The SWISH Report (17)

What is the condition of al-Qaida, and what are its prospects in 2011 and beyond? The movement commissions the well-regarded SWISH management agency to deliver a further independent evaluation, to which openDemocracy has exclusive access.
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Paul Rogers
1 January 2011

A report from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics to the al-Qaida Strategic Planning Cell (SPC) on the progress of the campaign.

It is a year since you last contracted our consultancy to report on the progress of your movement. We confess to surprise that you should require our analysis once more, given the robust and uncomfortable conclusions that we have tended to draw in our work for you over the past three years in particular (see, for example, “The SWISH Report (10)” [29 February 2008]).

Yet as consultants we remain willing to offer our professional judgment (and that of our Washington associates) in order adequately to assess your current prospects. In doing so we will recall the main themes of our last assessment, in January 2010; consider three favourable trends and events that have marked the year since then; and restate, with respect, the fundamental difficulties that in our view your movement faces (see "The SWISH Report (16)" [21 January 2010]).

The context

The report delivered to you in January emphasised just how much value the George W Bush administration had been to you. Its response to 9/11 was as you wished - highly militaristic and wide-ranging in scope. By the end of 2008, when the second term of the United States president ended, the “far enemy” was mired in a still-evolving war in Afghanistan; and even faced a predicament in the country similar to that of the Soviet Union during that superpower’s declining years.

Your movement had also gained a huge boost from the US’s occupation of Iraq and from the Bush administration's continuing support for Israel. Indeed the US-Israel cooperation in the conduct of the war in Iraq enabled your public-relations arm to project a powerful narrative of a Crusader-Zionist plot aiming to control the heart of the Arab-Islamic world. This was further enhanced by the evident lack of any prospect for a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

A year ago, however, we reported as a source of great potential concern that the still relatively young Barack Obama administration might act more intelligently than its predecessor. Its intended military surge in Afghanistan was premised on an intention to negotiate an organised withdrawal from a position of strength rather than an expectation of clear military victory over the Taliban. Moreover, the Obama administration appeared strongly committed to a substantive Israel-Palestine peace process, which if sustained would be very bad for your movement.

In addition, we highlighted promising developments in Somalia and Yemen, while warning against any expectation that the United States would engage in major military operations in either country. We also concluded that the Pakistani army would be unwilling to undertake major combat against your Pakistani-Taliban allies, and that this would make it less likely that the state itself would come under threat.

The most uncomfortable aspect of our January 2010 analysis, from your perspective, was that the mode of Islamist governance to which you aspire is not viable. We therefore concluded:

“[You] cannot achieve your ultimate aim of a radical Caliphate founded on your particular understanding of Islam's distant past, but...you will continue with the conflict even so. Your enemy, for now at least, will pursue its strategy in a manner which delivers real value to you. We suspect, though, that this enemy may be more intelligent than you believe. For you, hubris may turn out to be the greater threat.”

The 2010 retrospect

As we anticipated, the United States did not engage in Yemen on a large scale, although its actual military activities were rather more intense than generally reported. The expanding drone-attacks in northwest Pakistan have cost you significant elements of middle management, though there have been ready replacements available emerging from the ranks of younger yet experienced paramilitaries who are also frequently even more radical and determined than their predecessors.

In this context, we would argue that 2010 has seen three useful developments for you.

First, the dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal as the senior military commander in Afghanistan gives his replacement General David Petraeus what amounts to a free hand in the Afghan war. The virtually unsackable Petraeus (as the third US commander in Afghanistan in a year) has adopted a notably aggressive military posture, not least in terms of a major expansion in special-forces operations. This intensification of the war in Afghanistan, and its progressive extension into Pakistan, provoke enhanced resistance to foreign occupation and thus are generally positive for your movement.

Second, Barack Obama suffered a serious reversal in the mid-term elections of November 2010 and is a weakened president as a result. Any indication that he might be planning an early withdrawal from Afghanistan is therefore open to strenuous denunciation by his domestic political opponents. The unusual combination of a military leadership that cannot afford a defeat and a damaged administration that cannot be seen to be opting for retreat means that the war has years to run.

Third, the middle-east peace process is effectively dead, a development of inestimable value to you. Indeed this might well be followed in the coming months by an Israeli military strike on Iran. In itself this would be of little specific advantage to you, especially in the framework of your suspicion of the Shi’a who dominate Iran as apostates; but it would be favourable in overall terms as a further demonstration of the central Crusader-Zionist assault on Islam.

The mutating pattern

Your movement may have been weakened in terms of its central organisation as well as its apparent inability to mount major transnational actions - to the extent that your far enemy has come to view it a movement in decline. Against this, the fact that it was never a narrowly hierarchical entity is important.

What is particularly interesting to us as professional analysts is the manner in which your movement is currently evolving - as exemplified in the existence of significant numbers of planned and actual operations that have little connection with your organisation as a whole or its Strategic Planning Cell component. Those responsible are commonly radicalised and strongly motivated individuals who are acting on their own or in small groups; they often come from diaspora communities, whether in north America, Europe or the wider world.

There is a link here to the consistent failure of western analysts to register the extensive reporting in Arab-Islamic broadcasting outlets and across new media of the numerous civilian casualties resulting from the far enemy's behaviour - in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in Yemen and elsewhere. The failure extends to incomprehension of the cumulative impact of Israeli actions, including even to grasping how far the Operation Cast Lead assault in Gaza in 2008-09 could become vital in the radicalising process.

This combination of the movement’s inner character and the media-public impact of western policy means that in the coming years we expect to see many more attacks - notwithstanding that their often brutal nature can be counterproductive. Your movement will thus retain a decentred and dispersed vitality that arises primarily from the continuing effects of what your far enemy is doing.  

Here, we must confess that in an important respect our expectation that the Obama administration would inaugurate an intelligent new approach to the United States’s predicament was misplaced. It now seems to us that the toxic legacy bequeathed to the current president by his predecessor was so severe that Obama had insufficient room to contemplate serious changes in approach before the mid-term elections - and has even less chance now. The implication is that in a very real sense, your far enemy will remain your best friend.

At the same time, we remain convinced that - even from your own eschatological perspective and over the century-long timespan within which you operate - you have no chance of achieving your own ideological-strategic aim of an Islamist caliphate, which in any case rests on a false representation of Islam. However, we do not expect you to change.

All this suggests to us that your movement and your far enemy have together set in motion a collision that has many years - at least another decade - to run.

We will be willing to oblige any request for further analysis, though the cast of this and the immediately preceding reports means that we do not anticipate that we will be hearing again from you. In the circumstances, payment in advance was much appreciated.  


South Waziristan

1 January 2011


This is the seventeenth report openDemocracy has published from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics (SWISH). Twelve have advised al-Qaida, two the British governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, one the United States state department, and one the incoming Barack Obama administration:

"The SWISH Report" (14 July 2004) – to al-Qaida:

"The immediate requirement…is therefore to aid, in any way within the framework of your core values, the survival of the Bush administration."

"The SWISH Report (2)" (13 January 2005) - to al-Qaida:

"You are… in the early stages of a decades-long confrontation, and early ‘success' should not in any way cause you to underestimate the problems that lie ahead."

"The SWISH Report (3)" (19 May 2005) – to the British government:

"We believe that disengagement from Iraq, more emphasis on post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan, and vigorous diplomacy in support of a two-state Israel/Palestine solution offer you the best short-term hope of avoiding further damage to your government's credibility in relation to the United States-led war on terror."

"The SWISH Report (4)" (1 September 2005) – to the United States state department:

"What we find quite extraordinary is the manner in which the full extent of your predicament in Iraq is still not appreciated by your political leadership."

"The SWISH Report (5)" (2 February 2006) – to al-Qaida:

"The greatest risk to your movement is that the opinions of some of the sharper analysts on both sides of the Atlantic begin to transcend those of the political and religious fundamentalists that currently dominate the scene. If that were to happen, then you could be in serious trouble within two or three years."

"The SWISH Report (6)" (7 September 2006) – to al-Qaida:

"(The) influence of your movement and your leader is considerable, but you are not in control of your own strategy; rather, you form just one part of a wider process that is as diffuse and unpredictable as it is potent. You could point to the United States failure to control its global war on terror and you would be correct to do so. You could then claim that it is your own movement that is setting the pace - but you would be wrong. The truly revealing development of recent months is that we have reached a point, five years after 9/11 where no one, but no one, is in control."

"The SWISH Report (7)" (7 December 2006) – to al-Qaida:

"In Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as across the wider middle east, it is the power and influence of the United States that is in crisis. Your movement may not be entirely coherent and the overall circumstances may be more complex than a few months ago, but it probably has greater potential for enhancement and further development than at any time in the past five years." 

The SWISH Report (8)” (16 May 2007) - to the British government:

“Radical changes in your policies in relation to Iraq and Israel are essential, together with a review of policy options for Afghanistan. More generally, you must start the process of reorientating political and security thinking towards the real long-term global challenges.”

The SWISH Report (9)” (29 November 2007) - to al-Qaida:

“Our broad conclusions are that your prospects are good. Developments in Iraq should not worry you; events in Afghanistan and Pakistan are markedly positive for you; and the work of your associates elsewhere, including north Africa, are a bonus.

We do have to confess to one concern that may surprise you...In a number of western countries the issue of global climate change is rising rapidly up the political agenda and one of the effects of this is to begin to make some analysts and opinion-formers question the western addiction to oil.” 

The SWISH Report (10)” (29 February 2008) - to al-Qaida

“It is said that revolutions change merely the accents of the elites, and we fear that such would be the consequence of your movement coming to power. A lack of flexibility would lead to unbending pursuit of a false purity that would decay rapidly into a bitter autocracy, leading quite possibly to a counter-revolution.

If you really want to succeed then you have to engage in thinking that goes far beyond what appear to be the limits and flaws of your current analysis. We would be happy to assist, but we doubt that your leadership will be willing to allow us to do so. We therefore submit this as possibly our last report.”

The SWISH Report (11)” (11 September 2008) - to al-Qaida

"In any case, whatever his actual policies, we most certainly would expect under an Obama presidency a marked change in style towards a more listening, cooperative and multilaterally - engaged America. That must be of deep concern to you. A more ‘acceptable’ America in global terms is the last thing you want"

The SWISH Report (12)” (6 November 2008) – to al-Qaida

“If the far enemy began to lose interest in your core region, then your movement really would be in trouble. We will explore this further in a later report; but at this stage, we would suggest that this could emerge as the most potent threat to your movement.”

The SWISH Report (13.1)” (8 December 2008) & “The SWISH Report (13.2)” (15 December 2008) - to the Obama Transition Team:

"(The) standing of the United States across the middle east and southwest Asia is much diminished and its military forces are mired in a dangerous and long-term conflict in Afghanistan that is exacerbated by major problems in Pakistan. We do not believe that victory has been achieved (or will soon be achieved) in Iraq; and we hold that the al-Qaida movement has been dispersed into a loose network that is and will remain extremely difficult to counter.

We are aware that our advice in three of the four major aspects covered in this report - Israel-Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan - is considerably more radical than anything you currently propose; but you have requested our advice and we have given it. We acknowledge that to accept it is much to ask of you, perhaps especially because it represents a very different outlook not just from the neo-conservative vision of a 'new American century' but from some of the assertive realists that you have already invited into your administration."

The SWISH Report (14)” (9 April 2009) - to al-Qaida:

“(The) conflict in Iraq has enabled thousands of young paramilitaries to travel to Iraq to get combat experience against highly trained and well-armed US troops in an urban environment. This has proved a far better training-ground than was available to these fighters' predecessors who were engaged in fighting low-morale Soviet conscripts in rural Afghanistan in the 1980s. The impact and effectiveness of this new generation of paramilitaries on the future of your mission is difficult to predict, but our Washington office informs us that this outcome is clearly understood among thoughtful military analysts and is causing considerable concern.”

The SWISH Report (15)” (11 June 2009) - to al-Qaida:

“How, then, might you be viewed by, say, 2060? On present trends we anticipate that the international-security context will then be one of massive inequalities of wealth in an environmentally constrained global system in which transnational elites endeavour to maintain control in the face of desperate anti-elite movements and insurgencies. These will be diverse, both in their origins and in their ideologies and belief systems. 

Some may well be modelled on your movement. In that event, your final destiny might prove to be seen as an early symptom of a global trend that goes far beyond one religious tradition, rather than a phenomenon of great note in its own right. Your movement will be a footnote to rather than the substance of history.”

"The SWISH Report (16)" (21 January 2010) - to al-Qaida:

"We conclude by drawing a lesson from the experience of recent years: that you cannot achieve your ultimate aim of a radical caliphate founded on your particular understanding of Islam’s distant past, but that you will continue with the conflict even so. Your enemy, for now at least, will pursue its strategy in a manner that delivers real value to you. We suspect, though, that this enemy may be more intelligent than you believe. For you, hubris may turn out to be the greater threat."

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