The SWISH Report (22)

The multiple fronts of an evolving war - from Yemen to Mali, Syria to Nigeria - have led al-Qaida to commission its chosen management consultants to assess its progress. openDemocracy again has exclusive access to the latest report.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
6 February 2013

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 of the progress of your movement.  We confess once again to being somewhat surprised by your invitation, given our previous negative assessments of your movement’s long-term prospects; but we understand from your associate that you have commissioned this report for two reasons. 

The first is that the SPC has recently suffered significant losses as a result of United States armed-drone attacks, and that you therefore have several new members who are not familiar with our previous consultancies. The second is that although elements of our earlier work have cast a negative light on your prospects, they have also had a tendency to be sufficiently predictive to aid your work.

We note that in view of the adverse security environment in the Waziristans you have further dispersed your Cell and are now based, and most commonly meet, in Europe. This has been useful in that your associate has been able to maintain reasonably regular contact with our Frankfurt office as well as our agents in Alderley Edge and Chingford.

We have to remind you, though, that we are an independent consultancy open to commissions from all quarters and that our clients have, in the past, included elements of the US and UK governments.


Your associate required us to be blunt and we will therefore start by reiterating a conclusion of our report of January 2011:
“(You) have no chance of achieving your 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 Jan 2011).

We further summarise here the main conclusions of our subsequent report, in which you had asked us specifically to concentrate on the implications for your movement of the Arab awakening (see "The SWISH Report [19]", 30 June 2011).

These were fivefold:

* The Arab awakening may 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 the Palestinian predicament, also advantageous to you

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

* The killing of Osama bin Laden was of symbolic yet 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.

Furthermore, our most recent report pointed to the rise of Islamist associates in west Africa, especially Nigeria and Mali, and of the greatly decreased influence of the United States in Iraq, where the Shi’a-dominated Nouri al-Maliki regime was inciting increasingly strong reaction from Sunni paramilitaries, many of them loosely associated with your outlook.  We saw Syria as a promising theatre of war for you, and anticipated that eventual US and Israeli intervention might be of value in endorsing the enduringly valuable narrative of Islam under attack. We also pointed to the desirability of a Mitt Romney victory in the US presidential election in November 2012, and advised that you might in some way seek to undermine Barack Obama’s chance for re-election, perhaps by indicating that he was a man with whom you could do business (see "The SWISH Report [21]", 26 July 2012).

Current developments

We will now summarise current developments, excluding for the moment Mali and Syria. Our overall view is that there are multiple entities with little direct connection with yourselves but with potential for more cohesion should you so wish.

In Russia, the Caucasus Emirate (CE) is currently at a stable phase in its evolution. The Russian authorities are devoting far more attention to counter-terror activities in the region because of the winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014, and this had had some effect on the CE. However, the CE is well-embedded and will gain considerable publicity as the games approach. The Russians are concerned about this risk and are anxious not to be portrayed as having a domestic Islamist problem. They are therefore unlikely to be critical of any major American counter-terror actions, including even the increased use of armed-drones in a number of theatres.

In Iraq, paramilitary activity continues with frequent attacks on government, military and police targets, and there is continuing financial and other support from some western Gulf states. We expect the al-Maliki regime to take an increasingly robust approach and this will increase external support for Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia (AQM) and affiliates. Almost all of those fighting for AQM and the other groups are Iraqis rather than foreign supporters, as was the case from 2004-09, but there is some interchange with rebels in Syria. If the Bashar al-Assad regime falls and is replaced by a regime with substantial Islamist influence, then AQM will be strengthened.  This is one reason why the al-Maliki government is so willing to allow Iranian overflights of its territory as Iran aids the current Damascus regime to help ensure its survival.

In Yemen, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has faced multiple armed-drone attacks over the past two years and this has degraded its leadership to some extent. Despite this, and Saudi air-force support for the Sana’a regime, AQAP has proved to be surprisingly resilient. US and Saudi military support will therefore be intensified, enabling your communications people to develop even further the narrative of an assault on true Islam.

In the Horn of Africa, Al-Shabaab has retreated from Mogadishu and some lesser towns. This has been hailed as a success for the US/African Union forces, though we doubt that their progress has been as strong as suggested. Furthermore, Kenyan and Ugandan military support against Al-Shabaab serves to increase anger among elements of the large Muslim minorities in both countries. Also, anti-government sentiments down the “Swahili coast”, from Malindi in Kenya to Zanzibar in Tanzania, are finding a focus in radical Islam which has real potential for further development given the relative marginalisation of coastal communities, especially in Kenya.

In Nigeria, the Boko Haram movement was particularly active in the late 2012-early 2013 period, and the violent repression of the movement by the Nigerian army and police has been a valuable recruiting-aid. From your perspective, Boko Haram is too focused on the internal Nigerian dimension, even though it has international links. The relatively recent splitting away of the more internationalist Ansaru group has not gone too far. Indeed in some recent instances, Ansaru has collaborated with Boko Haram.  It may therefore influence Boko Haram towards at least a regional perspective, and we anticipate the potential for greater cooperation with groups in neighbouring countries, especially Niger.

In Pakistan, we will not comment on the current situation in light of your own direct knowledge, except to note that the overall political turmoil in the country is helpful to you, as is the continuing anti-American mood stemming from the sovereignty infringements and numerous casualties of the drone-attacks.

In Afghanistan, you currently have minimal influence, yet the Taliban and other armed opposition groups are poised either to take on a serious role in governance or to engage in military action for control of substantial areas of the country. You are no doubt aware that the Barack Obama administration plans a long-term military presence in Afghanistan focused primarily on the use of armed-drones and special forces, in order to prevent you re-establishing caliphate-orientated operations. You should therefore proceed with caution after 2014. We remain surprised, however, that your communications and new social-media departments do not publicise more intensively the extraordinary intensity of armed-drone attacks within Afghanistan.

The second Obama administration

In mentioning the Obama administration’s plans for Afghanistan, we would like to acknowledge a limitation in our most recent analysis. You will recall that we thought a Romney presidency would be the better option for you, given its hawkish security outlook. We now suspect that we were wrong. It is clear that while Obama is cautious about involvement in Mali and Syria, his military posture in relation to the international Islamist resistance movement is a fully functioning and global process of “remote control”. 

The special-operations command, the CIA and other constituents of the US security posture are now greatly focused on shadow wars, including numerous assassinations, and we recommend that your communications people bring that far more into your narrative of oppression. Obama could be yet be much more of an asset to you than we had previously anticipated.

Syria and Mali

In both Syria and Mali, there have been developments singularly favourable to you. The Islamist component of the Syrian resistance is greatly strengthening, not least because of the number of skilled paramilitaries who had previously gained such valuable combat experience against the US forces in Iraq. We expect this to continue and we also expect the recent Israeli air raid in Syria to be the first of many. It would be even better for you if, in addition, the US were to become militarily involved, since you could easily resurrect (if we may use that term) the narrative of a Christian/Zionist conspiracy against true Islam that was so valuable to your propagandist associates in Iraq.

In Mali, it may be questioned why we view the situation there as positive for you, given the effects of the French military action. We see the conflict there as being in its very early stages, however. We know that you share this view and that your communications colleagues are already using images of civilian casualties from French air-strikes as a brand new component of your “Islam under attack” narrative. With air-strikes continuing even now, we can only wonder just how clueless are the French.

In Algeria, we are not convinced that there is much direct promise for you, given the power of the local security and intelligence forces. Again, though, we do see Mali as a theatre of operations stretching over several years. On its own it will never be on the scale of Afghanistan or Iraq, but set against the background of Islamist movements arising from substantial marginalised communities across west Africa, we can see real potential for you.


We repeat what we have previously argued, that we do not believe your aim of a rigorous and purified new caliphate can be achieved. But you have your aims, and our function as a consultancy is to advise you in pursuit of those aims. What we see now is a metamorphosis from the reasonably distinct movement of a decade ago with a semi-structured leadership (the al-Qaida nucleus), into a pervasive yet dispersed idea that has taken root in many parts of the middle east, Africa and south Asia. The problem for you is that most elements of this entity are focused primarily on their immediate environment, and have too little perception of their transnational relevance and significance.

It follows that your main aim must be to rectify this important anomaly, persistently pointing to how the individual groups form part of the whole. This will not be easy but will be your most crucial function in the coming months. Fortunately for you, the greatest single advantage that you possess is that some western leaders do believe that you are far more of a transnational phenomenon, and threat, than is actually the case. It is a great gift to you that the British prime minister could talk, in the context of the Algerian and Malian events, of an existential and generational threat. That is exactly what you have to become if you are to make progress against the far enemy in your pursuit of that elusive caliphate.


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

"The SWISH Report" (21)" (26 July 2012) - to al-Qaida:

"We do hold to our view 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."


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