The evolving plans of jihadists. What we face -- and what we must do. A distinguished panel joins Frontpage.
In this special edition of Frontpage Symposium, we have assembled a distinguished panel to discuss evolving jihadi strategies. Our guests are:
Steven Emerson, an internationally recognized expert on terrorism and national security and considered one of the leading world authorities on Islamic extremist networks, financing and operations. He now serves as the Executive Director of The Investigative Project, one of the world's largest archival data and intelligence on Islamic and Middle Eastern terrorist groups. He is the author of Jihad Incorporated: A Guide to Militant Islam in the US.
Bill Roggio, an independent civilian military blogger. He served in the Army from 1991 to 1995, and now writes for his blog The Fourth Rail.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the director of FDD's Project on Religion, Politics, and Radicalism. He is the author of the new book My Year Inside Radical Islam, which documents his time working at the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, an international Wahhabi charity that proved to be an al-Qaeda financier.
Walid Phares, Professor of Middle East Studies at the LLS Program of Florida Atlantic University and a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies as well as a director for its Future Terrorism Project. He has served as a Terrorism analyst with MSNBC till 2006. He is now a Fox News contributor. He is the author of the recently published The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy. www.thewarofideas.net.
FP: Daveed Gartenstein Ross, Walid Phares, Steven Emerson and Bill Roggio, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.
Daveed Gartenstein Ross, let’s begin with you.
Tell us some of the ways in which Jihadist strategy is evolving.
Gartenstein-Ross: In a forthcoming article in the Summer 2007 issue of Middle East Quarterly entitled “Jihad’s New Leaders,” my associate Kyle Dabruzzi and I examine how the recent deaths of prominent terrorists—men like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Shamil Basayev, and Abu Hafs al-Urdani—have helped usher in a new generation of leaders, and with it a new jihadist strategy. With this new strategy, many assumptions that analysts have long held about jihadist groups may no longer apply.
Three primary characteristics are typical of the new jihadist leaders. First, they are more aware of their international image. While they seek to shock and strike fear into their enemies, they also want to appear reasonable to their constituents and the larger Muslim population. The Taliban engaged in brutal massacres during its rise and Zarqawi distributed videos showing the beheading of captives, but the new leaders tend to minimize overt acts of brutality that could undermine public support. Second, the new jihadists consider management of civil society more than their predecessors did. In the past, when jihadists came to dominate a country, it would automatically become a failed state. The Islamic Courts Union’s (ICU) experience in Somalia suggests that this may no longer be true. Third, these new leaders have exploited advanced communications technologies to improve their outreach and forge broader alliances.
Two new jihadist leaders are emblematic of these shifts. The first is Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, affiliated with Somalia’s ICU. Last year the ICU seized the capital of Mogadishu in early June and went on to consolidate control over most of the country’s major cities. Although a massive Ethiopian intervention has reversed many of the ICU’s gains, the ICU has now turned to insurgent warfare, and is showing signs of success. Clearly, we haven’t heard the last of this group.
It’s important to understand what the ICU accomplished after taking power in Somalia last year, as it tells us quite a bit about the new jihadist strategy. Aweys, who served as head of the ICU’s consultative council, was critical to shaping the group’s policies. He was cognizant of the ICU’s international image, and sought to diminish initial comparisons with the Taliban through restraint. Upon taking Kabul, the Taliban ransacked a U.N. compound, captured the former Afghan president, and emasculated and hanged him. In contrast, the ICU kept its subjugation relatively bloodless. As the group captured strategic cities, there was often little if any bloodshed, and warlords who had earlier controlled the cities were allowed to escape.
Although the ICU brought a strict version of sharia law, it did so in a manner more consistent with economic growth and civil society than previous jihadist efforts. Aweys harnessed Islam, Somali nationalism, and Somalis’ distaste for the warlords’ rule to attract people to the ICU’s side. Moreover, the ICU was able to somewhat improve the country’s standard of living. The U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia reported in late 2006 that checkpoints established by the warlords cost businesses several million dollars a year. The ICU’s elimination of certain checkpoints that collected extortionate fees reduced business expenses, in some cases by up to 50 percent of the delivery costs. The order that the group brought also helped to reduce business security outlays.
Finally, the ICU established a broad-based jihadist coalition. There were seventeen operational terrorist training camps in Somalia last year, and the U.N. Monitoring Group reported, “Foreign volunteers (fighters) have also been arriving in considerable numbers to give added military strength to the ICU. . . . Importantly, foreign volunteers also provide training in guerrilla warfare and special topics or techniques.” One senior ICU leader, Sheikh Hassan “Turki” Abdullah Hersi, openly admitted foreign involvement in Somalia during a speech to supporters. “Brothers in Islam,” he said, “We came from Mogadishu, and we have thousands of fighters, some are Somalis and others are from the Muslim world.”
The second jihadist leader who typifies the new strategy is Zarqawi’s replacement in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri. Zarqawi captured the imagination of many people throughout the Middle East, but was also a ruthless killer. His videotapes showed the beheadings not only of Westerners but also Iraqis. Such brutality turned many Iraqis against al-Qaeda in Iraq, and opened a rift between Zarqawi’s foreign fighters and Iraqi insurgents. This fact was not lost on al-Qaeda’s central leadership, as Ayman al-Zawahiri sent Zarqawi a letter in July 2005 that urged him to curtail his brutal tactics.
Al-Masri, in taking al-Qaeda in Iraq in a different direction, has proven to be a more effective leader. Not only does he avoid Zarqawi’s brutal excesses, but he has also worked to incorporate Iraqi tribes under his banner—essentially, to “Iraqify” al-Qaeda. Al-Masri has also reached out to a broader range of jihadist groups. For example, in an audiotape released just after the November 7, 2006 U.S. elections, he urged a more united front to destabilize the Iraqi government:
O you the commanders of Al-Ansar and Al-Mujahidin army, and the rest of the faithful ones. Our yearning for you has increased, and we are longing for your amity. Your brothers pray to God to protect you. . . . We are not better than you so that we come forward while you step back. You have started jihad before us, you are more disinterest[ed] in leadership than us, and your soldiers are more obedient. We consider you to be more faithful to God in your religion.
While the new jihadist leaders show a kinder public face, their brutal ultimate goals remain unchanged. But this increased attention to public image and to management of civil society means we are now facing a more formidable foe. The jihadists have been adapting to us, as well as to their previous weaknesses. The U.S. hasn’t shown a great ability to in turn adapt to them—but doing so is critical.
Roggio: Al Qaeda has long sought to throw the West, and primarily the United States, out of Muslim land so it could attack and defeat the individual governments who they perceive to be propped up by the U.S and establish the Islamic Caliphate. But there has long been disagreements in the strategic thinkers on how to best achieve this. Until recently, al Qaeda's leadership has thought their goals would best be achieved by attacking the 'far enemy' – the U.S. and her allies - directly in order to force the nations to withdraw the support from the Middle East. This strategy has shifted over the past several years, as al Qaeda is now focusing operations and their organization primarily in the Middle East and the Muslim crescent. Al Qaeda's operations show it now wishes to focus its energy primarily on the 'near enemy.' This will the organization to consolidate power after forming their Islamic Caliphate, and set the stage for a final confrontation with the West.
This does not mean that al Qaeda is not engaging Western forces – they are doing so directly in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the purpose of the operations are to first drive out the U.S. and the West by destroying their political will to engage in the region, and then create the individual emirates from which neighboring Muslim countries can be attacked and absorbed. While direct attacks on Western countries have not been excluded – al Qaeda will take an opportunistic shot to strike the West if it believes it will further their goals – the primary focus is now on fighting the regional wars.
Evidence of this can be seen in al Qaeda's reorganization of regional commands. These regional commands provide funding, training, expertise and support for the 'local Muslim insurgencies.
As Daveed clearly articulated, the support of the Somali jihad is the perfect example of how al Qaeda is focusing on the near enemy. Al Qaeda in East Africa has zeroed in on the failed state of Somalia as an ideal location to establish the Islamic Courts. Money continues to flow into the coffers of the Islamic Courts, and al Qaeda encourages fighters worldwide to participate in the Somali jihad. From this East African base, al Qaeda hopes to spread the fighting into Kenya, Ethiopian and beyond.
The newly created al Qaeda in North Africa (or al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb) is al Qaeda's North African command. This group, which maintain an extensive support network in Europe and beyond, consists of the Algerian based GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and the Tunisian Combatant Group. The organizations now cooperate regionally to overthrow the governments in the Sahel region.
Under the command of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, al Qaeda in Iraq had long sought to export jihad to Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. While Abu Ayyub al Masri is less vocal about exporting jihad due to political considerations with Sunni allies, the Islamic State in Iraq is but the first step in expanding al Qaeda's influence in the region.
In Southeast Asia, the Indonesian based Jemaah Islamiyah has served as a regional facilitator to Muslim insurgent and terrorist groups such as MILF and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, and is thought to be behind the Muslim insurgency in Thailand, the most violent in the region. While it has not been officially announced, Jemaah Islamiyah is essentially the nucleus of a Qaeda in Southeast Asia.
In Pakistan, al Qaeda has conducted a masterful campaign to seize and hold territory. The tribal agencies and districts of the Northwest Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan, are rapidly falling under the influence of what military and intelligence officials are now calling AQAM, or Al Qaeda and Allied Movements. AQAM consists of the Al Qaeda Command, the Pakistani and Afghan branches of the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Tabia and a host of jihadist groups that operate inside Pakistan and Afghanistan.
These groups have officially taken control of Bajaur and North and South Waziristan, and unofficially control numerous tribal agencies and districts throughout the Northwest Frontier province. Taliban and al Qaeda attacks in Afghanistan stem from the tribal agencies, as have bombings in India the London Tubes bombings and the foiled London airline plot. Al Qaeda's leadership, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri are believed to be sheltering in the terror havens of northwestern Pakistan.
Daveed's point on the new leadership is absolutely correct. What we are seeing is the next generation of al Qaeda leaders stepping up after a large number of the first generation have been killed or captured. These leaders are more in line with al Qaeda's new strategy to deal with the near enemy primarily and the far enemy secondly. I would add South Waziristan Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud to Daveed's list, as well as Matiur Rehman, who is believed by some intelligence officials to be al Qaeda's commander in Pakistan.
Daveed is also correct that al Qaeda's new strategy now integrates the political dimension which it eschewed in the past. The Somali example is the perfect case study. The Taliban campaign in northwestern Pakistan and al Qaeda's campaign in Iraq also contain a significant political dimension. The Taliban are providing courts, security and services in the tribal areas. Al Qaeda established the Islamic State of Iraq, to as Daveed noted, "Iraqify" the war. This was done to appease Sunni insurgents who were upset that the foreigners were dominating the insurgency. Al Qaeda in Iraq hasn't executed this perfectly, however, as insurgent groups such as the Islamic Army in Iraq are now complaining al Qaeda is strong arming them to join the state.
Emerson: Excuse me for being the party-pooper, but I just don't see the over-reaching changes that others are attributing to new Jihadi strategies. Modern Jihadi strategy has always been in a constant change of flux, whether it was in 1993 at the time of the first World Trade Center bombing or 1998 at the time of the Embassy bombings or 2000 at the time of the Cole bombing or 2001 or 2005.
The strategy is largely dependent upon changing external and internal factors, such as quirky personality driven leaders, the existence of and accessibility of modern communications technology (mostly the internet), the access to or lack thereof to the big-daddy jihadists Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahari and the ease in which local regimes can be overthrown or undermined through insurgencies. Indeed, why did we see a spate of Al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia in 2003 and 2004 and only a negligible amount in 2005 and 2006? The same for Morocco.
Other factors include political and military vacuums that Jihadis can fill (why only after years of chaos in Gaza and Lebanon has Al Qaeda suddenly become able to establish a credible presence in both areas?), the cyclical availability of trickled down petrodollars to Islamic fundamentalist war machines fronting under the cover as charities and the resurrection of the age-old tribal/sectarian (think Sunni-Shia) conflict that has superseded the one common Jihadi enemy that kept the jihadi glue together for more than a decade (think of the unprecedented Shiite-Hizbollah deal with the Sunni OBL in the 1990's). WE also have the post-2002 sudden introduction of Iraq as a new jihadi battlefield against the US that paralleled the old but original Afghan jihadi battlefield against the Soviets; the continued recruitment, albeit in much larger numbers than 9-11 of Saudi jihadists as suicide bombers in Iraq making them the number one foreign contributor of suicide bombers in that country for 3 out of 4 years.
Somalia's Islamic Courts Union is as much a new jihadi strategy as it is a functional response to a long term managerial problem: how to extend a long term Islamic rule, much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan, over a large population, in order to impose order, stability and prevent chaos. Yes, even Islamic terrorist regimes despise chaos in their own house; they don't mind spreading it to others' houses however.
I don't believe that there has been a conscious decision to change Jihadi strategies. Rather there has been a changing jihadi strategy due to the changing conditions of the battlefield, new world technology, instant technological communications, changing geographic battlefields of war, different personalities of jihadi leaders, constant shifts of jihadist center of geopolitical center of gravity, new pockets of funding, shifting sanctuaries, new European recruits, internet radicalization, secure chat room communications, and globilazation of jihad into the West.
Let's take the biggest "apparent" changes in Jihadist strategies in the past 13 years, say from the time of the first World Trade Center bombing in NY in 1993. It is now clear that Bin Laden had very little if anything to do with it; that it was more the concoction of a family affair between Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his nephew Ramzi Yousef.
I wrote an article in the Washington Post in the summer of 1993 called "The Accidental Terrorist" in which I described the first WTC attack and subsequent Landmark plots (bridges, tunnels and Federal buildings) as the product of amorphous, groups, not externally-directed, of Islamic fanatics with similar constellations of interests converging together for ad hoc plots, then disappearing. Sound familiar? Of course, that's the same description that began being used a decade later to describe the post-911 bombings in Spain and Britain and plots in Italy, Germany, France, Toronto and elsewhere where the plots were self-instigated and self-actuated, whose participants were usually whipped up into a frenzy by the internet rather than an Imam.
Interestingly enough, from 1993 onwards, despite the formal creation of Al-Qaeda in 1988 and first operational activity in Somalia in 1991, Al Qaeda did not start to coalesce into a real structural command and control hierarchical organization until 1995 with the union of Ayman al Zawahiri and Egyptian Vanguard of the Oppressed ( a derivative of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood). By September 10, 2001, Al Qaeda had become a fairly button-down linear pyramidal organization, with officials holding different tiers of responsibility. Indeed, if one plots the structure of Al Qaeda from 1993 to 2007 on a graph, it would look like a bell curve with the apex of the curve reaching its maximum height on September 10, 2001.
As for the issue of jihadi self-image and self-promotion. Bin Laden had been a master of this, first giving interviews to Arab media, the increasingly but sparingly to the western media, most notably to John Miller then of ABC News and Peter Bergen of CNN. He invited these journalists into his tent because video and audio streaming on the internet was not yet possible and also because he was not the most wanted, dead or alive, person in the world. His first manifesto, the Ladenese Epistle, was published on the MSA (Muslim Student Association) list serve in 1996 served as the first comprehensive set of Islamic justifications for the war against the crusaders and the Jews and the establishment of the caliphate.
Nowadays, of course, hardly a day passes without some Jihadi leader or Jihadist operation posted on the internet. They are so numerous, in fact, that rivalries have broken out by different factions questioning each other's legitimacy.
Like a balloon being squeezed, jihadists will go where they can breathe freely, whether that be Africa or Asia. Indonesia is still pretty much free reign for Jihadis as is northern Pakistan, Iraq, the Magreb and now even Bosnia, as Al Qada now seeks to reconstitute its main leadership and re-establish its franchise operations.
The tactical techniques of jihadis have not really changed much in the course of 13 years with the exception of the new technology developed by the Iraqi insurgency. Conventional vehicular bombs is still the preferred method, often accompanied by suicide bombers. But in the last three years, iIprovised Explosive Devises have now accounted for 65% of the attacks in Iraq as opposed to only 15% in 2003.
Phares: My colleagues' multiple remarks are right on target, even though they come from different angles and cover distinct issues of analysis. Daveed's interpretation of the new Jihadi leaders' "concerns with an international image," is accurate. One can see that coming from the center of al Qaeda headquarters: there is a rising insistence on the "image." When you compare the old rigid speeches of the Bin Laden of the 1990s and the fall of 2001, and the more sophisticated video messages by al Zawahiri in recent years, you'd realize that tactical media enhancement has been factored in. Al Qaeda central "talks" more like a world Caliphate in the making rather than an exclusively dogmatic inspirer. The criticism of Zarqawi's excesses by Zawahiri and the sophisticated analysis by Jihadi commentators on al Jazeera indicates clearly that the "core" is waging a War of Ideas in addition to the War on Terror. I have always argued that al Qaeda is also influenced by "intellectuals" on its outside, regarding the psychological and political warfare with the Kuffars (infidels).
With time you can see their influence growing and expanding. The "advisors" of the Caliphate-to-be on the international stage, are pushing for winning the battle of the "image," even though, some Emirs in the battlefields may commit excesses. Indeed, the Mahakem (Islamic Courts) of Somalia attempted to diffuse the Taliban image; but only because they were accused by many anti-Jihadist voices of becoming a new Taliban. In short there has been an effort among the Jihadi propaganda elite to appear as a credible, rational and acceptable force on the international stage. I would even argue that the calls for a Hudna (Truce) with Europe issued couple years ago, are inscribed in this image strategy. On the other hand, Bill also brings a good point of observation: Increasingly both al Qaeda and the other Salafists groups are focusing on local and regional quick victories: they were and are planning on establishing "emirates" in Iraq's Sunni Triangle, Somalia, possibly some areas in Lebanon, within Pakistan, and pushing again in the Great Sahel of North Africa.
There seems to be an urge to find a "geographical base" to replace Afghanistan, including a return to large areas in the latter. Finally, Steve is also bringing a good point that is the "continuity" in Jihadi strategies and tactics worldwide. His description of the "squeezed balloon" is correct. As I advanced in my book Future Jihad, there is a form of "Mutant Jihad" which shapes itself as it collides with its enemies. I think what we are all observing is a continuous morphing of Salafi Jihadism as it is fighting its way against its enemies. Hence, in their strategic evolution the Jihadists maintain their ideology, their doctrine and their historic objectives intact: Islamism as an ideology, the Caliphate as an ultimate goal, and their indoctrination process remains the same. But as they experience the mujabahat al Kuffar (confrontation with the infidels), they steer the priorities of the struggle in various new -and sometimes old- directions. Their apparent complex behavior is in fact very simple to understand. For example, since they lost the Taliban-protected regime in Afghanistan, the Jihadists worldwide have been looking into every possible direction to "reestablish" the mother ship geographically and they continue to try. This is predictable. Also, as they experienced their propaganda campaigns since 2001, they realized that pre-9/11 rhetoric alone and extreme messages (such as beheading videos) can backfire. They took into consideration what Salafi clerics have advised and what secular "advisors" have proposed: a more sophisticated language coating the unchanged ideological speech. In short, the Jihadists are moving forward while selecting targets, weapons, tactics and words, empirically.
My other remark here is about our global perception of the Jihadist strategies. I believe that they aggregate under two large trees: One, the Salafist, incorporates al Qaeda, its branches, allies, Wahabi clerics, Muslim Brotherhood strategists and to some extent Jihadi groups with "national" strategies. This whole sphere has a solid core and multiple layers, but is not tightly integrated: it hurdle towards the main historical objectives, not always in harmony. The other tree, is the Khomeinist regime in Iran with its extensions such as Hizbollah in Lebanon, other funded organizations and a state-to-state alliance with the Syrian regime. The Khomeinist sphere is extremely centralized and integrated, regardless of the shades of opinions. It moves along the lines of geopolitics and with a concentrated financial backing coming from Iran's oil revenues. It is very important to keep an eye on the evolution of both "trees," and watch for convergence and diverging energies and the common threads.
This past semester I taught a course on "Jihadi Global Strategies" focusing on the evolution of both trees within the War on Terror, or actually their wars against democracies. The seminar developed interesting findings regarding the Salafist and Khomeinist strategies against the US, Europe and other democracies. There areas of exclusivity for each "tree" in their confrontation with the West and other societies but there are also areas of converging interest such as Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian areas, and surprisingly Latin America. I suggest the expert community puts more efforts in advising Governments but also educating the public as to the long term strategies of the two Jihadi "trees." The public and private sectors are in dire need to be educated not only about the ideology of Jihadism (and there is lots of catching up to do) but also about the actual strategies of the various Jihadi movements and regime. Unfortunately the current debate about the War on Terror in America (and also in the West) didn't reach yet a consensus on the basics. There are still politicians and opinion-makers, thanks to a failed expertise from the 1990s, who do not perceive the conflict as with Jihadism. Such a systemic error of analysis is having an impact on understanding the strategies of the Jihadists; actually it is helping the latter strategically.
Gartenstein-Ross: Walid is entirely correct that an alarming number of politicians and opinion leaders operate based on outmoded assumptions. Too often, analysts charged with being on the cutting edge of the war on terror are slow to adapt to changes in our enemies’ strategies, and slow to discard assumptions that—while they may have been true years ago—are no longer valid. That is why it’s important to have a good read on our terrorist enemies’ changing strategies as they levy war against us.
While many of the things Steve says are correct, his overall objection to the idea that jihadist strategy has been changing in the directions that Bill and I indicate does not cohere. He is correct that modern jihadist strategy constantly adapts, but this doesn’t mean that there are no discernable trends. He is also correct that jihadist strategy is dependent on changing external and internal factors. That is the nature of good strategy: any plan that does not take account of changes to the environment in which a war is fought is unlikely to meet with success.
A large part of Steve’s argument is dependent on the idea that because of jihadist networks’ decentralization, there is no conscious decision to shift strategy. I part ways with him on the extent to which these networks are decentralized, and some of his examples actually show that these networks are more centralized than many analysts believe. For example, the conventional wisdom on both the Spanish and British bombing plots was initially that they were “self-instigated and self-actuated,” but over time that conventional wisdom has come crashing down. After London’s Metropolitan police concluded they had no evidence linking the 7/7 bombings to al-Qaeda, Dan Darling and Steve Schippert issued a devastating response that outlines multiple connections between the 7/7 plot and al-Qaeda’s international network. These include: 7/7 ringleader Mohammad Sidique Khan meeting with senior Jemaah Islamiyah leaders; New York terror suspect Mohammed Junaid Babar identifying Khan from a photograph and claiming that they had met at an al-Qaeda training camp; and British al-Qaeda leader Haroon Aswat making phone calls to the 7/7 bombers just hours before the attacks. But the real nail in the coffin for the view that there was no connection to al-Qaeda’s central network is the tape al-Qaeda released to commemorate the bombings, in which bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri revealed that 7/7 bombers Shehzad Tanweer and Mohammad Sidique Khan had trained in al-Qaeda’s Afghan camps. Zawahiri’s tape led Chatham House security expert Bob Ayers to comment: “It makes the police look pretty bad. It means the investigation was either wrong, or they had identified links but were reluctant to reveal them.”
But really, the centralized or decentralized nature of contemporary terrorism is not the issue. Even if al-Qaeda’s central leadership is less important than I think, jihadist strategies can still shift perceptibly. People tend to copy success, and if the jihadist movement were highly decentralized, its regional leaders would likely try to copy the methods of other successful regional leaders. The three characteristics that I outline—greater awareness of international image, more attention to management of civil society, and exploitation of advanced communications technologies—can be discerned across a number of geographic regions. I have already discussed how these characteristics can be seen in the Islamic Courts Union’s rise in Somalia, where the ICU largely avoided overt acts of brutality, gained the local population’s support, and actually increased the country’s standard of living—a far different result than the Taliban achieved in Afghanistan. I have also discussed how Abu Ayyub al-Masri took al-Qaeda in Iraq in a completely different direction than Zarqawi. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has achieved greater sophistication and support under al-Masri than it did under Zarqawi, bringing numerous groups into the fold of the Islamic State of Iraq.
Bill aptly added Matiur Rehman to my list. While Rehman is more focused on terrorist operations than in organizing a broad-based movement, he has displayed a willingness to exploit local civil society to further his goals, a task made easier by the shift in Pakistani public opinion against President Pervez Musharraf and the United States.
Another Pakistani, Faqir Mohammed, also displays the characteristics that I outlined. Mohammed has become a powerful figure in the Mamoond tribe in Pakistan’s Bajaur region through a strategic marriage. This has enabled Mohammed to provide al-Qaeda with a local safe haven: in January 2005, the CIA fingered his house in Bajaur as al-Qaeda’s winter headquarters. Figures such as Mohammed are important to the jihadist strategy, elucidated by Bill, of reorganizing into regional commands. (It’s important to note that these regional nodes are still attached to al-Qaeda’s core leadership. A senior U.S. military intelligence officer described this to me as “al-Qaeda federalism”: while regional nodes can survive separate from the core leadership, they also report to and take orders from al-Qaeda’s central command. This reorganization is consistent with the new jihadist strategy of fitting into existing civil society rather than trying to completely overturn it.) By providing a link between al-Qaeda and the local tribes, men like Mohammed can mitigate ethnic tensions that otherwise might undercut al-Qaeda’s effectiveness. Rather than attempting to overturn the tribal structure in Pakistan, Mohammed works within the existing tribal structure, trying to carve out a place for al-Qaeda within it. This approach is more likely to engender long-term success than past jihadist efforts to completely remake the societies in which they operated.
As I said in my opening remarks, the jihadists are adapting to us, and to their previous weaknesses. The strategic trends that I outline in this symposium are discernable across multiple regions, and multiple leaders have contributed to the changes. In the past, analysts assumed that when jihadists gained power in a geographic region, it would automatically become a failed state. While this assumption used to be correct, the adaptations that jihadists are now undertaking call that conventional wisdom into question.
What can the United States do? Walid is plainly correct that public and private sectors are in desperate need of being better educated, not only about jihadist ideology but also about jihadist movements’ strategies.
Beyond education, U.S. officials should concentrate on twin goals. First, they should prevent terrorist safe havens from arising in the first place—a goal that was endorsed by the 9-11 Commission. As made clear by Bill’s discussion of al-Qaeda’s gains in Pakistan as well as FPM’s previous symposium on that country, our efforts on this front leave something to be desired. Second, officials need to prove that U.S. allies and their aid organizations are as adept at building a stable civil society as the jihadists. A large number of Somali citizens looked favorably upon the ICU when it gained power because it provided an alternative to the chaos that had prevailed before. Yet after supporting a military intervention to topple the ICU, Washington failed to provide the aid needed to allow Somalia’s transitional federal government to thrive. We need to do better in the future.
Emerson: Even though my fellow colleagues provided interesting insights on the topic, I still disagree that changes in strategy are taking place to the degree that Daveed suggests. Since 9/11, every so often the wisemen of terrorism get together and make a big stink about changing strategies and even shifting paradigms and I think there is often a penchant for exaggeration.
I’d like to go over more events that my colleague, Daveed, hailed as strategic changes. Daveed is making much of this new generation of leaders more aware of their international image who employ a softer touch and seek to achieve strategic goals through the development of civil society. I’m sorry, but this simply is not new for the jihadist movement, and I’ll tell you why. Yes, there is a new generation of al Qaeda figureheads, but are they any more aware of their international image? I would argue that it would be hard to be more aware of international perception than Zarqawi. Has the al Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliated Iraqi insurgency become any less bloodthirsty? Has al-Masri chosen a softer strategy? I would argue not. Very recently, al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq released a video of the execution of two Iraqi soldiers and what appeared to be an Iraqi journalist. Bullets to the back of the head.
Just several weeks ago in April, we found a video released by Ansar al Sunnah, a close and recently renewed ally of al Qaeda in Iraq. It showed the beheadings and executions of 20 Iraqi policemen. The featured beheading in the video was particularly disturbing , even for a beheading video, if you can imagine. I won’t go into the gory details. Many of the men were mowed down with automatic gunfire. I don’t see this as evidence of a softening jihadist strategy aimed at gaining more sympathy in the Muslim world. The jihadist groups in Iraq are still pursuing their brutal strategy, still executing the same attacks against Iraqi civilians and policemen that have alienated some segments of the Muslim world.
Now let’s get to the issue of civil society. How new is the development of civil society to the global jihadist movement? The answer is, not new at all. The Shiites did it first with Hizballah, followed by Hamas, a Sunni terrorist organization with Salafist origins in the Muslim Brotherhood. It is true that the Salafi-jihadist movement best represented by al Qaeda has tended to avoid such civil society development. However, if they are using such means now, which is very debatable, it is still at an embryonic stage. The fact remains that you can’t say that this is a new strategic development in the jihadist movement.
Concerning regional commands, Bill cites al Qaeda’s commands in North Africa and East Africa as evidence of a new reorganization of bin Laden’s organization. But how different is it from the way it has been before? As Bill noted, Al Qaeda in the Arab Maghreb Countries formed when GSPC, MICB, LIFG, and the Tunisian Combatant Group formally united. This first hit the news about two years ago when a Moroccan intelligence report was leaked. However, these groups were already acting in concert with each other and al Qaeda years before that, not just in North Africa but in the U.K., France, Spain, and Italy. It has even been reported that bin Laden himself named the GSPC in 1997. I would say that it was a regional command of al Qaeda then as well, although perhaps a less evolved version. My point is there have been regional commands of al Qaeda in the past and it shouldn’t surprise us as more develop and it certainly does not indicate a shifting strategy. Look at Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula. About two years ago, we identified about forty terrorist groups allied or affiliated with al Qaeda. As Bill noted, Jemaah Islamiyya and Abu Sayaf have been al Qaeda allies in Southeast Asia for years. Clearly not new developments in strategy. We are now seeing al Qaeda battling it out to maintain a presence in Lebanon.
The main point is this: Yes, some strategies - not as many as Daveed sees – have changed in response to advances in technology and in response to our own security pursuits. As I stated before, this is no surprise and while it has significance, there is another matter of greater significance that gets lost in the shuffle in conversations like the one we are having. That is that the ideology responsible for what we now call the modern jihadist movement remains unchanged, still seeks the same long term goals, and – here’s the kicker – six years into the Global War on Terrorism the United States has yet to come up with a coherent strategy to defeat this ideology.
These short term shifts in operation and propaganda strategy that we see are important in forming our own short term security and intelligence responses. I like Walid’s term, “mutant jihad” because these are indeed adaptive responses on the part of the jihadist movement.
As far as the degree of centralization versus devolution of operational responsibility that Daveed spoke to, this is something that I wrote about in my last book. As my colleagues know, after the invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda became a franchised idea rather than a structured organization. This is not to say that there are no connections to more traditional terrorist commands or training.
Building on that, I’d like to pick up on what Daveed said about the 7/7 cell and centralization. In my last book, Jihad, Inc., I noted the many connections between the 7/7 bombers and al Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups in South Asia, specifically with Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. Feel free to look it up. But you have to ask yourself what you mean by the words you use. Daveed uses the word, “centralization.” What is the threshold you would set to say a plot or group is a part of a centralized jihadist network? It is very easy to say a network is centralized due to the almost amorphous nature of modern networks. What I mean by this is tenuous ties exist in abundance due to the ease of international travel and the exploitation of modern technologies. Does this mean that these networks are centralized? Not necessarily.
As a side response to Daveed’s comments, I would argue that, while the 7/7 bombers went to Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan to receive explosives training, al Qaeda or al Qaeda affiliated leadership was less relevant than what Daveed argues. Khan, Tanweer, Hussain, and Lindsay were radicalized and sought to attack targets in the UK completely independent of any al Qaeda leadership. I would caution Daveed against taking Zawahiri’s word as gospel and assuming that just because he said that al Qaeda itself, and not affiliates or allies, was involved in the recruitment, planning, target selection, and execution of the 7/7 bombings, then it must be true. I know that it is clear to my colleagues the benefits that could be incurred by al Qaeda if we blindly accepted that proposal as unvarnished truth. It was an al Qaeda propaganda video. It is almost amusing in the video to see Zawahiri talk of the bombers with such familiarity, as if he was training them himself.
We have to be careful and avoid those kinds of assumptions. The truth is probably somewhere in between. It is terrible that the British government refuses to publicly come to terms with the international connections of the 7/7 cell, but we should see that the reason Zawahiri made such claims of direct and intimate al Qaeda involvement was not any obligation to the truth, but a recognition that al Qaeda stands to benefit if it can make it self appear larger, more monolithic, and able to project its hard power around the world through direct operational control.
Self-radicalized individuals, autonomous provisional cells, homegrown terrorism; the proliferation of these were not a conscious shift in strategy on part of the, and yes I will say it again, decentralized jihadist movement. The balloon was squeezed. Mutant jihad. Bringing it back to my main point, what is relevant is that we are seeing the same ideology and idea in a constant state of flux trying desperately to realize its unchanging long term goals – the defeat the near and far enemies, the establishment of a Caliphate, and the expansion of Dar ul Islam. The shifting short term strategies do matter to the extent that we should understand them and develop appropriate security responses, but this doesn’t change the big picture.
I agree with the twin goals Daveed proposes to an extent, but it still misses the big picture. While it is important to deny safe-havens and prove that we are preferable to the jihadists in terms of building and sustaining civil society, we need to focus on both understanding and undermining the influence of the ideology. What troubles me is that the U.S. Government is not making the effort to develop such strategies.
Phares: Again the debate is valid: Did al Qaeda and the global Jihadists adopt "new strategies" or not? From our debate we can initially see that we have two answers: One that says yes they changed -particularly in terms of PR and regional structure- and another that says only few adaptations are occurring. Perhaps we should -in the future- examine what we actually mean by "new strategies." Does "change" in Jihadi strategies mean abandonment of past strategies and selection of new ones, totally different from the previous one? I think the panel is debating a question that could be better framed. For example we can ask if the Jihadists have changed their global strategic options or not. Did they abandon the goal of ultimately establishing the Caliphate? Apparently not. But did they change their strategics to reach that final goal? In my observation, there are now multiple Jihadi strategies aiming at the same global objective:
1) The mainstream Wahabis and Muslim brotherhood circles of power in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, and other Arab and Muslim countries seek a bottom up approach focusing on indoctrination and penetration of Arab-Muslim and Western countries. Their strategy is to engage in influence and control of domestic and foreign policies till they tip the balance in the favor of their agendas. Some Islamist parties -as in Turkey- are adopting a partial component of this global strategy, as in processing with a slow indoctrination and making steady progress towards the goal.
2) Local-Jihadi groups (even though active overseas in terms of fundraising) such as Hamas, PIJ, mainstream NIF in Sudan, etc, are still adopting the strategy of "local Jihad first."
3) The al Qaeda nebulous, formed by the mother ship, its branches and its allies, continue to seek the establishment of "emirates" wherever and whenever it is possible but also mutates as it needs. This international Jihadism is perhaps the most mutating among all others. In the center of the nebulous, I still argue that al Qaeda is centralized: it has a leadership, communication systems, and a war room. I must add that the center has its own "central cells." The branches, made of groups that "came" to al Qaeda and pledged affiliation as whole entities such as the Maghreb, the Peninsula, Mesopotamia and the Levant (al Sham) "commands", follow the general strategic guidelines of the mothership but have their own "adapted" strategies. Finally the non-linked Jihadi groups that operates on their own, varies from actual networks to cells, to groups of individuals. These satellites, still want to reach the global objectives but they shoot on their own timing and with their own "guns." This rainbow of doom sometimes puzzles the expert community.
4) And again, I still draw the attention of analysts and policy makers to the fact that Khomeinist-led Jihadism is a "tree" of its own. Iran's regime and Hezbollah are the core component of this regional-international network. Operating in parallel to the Salafi "tree," it develops its strategies on the grounds of regime interests. In the 1890s, the Iranian-Jihadists faced off with the US (and France) in the region. In the 1990s, they practically withheld fire against the West (with few exceptions) and concentrated on Israelis in Lebanon and inside Israel and dedicated energies for self improvement. After 2003, the Khomeinists "opened fire" against the US and the Coalition in Iraq, and as of 2005 assaulted the pro-Western Government of Lebanon. Currently the Jihadi Salafists (al Qaeda type) and Khomeinists have a common enemy in Iraq, Lebanon and internationally.
In conclusion I think in terms of historical goals, the grand strategies of both trees are the same. In terms of evolution of these strategies, they are mutating and adapting. Tactically -both in media and engagement- they constantly evolve.
FP: Daveed Gartenstein Ross, Walid Phares, Steven Emerson and Bill Roggio, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.