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The dividends of asymmetry: al-Qaida's evolving strategy

About the author
Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is deputy director and academic dean of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and adjunct professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

2006 may come to pass as the first full year since the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington not to witness a large-scale operation by al-Qaida. The years following the 9/11 operation established a pattern of annual, multi-pronged coordinated attacks against western metropolises (New York, Washington, Madrid, and London) paralleled by quarterly attacks on allied peripheral capitals (Riyadh, Casablanca, Istanbul, Karachi, Jakarta, and Amman).

More than a year has passed since the latest in the series of high-profile, spectacular assaults against western citizens: Australians (Bali, October 2002), Spaniards (March 2004), and Britons (July 2005), along with those of dozens of other nationalities caught up in these bombings. There have even been relatively fewer mid-level operations in "softer", non-western locations. But the absence of al-Qaida from the international scene in 2006 is, however, deceptive; indeed, it is arguable that it has had an ominously good year - perhaps even its best year since 2001.

Over the past twelve months, the group's bicephalous leadership has taken important steps in maintaining the organisation's status as the dominant international-security threat. Some of this is to do with the continuation of an internal reordering that began in 2002 (after the withdrawal from Kabul in November 2001) with the embrace of decentralisation; since then, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have come to oversee official branches in Iraq (al-Qaida in Mesopotamia), the Gulf (with attacks in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait), western Europe (with north African and native European membership, as the Madrid and London attacks revealed), and (since August 2006) Egypt.

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is Associate Director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) at Harvard University and author of Understanding Al-Qaida: The Transformation of War (Pluto Press, 2006 and University of Michigan Press, 2006). The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the institution with which he is affiliated

The move in Egypt was particularly adroit, as it involved a sort of long-distance coup d'état conducted by al-Qaida against the Muslim Brotherhood, the prominent, decades-old Islamist organisation which renounced violence as long ago as the 1970s. Al-Qaida accomplished this by drafting a junior member of the brotherhood (Mohammad al-Hukayma) and, in effect, painting its older figures either as obsolete or incapable of leadership (partly as their own followers were apparently joining al-Qaida).

Moreover, these four official cells (and a number of loosely-associated affiliates such as the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, and others in southeast Asia) were supplemented in September by news of al-Qaida's recruitment of an American lieutenant, California-born Adam Gadahn ("Azzam the American"), creating the worrisome prospect of renewed operations on United States soil.

Between Afghanistan and Iraq

But in the last three years, bin Laden (still only 49 years old) and al-Zawahiri (56) have done more than oversee internal reform and external reorganisation involving an increase in the numbers of its militants (potentially as dangerous, as al-Qaida al-Oum [the "mother al-Qaida"] regards "copycats" and self-starting jihadi groups as merely welcome additional pressure on its enemies rather than necessarily a formal part of its plan). The overall focus of al-Qaida's senior leaders has been to create the conditions of an American defeat in Iraq by spearheading the local insurgency for its crucial first two years (2003-05).

Al-Qaida had initially regarded Iraq as little more than a battleground replacement for Afghanistan, which gave the added advantage of offering its recruits the opportunity of engaging in direct physical battle with the Americans. But within three years, the group was in a position to claim to have won the war - not by itself, to be certain, although the many violent operations conducted by its local commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi did shape an insurgency which otherwise might have been less spectacularly efficient against the United States and its allies.

Al-Qaida in Iraq's theatrical sense of timing (indicative of a political strategy orchestrated by a central command piecing its public narrative) was reflected in its announcement of just such a "victory" over the United States on 10 November 2006, two days after the Republican Party had lost both houses of Congress to the Democrats. Abu Ayub al-Masri (also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir)- al-Zarqawi's replacement after the latter's killing in June, boasted of fielding 12,000 men in Iraq, and sarcastically urged the United States to stay in the country so his group would have more opportunities to kill American troops.

Another index of al-Qaida's continued activity in 2006 is that the two leaders, even while facing the biggest manhunt in history, have dispatched more regular, increased, and technologically-sophisticated videos (twelve in total). In a single week in April, different individual recordings by bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, and al-Zarqawi were released in sequence, their language echoing each other's pronouncements. Al-Muhajir's accession to al-Zarqawi's position in Iraq almost overnight was a demonstration of coherence and continuity in conditions where neither might have been expected.

Between tactics and strategy

There is circumstantial evidence, therefore, that al-Qaida's relatively quiet international operational stance in 2006 is not an indication that the group has been weakened or is losing control of its operations. Rather, the low profile seems to have been adopted consciously, particularly in the second half of the year.

The ingredients of the group's strategy seem to be threefold:

▪ an overall narrative of declared war and its associated phases

▪ tactical shifts in reaction to threats and opportunities (for instance, Hizbollah's war with Israel in July-August 2006 provided a chance to offer conjunctural support to a Shi'a group and, in effect, backtrack from al-Zarqawi's counterproductive anti-Shi'a campaign in Iraq)

▪ the internal cogency of the war's rationale and its dominant modus operandi of attacks on civilians (albeit the subject of contradictory debate among radical Islamists).

The paradoxical difficulty in predicting al-Qaida's moves resides centrally in the fact that the group has been tactically unpredictable yet strategically consistent: moving regularly with surprise while almost always being true to its declared intentions.

Such a posture is particularly challenging to al-Qaida's enemies who - though they know that this foe is no myth - do not know what to look for, when to expect it, and indeed under what form. Under these conditions, the next stage of the war seems to be potentially more complex than the previous ones. As George W Bush and Tony Blair have become weakened domestically, it could well be that al-Qaida - having contributed actively to their debacle in Iraq - could achieve the same result in relation to allied troops in Afghanistan, all the while remaining a live domestic threat in Europe and the United States.

2007 may also mark a return to announced violence for "internal" al-Qaida reasons. In some respects the period between autumn 2004 and winter 2006-07 can be seen as one where bin Laden has pursued a unilateral, self-styled diplomatic approach towards the United States. This was inaugurated by his 29 October 2004 message to the American people before their presidential election ("Every state that does not play with our security has automatically guaranteed its own security"), and culminated in his 19 January 2006 truce offer ("We do not object to a long-term truce with you on the basis of fair conditions"). Much as such initiatives have been derided, a "de-escalation" window may have opened and shut without revealing its full potential.

Between word and deed

Al-Qaida, driven by a sense of momentum in Iraq and Afghanistan, and feeling continuously vexed by US policies in the middle east, might thus be tempted to move to consolidate this position and reassert itself lethally. Such a competitive urge was reinforced in Lebanon by the fact that al-Qaida saw another group, Hizbollah (to which it expressed support two days into its month-long war with Israel) effectively defeat a stronger enemy.

Just as the United States is engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan in an asymmetric war with a transnational group, Israel was in Lebanon embattled with a similar - if more geographically delineated - type of non-state actor. To be sure, the contiguity of Hizbollah's campaign and its nationalistic ethos sets it apart significantly from al-Qaida's looser and more global aims. However, the continuity of Hizbollah's operational connections (in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Iran) speaks of pronounced transnationality.

Moreover, in both cases a private group has wrestled the martial function normally associated with governments and acted militarily in the name of self-defence. In historical terms, that matrix was introduced by al-Qaida in a new international context wherein military affairs are moving rapidly from a predictable framework of monopoly, distinction, and brevity (where the state retains a dominant role) to an unpredictable order of privatisation, lack of differentiation, and open-endedness (where the place of non-state actors has become central).

In that respect, Hizbollah resorted in the summer 2006 conflict to the full panoply of al-Qaida's own methods: public declarations of war, use of religious phraseology, commando operations, strategically-targeted use of weaponry, responsibility of the citizenry of the enemy state, and extended video and audio messages by charismatic leaders. Al-Qaida, as the flagship organisation of this kind of politico-military mutation, had illuminated the weakness of Arab states unable to address the political issues afflicting the middle east. In Lebanon, Hizbollah similarly revealed to the demonstrating Arab and Muslim millions that their governments were the equivalent of naked emperors unwilling to lead their people even when matters of life and death were at stake.

Also in openDemocracy on al-Qaida history and strategy:

Paul Rogers, "Al-Qaida’s new generation"
(14 July 2005)

Faisal Devji, "Osama bin Laden’s message to the world"
(20 December 2005)

James Howarth, "Al-Qaida, globalisation and Islam"
(20 January 2006)

Paul Rogers, "Al-Qaida's new terrain"
(14 September 2006)

What is novel here, above and beyond the discussion of terrorism, is the manner in which private groups have in essence transformed Louis XIV's dictum l'État, c'est moi into one akin to la guerre, c'est moi. In so doing, al-Qaida, Hizbollah, and to some extent Hamas are taking the international system to pre-Westphalian notions of legitimacy in the conduct of warfare. In a region where many governments have lost credibility, such claims are not inconsequential.

Their religious idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, the future may witness both the proliferation of this type of actor and its increasing empowerment. The potential here for offensive asymmetry, anchored deep in the ability to disrupt and paralyse the enemy through flexible tactics and determined long-term thinking, also endows such groups with a maximum of psychological force. In July 2006, Israel may have dubbed its counterterrorism operation "Summer Rain", but in his message six months earlier, Osama Bin Laden had already remarked that "the swimmer in the sea does not fear rain." There it is: agility versus might - an impossible equation for the strong state, and one that 2007 may again exemplify.


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