(W)Archives: It’s Not Easy Being a Terrorist


The atrocities committed by terrorists make them appear powerful and in control of their destiny; they seem to act and we seem to react. However, from inside the world of the terrorist, things seem much more complicated and difficult. This was acutely evident to one of the great strategic thinkers (and pessimists) of the jihadist world, Abu Musab al-Suri, as made clear in a captured notebook (original language here) that belonged to him in approximately 1999-2000. This notebook is available thanks to the Conflict Records Research Center in Washington, DC (at least until mid-June when the Center is expected to close).

During the period in question, al-Suri was in the al-Qaeda inner circle, though he never swore loyalty to Bin Laden. Al-Qaeda at the time was headquartered in Afghanistan, but the group’s relationship with its Taliban hosts was cordial but fraught. The al-Suri notebook is filled with references to friction between the groups, as well as to security challenges, personnel difficulties within al-Qaeda, and logistical issues.

For instance, al-Suri’s notes discuss a meeting with senior Taliban officials about al-Qaeda. Al-Suri, apparently in a draft memo to senior al-Qaeda leaders, reported that:

He [a Taliban official] claims that as a result of being infiltrated, many countries have been able to collect information about you and we [the Taliban] became baffled by how they gathered all this information about you. You also know that the Commanders held a meeting in Nangarhar and issued a decree to execute not only Sheikh Osama [Bin Laden], but all the mujahidin.

The notebook also describes an ongoing dispute with the Taliban over registering and issuing identification documents to every foreigner who immigrated to Afghanistan. The Taliban liked the idea because it would give them a degree of control over those who “may sabotage the Islamic regime in this Emirate.” Al-Qaeda and al-Suri, of course, wanted none of this, viewing any registration process as a security vulnerability for their clandestine operations. Al-Suri commented that “I have no doubt that any of our information that is in the possession of the [Taliban] will be obtained by Pakistan and others and, thus, our enemies.” The Taliban also wanted to “prohibit these [foreign guests] from freely using phones, satellites and faxes” and they decreed that foreigners could stay only in designated parts of the country, another measure that al-Qaeda resisted. In fact, “each one of these foreigners who is wanted by another country or has committed a crime outside Afghanistan is not welcome in the Islamic Emirate.”

Not only were the Taliban problematic hosts, but al-Suri, known for his arrogance, also rails against his own al-Qaeda allies. “Consensual matters and speeches should be presented by one person and all other issues are presented by a team of two, because we have some individuals who are not very articulate.” Similarly, the notebook also contains notes of an apparent disciplinary conversation between al-Suri and a problematic volunteer who had brought his family to Afghanistan and joined the al-Qaeda movement. The volunteer had begun showing signs of “personal distress” and “disgust and hopelessness” regarding al-Qaeda, had left Afghanistan and come back again, and was now “thinking of leaving” for good.

In an apt reminder that “the army marches on its stomach,” al-Suri’s notebook also contains many entries relating to logistics and supplies. There are notations on expenditures for spinach, apples, and yogurt, as well as pens, stationery and other similar items. Elsewhere there are notes about the need to find ammunition, fuel, houses and furniture and the receipt of food rations from the Taliban.

Clearly, life was not easy for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, even when bombs were not falling. In 1994, J. Bowyer Bell captured these sorts of stresses in an article published by Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (behind pay wall) about the travails of being a terrorist.

The rebel enters a secret world that is inherently inefficient—a world where there are no solutions, only the amelioration of immediate problems. Everything is difficult: communication and command, recruitment and publicity, propaganda and control. From desperation, not choice, the rebel must find unconventional means to proceed and often chooses not the best option but the only possibility.

The notebook suggests that al-Suri would agree. We would do well to remember that nation states, particularly high functioning ones such as the Western democracies, have enormous advantages compared to terrorists. While terrorist groups do pose a threat, they are not omnipotent. For them, life is just one damn thing after another.


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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