The SWISH Report (18)

How should the ferment in Tunisia, Egypt and across the Arab world affect al-Qaida's thinking? The movement requested advice from the reliable SWISH consultancy, whose report is here exclusively published.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
17 February 2011

A report from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics to the al-Qaida Strategic Planning Cell (SPC) on the implications of events in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab states

Thank you for inviting us to undertake a further study. We must confess a degree of surprise, given our negative findings in recent reports (for example, “The SWISH Report (10)”, 29 February 2008). At the same time, we appreciate that you are so concerned about the need to get independent analysis of current developments that you are willing to commission a preliminary assessment. We further understand that this, unlike previous reports, will remain within the SPC and not be shared with the senior leadership.

We will first summarise our assessment of the nature of your movement. Al-Qaida is, in our view as detached observers, a singularly unusual transnational revolutionary movement drawing on a religious doctrine rather than a political ideology. This gives it an eschatological dimension and thus in turn a timescale for success that may be measured in many decades or even a century. This is almost entirely ignored by its opponents.

Within this overall context, your movement has clear-cut aims. You seek, again within a decades-long perspective, the removal of unacceptable elite regimes across the heart of the Islamic world. The House of Saud is a particular targets, as has been the now overthrown Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt; but others include the power-holders in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These constitute your “near enemy”. 

You are bitterly opposed to Zionism and you also seek to offer support to movements outside the middle east, including those operating in the north Caucasus and southeast Asia. Behind the near enemy is the “far enemy” of the United States and its western European allies, with their interminable interference in the Islamic world.

Beyond these (in your understanding) short-term aims is the much larger objective of establishing a pure and incorruptible Caliphate, centred on the middle east but eventually embracing the world. This fundamental purpose of your movement cannot possibly be achieved in your leaders’ lifetimes (or indeed your own) - but you do have eternity waiting.

The lost alternative

As you will recall, the assessment of your prospects in our most recent report concluded: “[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” (“The SWISH Report (17)", 1 January 2011).

That report was delivered to you on 1 January 2011, the halfway point of a month-long uprising in Tunisia that would culminate in the flight of the country’s president. Since then there has been a popular revolt against Hosni Mubarak’s rule which took seventeen days to topple the dictator, and demonstrations across the region, including Algeria, Libya, Yemen, Jordan and Bahrain.  On a parallel plane, opposition protest in Iran has reawakened.

It might be expected, at least on a superficial level, that your movement would be overjoyed at these developments. The Arab (and overwhelmingly) Muslim people are awakening, and speaking out against their corrupt rulers; their determination and strength of numbers have overthrown two unacceptable regimes; and there is every prospect of more to come, if not immediately then certainly within months.
Yet we are aware of an interesting and palpable sense of unease within your movement. Indeed, your very request for a preliminary assessment from us, and your intention of retaining it within the SPC, strengthens this view.

This reaction, it may not entirely please you to note, places you alongside rather than against other actors with a deep interest in these ongoing events. Almost all of them, within the region and beyond, are worried about these expressions of “people power”. True, Barack Obama made a famous speech in Cairo  in June 2009 about repairing relations between the United States and the Islamic world; and his administration accepted, if rather late in the day, the need for Mubarak and the system he represented to go. But the US as a political entity has consistently entrenched and indulged autocratic regimes across the middle east, and continues to back them with all its military and political might. The European political leadership too, for all its declarative support for the protests, is nervous, or so our offices in London, Paris and Berlin report.

Within the region itself, leading states such as Israel and the House of Saud are acutely concerned at the popular revolt. Iran may express formal support, but this stance both reflects political calculations and is coloured by fear of the local impact of the Arab demonstrations.

Your position shares something of this ambivalence. You profess enthusiasm for the display of resistance; but you are clearly also troubled by the awkward reality that the removal of illegitimate governments - an aim you also aspire to - has been successfully accomplished by a people’s mobilisation in no way rooted in or guided by an Islamist worldview.

This is a very grim development for your movement, in two ways. First, you are failing to lead or inspire a rapidly escalating revolutionary process, and as a result risk being seen as irrelevant. Second, and even worse, as the regimes fall or shake you are in danger of losing a vital pillar of support for your cause: namely, the idea that people’s hatred of these regimes could only be channelled effectively by embracing your version of Islam. The revolts demonstrate that you are clearly not the only alternative - and this is very bad news indeed.

Indeed, the current tumult holds out the possibility of even graver developments that could end any serious prospect for your entire movement. In this worst case, Egypt makes the transition to a pluralist state and a developing democracy, headed by a government whose fundamental mission is to improve equity. Many other states across the region follow this lead, whether by dramatic change as in Tunisia and Egypt or by reform of existing governance.

In these transformed circumstances, Israel recognises that it is running out of time and takes the epochal decision to negotiate a viable Palestinian state. The accumulated outcome is a deep shift at the heart of the middle east and the Islamic world, which leaves you reduced to a rump movement trying to maintain very limited leverage in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The future option

This may well be (again in your understanding) much too pessimistic a view, however. For there is as yet no certainty that the overthrow of governments will lead to extensive, progressive reform. There remain doubts about how far Egypt will go, for example over the army’s willingness to protect existing concentrations of wealth and power (including its own). Even if a dynamic of real change is released, it could be that incoming governments will - as they attempt to narrow extreme social divides and create opportunities for rapid economic progress - be submerged by the scale of the problems they inherit. With populations so young, and the sea of unemployment and stagnation so formidable, there are questions about the ability of any government to succeed.

If indeed the post-revolt governments fail in substantial ways, then the radical elements that have survived within the Muslim Brotherhood (and its equivalents in other parts of the Arab world) may come to the fore. This could present you with a fresh opportunity. It may be that this eventual prospect, of a tide of disappointed expectations, should shape your response to present-day events.

It is clear to us as independent consultants that middle-east regimes have maintained stability through autocratic rule underpinned by rigid public-order control systems, with backing from western states (especially the United States) a key reinforcement. But they have been unable or unwilling to tackle profound social divisions, especially the gap between a well-endowed elite of barely one-tenth of the population and the rest. 

This problem, in our view, is at the core of the region’s crisis - and will outlast any changes in governance. The very move towards more representative governance will raise huge popular hopes of socio-economic improvement, many of which will be impossible to fulfil. In addition, we see few (if any) circumstances in which an Israeli government of any conceivable stripe would seriously entertain a just settlement for the Palestinians.

With these considerations in mind, we recommend that across the middle east, where political trends are in the short term running against you, you do little - and concentrate instead on the much more fertile ground in Pakistan. Such a stance of restraint and patience may in time bring its reward, in an atmosphere very different to the current one.

If this analysis is right, then your campaign could be delayed by a decade or so, though that is little enough in a centuries-long mental framework. But in the unlikely event that it is wrong - if, that is, a democratic transition, independent of western influence and dedicated to progressive emancipation, really does envelop the region - what then? In that case, we suggest that the membership of the SPC might be best advised to retire. We would recommend that you then embark on an intensive programme of agricultural education to ensure that you become able to raise opium-poppy crops able to benefit from the best that genetic modification can provide.


This is the eighteenth report openDemocracy has published from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics (SWISH). Thirteen 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."

"The SWISH Report (17)" (1 January 2011):

"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."

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData