The SWISH Report (19)

Where is al-Qaida going after the Arab uprisings and the death of Osama bin Laden? The movement again commissions its chosen SWISH consultancy to offer it advice, and openDemocracy once more has exclusive access to the report.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
30 June 2011

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

Thank you for inviting us to undertake a further study, so soon after our report of only four months ago (see “The SWISH Report [18]”, 17 February 2011). At that time we expressed surprise that you should have recommissioned us, given the view of your long-term prospects we had expressed in earlier reports.

We judge, to recapitulate, that your movement can never achieve its aims - for the rigidity of the form of governance to which you aspire will repeatedly marginalise its attraction. As we said in the report before last:

“(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” (see “The SWISH Report [17]”, 1 January 2011).

We understand, this view notwithstanding, that you found our last report a useful response to your urgent request for analysis of the Arab awakening. There we reinforced our assessment, which again was broadly negative from your perspective; we stated that should the Arab awakening achieve its aims and result in socio-economic and political emancipation across the Arab world, this would render your movement's chances minimal.

At the same time, we expressed doubt that such a result was likely, mainly because of the entrenched power and character of regional elites that remain strongly resistant to change. If indeed the awakening were to be blocked, this would be of great potential benefit to you - as you could then argue that the failure of non-violent social change leaves your radical agenda as the only alternative. Moreover, we highlighted the fact that in Pakistan, even amid the problems posed by the United States’s extensive use of armed drones and special forces against you and your associates, your movement had immediate and favourable prospects.

In these four months, several major changes have occurred which lead us to amplify this analysis:

* Your leader was martyred on 2 May 2011

* The Arab awakening has faltered, with sustained repression in Syria and Bahrain and very slow progress in Egypt and Tunisia

* Nato intervention in Libya has so far failed to achieve the termination of the Gaddafi regime

* Arab public opinion is already beginning to see the conflict in Libya as yet another western intervention in a Muslim state

* Barack Obama has used the martyrdom of your leader as a pretext for starting a partial withdrawal from Afghanistan.

A different view

The conventional wisdom is that the combination of four events - the death of your leader, the political changes underway across the middle east, the demise of some of your key middle-ranking operatives, and the effect of the US surge in Afghanistan on the Taliban - means that your movement may now be in terminal decline. 

We beg to differ.

We will start with Afghanistan. The Obama administration now sees the major international threat to its interests as coming from radical entities in Pakistan that may be developing the capability to operate transnationally. It holds that re-election in November 2012 requires a substantial downgrading of the war in the next twelve months. It believes that it can withdraw most of its troops from Afghanistan, while retaining around 25,000 who would be available for persistent intervention in Pakistan.

Obama has the domestic political space to take this step because the US public and media sees your martyred leader as far more significant than he actually had become. His removal thus is interpreted as diminishing Afghanistan’s importance, and hence allowing drawdown to commence.

We conclude, in an assessment shared by staff in our Arlington and Kandahar bureaux, that this major shift of emphasis will be valuable to you in two ways. The first is that increased counter-terrorism actions in Pakistan will require numerous operations involving armed-drones and special forces; this will have a deeply destabilising impact on Pakistan, and offer great potential for spreading your message against the United States and its Nato partners.

The second is that an early US withdrawal from most parts of Afghanistan will allow armed opposition groups to gain traction, resulting in a marked deterioration in security. The attack on an international hotel in Kabul on the night of 28-29 June is a striking indicator. A small armed group penetrated one of the most tightly protected hotels in the city just before a big security conference was about to start, and the attack was ended only when Nato helicopter-gunships were brought into action.

We might add, as a small indicator of the comprehensive lack of western understanding, the recent British example of training one of their royals to pilot an Apache helicopter prior to deployment to Afghanistan. For much of the British media the story is one of a young man finally shedding his playboy image to emerge as a warrior prince. To your propagandists he will be a senior figure of an imperial power flying a gunship to slaughter Muslims in an occupied country.

A field of opportunity

You have five other current advantages.

Two of these involve Libya. The first is in the form of reports, now confirmed by our Paris associates, that France is (in contravention of the United Nations mandate) arming the anti-Gaddafi forces; and that French military planners want to extend the air-strike target-list to Libya's civil infrastructure, including utilities and transport links. These escalations enmesh western states further in the civil war, making the eventual destruction of the Gaddafi regime both more likely and more clearly a result of western action.

The second advantage, arising directly from this, is the (largely unrecognised) regional effect of the Libyan conflict on nuclear proliferation. Iran will interpret regime termination in Libya as an urgent motivator to develop a nuclear deterrent as quickly as possible. After all, the Gaddafi regime stopped its weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) programme and opened up to the west, yet now faces destruction. Tehran will not make that mistake. Moreover, it is pursuing new diplomatic directions in relation both to Afghanistan (where Kabul welcomes the idea of closer Afghan/Iranian collaboration) and Iraq (where Iran’s influence in security circles is deepening).

In turn, the western Gulf states observe Iran’s moves - which include a recent satellite launch and military manoeuvres - with great concern. The Saudis, in particular, warn of the consequences of Iranian nuclear developments and hint that they could develop their own programme. What happens around Iran, though it may appear of little consequence to your movement, is thus in fact closely connected; any serious turbulence involving states across the region that involves widespread violence and disorder will open real opportunities for you.

The third and fourth advantages are offered by the rigidity of the current Israeli government, and by the remarkable developments in Yemen. It is almost unnoticed in the west that movements linked to your own have taken direct control of substantial parts of southern Yemen, including the regional centre of Zinjibar. In due course, the CIA and US special forces will escalate their engagement in the country, with collateral effects that lead to widening opposition across the country and beyond.

Your media specialists will, from this material, be able to craft a powerful narrative:  

* The Arab awakening will remain confined to Tunisia and Egypt (and may even fail in the latter), demonstrating that your radical approach is the only way forward

* The United States will seek to maintain a substantial military presence in Iraq, in order to counter Iran

* The US will continue to use Afghanistan as a springboard for sustained operations into Pakistan

* The US will escalate military operations in Yemen and will increase the use of armeddrones in Somalia.

* The US’s allies, having intervened in Libya, will station forces there once the Gaddafi regime is terminated

* Israel will continue to occupy Palestine while retaining its close relationship with the United States.

As narratives of occupation and aggression go, this really takes some beating.

We repeat that we do not believe you can succeed in your overall aims. Even so, our analysis forces us to conclude that you have more potential for transnational action and deeper regional involvement than at any time in the past five years. That may be a surprising judgment. In any event, it is based on developments that western states are conspicuously failing to recognise - which can be accounted as a vital fifth advantage for your movement. 


This is the nineteenth report openDemocracy has published from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics (SWISH). Fourteen 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) - to al-Qaida:

"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."

"The SWISH Report (18)" (17 February 2011) - to al-Qaida:

"You are failing to lead or inspire a rapidly escalating revolutionary process, and as a result risk being seen as irrelevant. 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."

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