The SWISH Report (23)

What is the condition of and what are the prospects for al-Qaida? The movement has commissioned a new report from the near-legendary management consultancy, whose offices are now dispersed following collateral damage to its Waziristan HQ from an armed-drone strike.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
25 October 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 analysis of the progress of your movement.  We must apologise for the late delivery of this report but we believe that you are aware of the disruption to our consultancy caused by the armed=drone strike near Wana’s eastern diamond. While aimed at one of your safe houses (empty at the time, we understand) it seriously damaged our office, injuring three of our analysts.

It was fortunate, then, that we had already decided on a policy of dispersal. We have expanded our Washington office, in spite of the rentals around Du Pont, and have consolidated our UK operation in new premises in London's Leonard Street, near the Old Street hub - expensive, but at least the local baristas are competent.

In any case, the four-week delay allows us to address recent developments in Kenya, Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and Russia. We hope this will allow us to give you a properly informed analysis of your current situation and near-term prospects.

We confess, yet again, to being surprised by your invitation to us for a further report, given our previous negative assessments of your movement’s long-term prospects. But your associate was insistent that fully independent analysis is what you seek and that you have plenty of people to tell you what they think you want to hear. We do 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 governments in the United States and Britain (which grant a certain irony to the aforementioned drone strike).

The context

Your associate required us to be blunt. We will therefore start by reminding you of 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 January 2011).

We further summarise the five main trends outlined in our previous report of February 2013, with our assessment of how they were affecting your movement:

* The Arab awakening is in trouble, 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 has withdrawn from Iraq and has almost no influence on the al-Maliki government

* There is little prospect of a lasting solution to the Palestinian predicament

* There has been some improvement in US-Pakistani relations

* The US presence in post-occupation Afghanistan will be relatively small but with potent special-force and armed-drone capabilities.

This most recent report concluded:

“What we see now is a metamorphosis from the reasonably distinct movement with a semi-structured leadership (the al-Qaida of a decade ago), 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 environments 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” (see "The SWISH Report [22]", 6 February 2013).

This is a view we still hold, though there have been significant developments in the past eight months which are broadly advantageous to you and which we will now review.

The key locations

In Yemen, US armed-drone and special-forces operations continue to affect your associates but they also anger many Yemenis. We do not expect your colleagues to expand their territorial holdings and these may even decrease, yet we do expect them to continue their efforts with determination and with surprising degrees of support, even in Sana’a.  

In Somalia, al-Shabab has lost control of much of Mogadishu and Kismayo but that is not hugely important given its rural base in what is a non-urbanised state. In any case, the attack on the Westgate shopping-mall in Nairobi was a truly impressive demonstration of its transnational reach. Westgate was a near-classic demonstration of careful target selection and sophisticated forward planning, worthy of the Provisional IRA at the height of its capabilities during the London bombings of the early 1990s.

This is because Westgate is the most popular weekend retail gathering point for Nairobi’s middle-ranking members of the country’s elite, including diplomats and other expatriates. An added bonus was the incompetence of the Kenyan authorities, with the three-day duration and the worldwide media focus also particularly valuable. There has too been a useful backlash in Kenya against Muslims in general and Somalis in particular. The context of tensions along the “Swahili coast” of Kenya and Tanzania makes this especially helpful to you.

In west Africa, the Mali elections have been held quite successfully, which by contrast is bad news for you. But there are numerous indications that Salafist paramilitaries are entrenched in parts of the north and centre of the country, and that they are highly likely to mount new operations in the coming months.

In Nigeria, the situation with Boko Haram becomes ever more violent, with intensive suppression of the movement by the army involving hundreds of deaths in custody. This is absolutely invaluable to you in inciting hatred of the police and the state, and will do much to boost your support. We continue to be amazed by actions such as those of the Nigerian state. Its ability to countenance deeply counter-productive policies is quite extraordinary. Have they learned nothing? Do western allies not have any influence or have they learned nothing too? Nigeria may even turn out to be one of the most productive areas of future influence for your movement.

The crucible: Iraq and Syria

Even so, Nigeria currently pales into insignificance beside Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the failure of the Nouri al-Maliki regime to reach out in any serious manner to the Sunni minority continues to surprise us, but it is certainly of real value to you as the violence escalates towards wholesale repression and most likely ends up inciting a civil war. Our understanding is that substantial financial support is moving into the anti-state Sunni militias - including your close associates in Saudi Arabia and other western Gulf states - and that the level of armaments available to the militias is impressive.

Furthermore, this support includes experienced paramilitaries who gained combat-training against American troops and marines in Iraq from 2003-11. Compared with these, the training, motivation and equipment of the al-Maliki regime’s forces is frankly low-grade. We expect the Iraq violence to continue and to grow; but we would caution you against thinking that this represents undoubted progress, since the degree of violence that your associates use in Iraq is so great as to risk being counterproductive.

Iraq is now a valuable theatre of operations - much more than we anticipated - but it is still outranked in importance by Syria. A number of Islamist groups are active in the country, and the degree of cooperation among them varies greatly; but the core fact is that the larger Islamist coalitions in Syria now control substantial territory and resources, and are digging in for the long term. You therefore face the remarkable prospect of controlling territory in the heart of the Arab Islamic world. This is an extraordinary development - hardly a caliphate but a development which we, n spite of our experience, did not anticipate.

There is a further vital element here: the very growth of these groups is causing substantial concern in Washington and Moscow, to the extent that both now want an early end to the war. The Russians, in particular, are concerned about the north Caucasus groups, with this week’s suicide-bombing of a bus in Volgograd the latest example of rooted violence. This campaign, which normally goes unreported internationally, raises serious issues over security during the winter Olympics in Sochi in February 2014.

In Syria, peace talks are now possible in a way that seemed implausible even just three months ago. However, we do not expect them to make much progress: deep divisions among the more secular rebels, and the Saudis' intention to aid the termination of the regime - not least by resourcing the Islamists - are likely to prevent this.


In a broad perspective, we see Nigeria, Syria and to an extent Iraq as major centres of development. Yet none of these involves associates of your movement seeing themselves primarily as part of a globally orientated vanguard that is charting a route to a worldwide caliphate. Instead, your legacy may simply be the further development of your movement into what is essentially no more than an idea, leaving unrealised the larger aim of a caliphate. It may, nonetheless, prove to be a singularly potent idea with a persistent appeal; and it may be greatly enhanced if the Arab awakening fails to develop further.

In some of our recent analyses for you, we have been pessimistic about your future. This remains the case insofar as you see yourselves as a powerful movement for global change.  As an idea, though, we must admit that it is developing a resilience that has caught western security and intelligence agencies by surprise. While we were the first consultants to recognise it even we, with all our expertise and contacts, were late in doing so. We will reflect on this and endeavour to improve our analysis so that we will be ready for any further commissions from you.

Wana, London and Washington, 24 October 2013


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

"The SWISH Report (22)" (6 February 2013) - to al-Qaida

"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."

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