistani government documents.

However, the difference between the two groups is most starkly evident in a Resurgence article entitled “Strategic Overstretch in Guerilla Warfare.” The author is Abu Obaida al Maqdisi, a senior al Qaida intelligence and security specialist who died in April 2013, reportedly in an American drone strike. The magazine describes him as a “student of Shaykh Abu Zubaydah” and a “close associate of Shaykh Saif al Adel in Afghanistan.” Though the essay is at least 18 months old, al Qaida clearly intends its publication in October 2014 as a rebuke to ISIL. The piece is replete with references to canonical insurgency theorists and practitioners. In it, Al-Maqdisi argues that Paul Kennedy’s famous idea of overstretch applies not only to “nations and empires,” but also to jihadist groups engaged in guerilla warfare.   Specifically, he identifies four forms of overstretch that can afflict a guerilla group.

First, “geographic overstretch” occurs, al Maqdisi says, “when a guerilla force carries out a military advance…and attempts to establish control over recently acquired territories by setting up fixed bases and fighting a conventional war.” Much of this section seems to draw on the concepts found in Chapter 6 of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Al Maqdisi implicitly echoes Sun Tzu in expressing trepidation about giving up the advantages of formlessness. He also notes the necessity to, as Sun Tzu advises, “critically analyze [the enemy] to know the estimations for gain and loss.” Also like the Chinese master, he warns that the enemy will “extend some apparent profit” in an effort to get the mujahideen to take disadvantageous actions. Specifically, al Maqdisi argues that it is necessary to study beforehand what the enemy’s countermoves will be after a major offensive, because “if the enemy feels that the threat posed by the expansion is existential, it will not spare any effort in destroying this threat.” Doing this can be a subtle business; the enemy will sometimes vacate an area “so that you may fall into the trap of fixed defenses, which will eventually result in your encirclement and destruction.” He gives the example of the Tehreek-e-Taliban’s catastrophic overreach into the Swat valley in 2007, and approvingly mentions Che Guevara’s advice that avoiding battle at well-chosen times is itself a form of fighting.

Second, al-Maqdisi discusses “overstretch in special operations.” This is the section with the least direct application to ISIL. However, it implicitly upholds the importance of al Qaida Central as a coordinator and hub for all jihadist groups, and as the guiding hand of a jihadist operational art. Here al-Maqdisi argues that jihadist groups should not conduct “special operations,” (terrorist attacks) “until they have guaranteed the basic conditions of their own survival.” When provoked, “the enemy will escalate the conflict in reaction,” which can “result in the encirclement of the guerilla force…and turning away supporters who are as important for the guerilla as water is for fish.” Al-Maqdisi says that the only time when it is advisable to conduct a special operation that is likely to lead to a crushing response, is when it is necessary to “distract” the enemy’s attention “away from the main front of war.” As an example, he calls for present-day attacks on Saudi Arabia, “so that it remains entangled in its own security problems and is unable to interfere on other fronts,” where its involvement is all too likely to lead to a “calamity” for the mujahideen.

Third, al-Maqdisi lays out the interesting idea of “overstretch in media activities.” Al Qaeda Central probably feels quite vulnerable on this score because ISIL, with its rock star qualities, is clearly running rings around it in the media realm. Al-Maqdisi observes that “guerilla war in its essence is based on gaining legitimacy…and winning people’s hearts and minds.” In order to gain this legitimacy, “it is important that the guerilla[s]…address the people according to their level of understanding.” Hence, they should take a “gradual” approach toward introducing their full program: “we cannot state, at all times and in all places, every truth we believe in.” It is furthermore important to avoid a “menacing tone in the media,” and to constantly reassure the people “that their lives and livelihood will be protected.” The mujahideen should also forge connections with leaders, elders, and decision makers among the general population. On the other hand, it is important to calibrate media statements with actual capabilities: issuing hollow threats encourages resistance and contempt.

Fourth and finally, al-Maqdisi tackles the issue of “overstretch in organizational activities.” “This occurs when organizational activities are expanded in disregard of the real capacity of the organization to absorb the new effects of an expansion.” The phenomenon involves taking in more recruits than can be trained, equipped, and used. According to al-Maqdisi, organizational overstretch wastes the group’s resources and leads to fissures between sub-groups and “communication gap[s] between the leadership and the cadre.” Again, while this is sound advice, it also reflects a stark point of comparison between the staid al Qaeda Central which is a small and exclusive organization and ISIL which welcomes essentially all comers and has had immense numbers of volunteers in recent months.

Today ISIS holds more territory than ever before and it has taken a high media profile. It promises social services to those Iraqis and Syrians who publicly profess its version of Islam and death or slavery to everyone else. At the same time, it offers adventure to young Muslims everywhere. Not surprisingly, it has become the destination of choice for those young radical Sunnis around the world who live only for the moment. Al-Maqdisi would be horrified. Above all, he preached that the mujahideen should respect the capabilities of their enemies, but ISIL is manifestly not doing so. Already, his warnings are coming to pass as a military coalition, that is impressive for its diversity as well as its physical potential, is starting to operate against ISIL. The more that ISIL tries to hold territory, the better target set it will be for the high-tech militaries now facing it. At the same time, the concept of the “Five Star Jihad” has collapsed, with the big story now being how ISIL is threatening to kill European jihadists who have thought better of their adventure and want to return home—surely a “gap between the leadership and the cadre” if there ever was one.

Al Qaida Central and (from beyond the grave) al Maqdisi are tut-tutting their disapproval of the behavior of the recalcitrant young ISIL. We can only hope that like most impetuous youngsters, ISIL will ignore the admonitions of its elders.


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

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