The SWISH Report (21)

How does al-Qaida see the tumult in the Arab world, the persistent conflict in other regions - and its own prospects? The movement commissions its longstanding management consultants to write a report, which is exclusively published on openDemocracy.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
26 July 2012

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, in light of earlier assessments of the impact on your movement of the Arab awakening and related events (see "The SWISH Report [19]" [30 June 2011] and "The SWISH Report 20" [5 January 2012]). We continue to be surprised that you have commissioned us once more, given our view of your long-term prospects expressed in earlier reports.

As we said earlier:

"(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 that in the period since these earlier reports were delivered, there have been three internal developments of note regarding your movement. First, the structure and make-up of the SPC has changed in the past six months, in that you have experienced further losses among your associates in northwest Pakistan. Though your organisation has in the past been dispersed across several countries, we understand that you have further disaggregated, with more associates relocated across Europe and north America.

Second, you place even less emphasis than before on an hierarchical structure. Third, you have reached the conclusion that while your movement's capabilities have further declined, you believe that the "idea" may actually be stronger than a year ago. It is this that you wish us to analyse.

In doing so, may we remind you of the conclusions of our report of June 2011 that concentrated on an initial analysis of the possible impact of the Arab awakening. These were fivefold:

* the Arab awakening might well fail, leaving a deep sense of bitterness across the region and enabling you to project your radical interpretation of Islam as the only appropriate way forward

* the United States would maintain a substantial military presence in Iraq, which would be advantageous to you

* there was little prospect of a lasting solution to that Palestinian predicament, also advantageous to you

* overt and covert United States involvement in Pakistan would increase, further inflaming anti-American sentiment in the country

* the killing of Osama bin Laden was of symbolic but limited significance, since he had become peripheral to your leadership and his death was more relevant to a US domestic audience than to your movement.

The Arab awakening

Your main concern in relation to the Arab awakening has been that a smooth and largely non-violent transition to conventional democratic governance would prove to be the biggest threat to your entire movement and its aim of establishing an Islamist caliphate. Conversely, the failure of the awakening would prepare the way for a resurgence of interest in your doctrine.

In the past year there has been some reform in Morocco and limited progress in Tunisia, developments that are unhelpful to you. Egypt's presidential election points in the direction of a moderate Islamic trend that you will also view as negative, though there is still a strong possibility that military centres of power will retain control sufficient to enhance prospects for a radical backlash.

In Libya, the recent elections have not been good for you, though regime termination has left a fractured society with multiple militias operating. In addition, an unexpected and from your perspective welcome consequence of the Libyan events has been the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali, which was aided by Tuareg fighters in Libya returning to their country. That largely secular enterprise has been overtaken by a radical Islamist ascendancy that has been remarkably rapid. This has resulted in your loose affiliate, Ansar Dine, controlling significant territory; this, especially when coupled with the rise of another affiliate, Boko Haram, in Nigeria, adds greatly to the potential for the further development of your ideas.

We would argue that these two developments in west Africa more than compensate for the limited reversals recently experienced by your associates in Yemen and Somalia, as well as the changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco - all of which may well in any case prove to be short-term.

Afghanistan and Pakistan

The Barack Obama administration continues with its drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, while claiming a degree of success that is largely unrelated to reality. We now expect that Taliban elements will have a distinct and quite substantial role in post-occupation governance, though we do not anticipate that they will allow you more than a nominal presence. Even that outcome would, of course, be of some value to you, and we see it as likely to be significant over the long term.

America's relations with Pakistan have been very difficult, but there has been some recent improvement. The need to maintain supply-routes means that Washington is anxious to sustain this progress. In turn, this suggests that a major increase in drone and special-forces activity is unlikely - unless Mitt Romney is elected in November 2012. If Obama is re-elected, we see circumstances relating to your movement as broadly neutral in both countries.

Iraq and Syria

The situation with regard to Iraq and Syria is different. The Nouri al-Maliki regime in Baghdad has become steadily more autocratic and American influence is greatly diminished. There is increasing resentment among the minority Sunni community at their treatment by a state-security apparatus whose power lies with the Shi'a majority. Both factors have allowed your associates in Iraq greatly to expand their activities.

Your associates in Iraq are also becoming increasingly significant in Syria, where the influence of Islamist elements within the anti-Assad insurgency is much greater than is acknowledged in the public domain in Europe and north America. The United States, in particular, is trying desperately to ensure that munitions and other materials reach the more pro-western rebel elements. But it has considerable difficulty in achieving this, not least because Saudi elements favour your far more radical paramilitary associates - a singularly uncomfortable predicament for Washington.

Two new developments

In this connection, two evolving issues are of particular interest to us as security analysts. The first is that in Syria, it is possible clearly to see the impact of young paramilitaries with combat experience in Iraq. Many have recently travelled to Syria and they will no doubt play a significant role when the regime finally falls.

We have long argued that one of the most significant consequences of the Iraq war of the mid-2000s would be the evolution of such a cohort. There is evidence of the Iraq influence turning up in Afghanistan and Yemen, and even in Nigeria, where Boko Haram's use of shaped-charge IEDs in the Abuja attack was striking.

The second issue concerns Syria's arsenals of chemical weaponry. When the Damascus regime collapses, we think it is highly likely that there will be US and Israeli intervention to control those munitions. From their perspective this will be essential, not least to stop munitions coming under the control of any of your affiliates or, indeed, of Hizbollah.

Such an intervention will be welcomed in the west and also by many people in the middle east (as well as in Israel). But to very many others this will be yet one more example of western interference in the Arab-Islamic world. We have to remember that while the Gaddafi regime in Libya had been treated with a degree of contempt across the region, the fact that it was terminated in part by Nato remains widely resented.

This is scarcely recognised in the west, though that is not very surprising - after all, there remains an almost complete lack of understanding of the continuing impact of the Palestinian predicament on Arab-Islamic opinion. This is why any US and Israeli action in Syria will greatly reinforce this mood, and thus become a development potentially of real value to you.

The Romney factor, and wider prospects

In our two most recent reports, we advised that you act to help ensure Mitt Romney's victory in the United States presidential election. We reiterate that this should be a priority for you, for a Romney presidency (especially if is two-term) will be of great value to you in the coming decade. In brief, your leadership must make it clear that you can do business with Barack Obama in a second term, the best way of doing the greatest damage to his chances.

From the perspective of the independent analysts we are, we must say that we find recent developments really quite intriguing. We do hold to our view, repeated at the start of this report, that your movement has no chance of achieving your truly radical aims. Even so, we judge that we are in the midst of a very fluid situation, not least in the middle east and west Africa.

This leads us to disagree with the argument of many western analysts, namely that al-Qaida is finished. As an organisation your movement is a shadow of its former self; yet as an idea, it may have rather more of a future than we had anticipated. We are certainly convinced that it would benefit greatly from a Mitt Romney victory, which underscores the importance of November's election to the years ahead.


This is the twenty-first report openDemocracy has published from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics (SWISH). Sixteen 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."

"The SWISH Report (19)" (30 June 2011) - to al-Qaida:

"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."

"The SWISH Report (20)" (5 January 2012) - to al-Qaida:

"We recognise that we are entering very uncertain times across the region, not least with the Arab awakening and the possibility of a war with Iran. But our remit is specifically concerned with your prospects. In this respect we would argue that the most useful action for you is to seek to affect the US presidential-election campaign in any way that makes a Republican-controlled White House more likely."

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