The SWISH Report (24)

What do events in Syria-Iraq, Egypt, Somalia-Kenya and Nigeria reveal about al-Qaida's condition? The movement has again commissioned advice from its preferred management consultancy, whose unrivalled sources inform a stark analysis.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
17 May 2014

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 provide a further analysis. We are happy to say that the consultancy is now fully functioning once more, having recovered from the armed-drone strike that affected our Wana office. I am also happy to report that our dispersal policy is working well, with our DC office near Du Pont proving very useful in terms of the many contacts both downtown and Beltway. Our Leonard Street office in London has also proved a good choice, although it is dismaying to see how fast the rent is rising around the Silicon Roundabout. 

Overall, though, I believe that we will be able to continue providing the service you require, though we should perhaps remind you that we are an independent consultancy and do accept work from the United States, United Kingdom and other governments.

Once again your associate required us to be blunt and we feel we must remind you of a conclusion of our report of January 2011 which we believe to be even more relevant than three years ago:

“(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.”

We would also refer you to part of our report of February 2013:

“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 critical function in the coming months. Fortunately for you, the greatest single advantage 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.”

We believe that this assessment from fourteen months ago still holds good, but there have been a number of significant developments that are relevant to your future planning.

Russia and Syria

The crisis in Ukraine is part of a determined attempt by Vladimir Putin's regime to reassert Russian status in the world. It also comes at a time when the winter Olympics are receding from memory, having passed without serious paramilitary violence. Russia is now less concerned with the Caucasus Emirate and also less interested in aiding a settlement in Syria. This means that an externally induced settlement, perhaps including Bashar al-Assad standing down, is now unlikely. The double-proxy element remains - regime-Iran-Russia against rebels-Saudi Arabia-west, and the diplomatic mediator Lakhdar Brahimi recognises the difficulty this presents for any settlement.

In Syria itself, the regime is becoming more dominant, and locally-arranged ceasefires are slowly translating regime successes into stabilisation on the ground.  This does not mean that the war is over but the regime now has a serious prospect of survival. The more secular opponents are reducing in strength and influence whereas the Islamists are increasing, even though divided among themselves.

The flow of potential paramilitaries into the country now involves many thousands of young people, a substantial minority being from western diasporas. This is giving rise to a cohort of paramilitaries trained in urban insurgency that may even come to exceed that originating during the Iraq war. This cohort is causing great concern to western security agencies.

Your links with Islamist paramilitaries in Syria are variable but western security agencies overrate their extent. This is one reason why key western countries now have both declaratory and actual policies on the Assad regime: respectively "the regime must go" and "it is better for the regime to survive to curb the jihadist elements".

There is thus the prospect of a long war between jihadists and the Assad regime, with the latter getting the tacit if confidential backing of western states. This means that diaspora paramilitaries will increasingly see western states as well as the Assad regime as enemies, encouraging some seriously to entertain the idea of major 9/11-type attacks.


Islamists in Syria now control significant territory, as do Islamists in Iraq. Thus in two major Arab countries groups with an al-Qaida outlook have scope for development with little outside interference. From your perspective this must be truly satisfying.   There is the added point that Iran has substantial influence in both countries, to the intense dissatisfaction of the Saudis who will therefore back Islamist rebels.  Territorial control in Iraq and Syria mean that there is scope for sustained planning for attacks against the far enemy at a level even greater than that in Yemen.


Islamist elements continue to be significant in Yemen, Somalia and Libya, with the recent attacks in Kenya a further reminder of the extent of al-Shaabab’s reach. But the major development has been with Boko Haram in Nigeria, now thoroughly in the western media spotlight. The Nigerian government’s repressive approach has been persistently counterproductive but will continue, in spite of confidential advice to the contrary from western diplomats. This means that Nigeria has the potential to be a major theatre of war between western “advisors” and Boko Haram. Such an outcome would aid proselytising among diasporas, and that may come to include the substantial Nigerian diaspora, not least in the UK.


Egypt’s government, which is essentially military, has continued to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood with great vigour, killing hundreds and imprisoning many thousands. We expect that within a year we will see, in reaction to this, the rise of Islamist paramilitaries in this most important Arab country.

One pointer

Developments in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Nigeria are, then, all favourable to you. But there is a further factor of which you should be aware, which we have already alluded.

Our associates at Du Pont have it on good authority that paramilitaries in Syria and Iraq include groups that are now planning to mount really substantial attacks on western targets, attacks that are far higher than anything undertaken since 9/11.  We expect them to succeed within a year, probably with an attack in the continental United States or on a very significant western target elsewhere.

Since the US elections of 2016 are already looming, even a relatively sensible president such as Barack Obama will have to respond to such an attack with considerable force. If he fails, the likelihood is of a Republican in the White House who will benefit greatly from also having Republican majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate. Such a hawkish environment should be very welcome to your movement - reminiscent of the way the early US response to 9/11 was of great value to you, exceeded only by the subsequent occupation of Iraq.

Your movement seriously needs a major western intervention that extends beyond armed-drones, special forces, privatised military and the like - and the aftermath of a major attack will deliver that.

We remain of the view that your movement is now much more of an idea but we also now believe that it may not remain as such. Indeed we think the prospects for your movement are brighter than they have been for some years. This does not mean that you will ever achieve even a partial caliphate but it does mean that you will gain many more recruits in the short-term.  

Two key trends

Thus we have revised our view of your future prospects and regard them as rather good over the next five to ten years. We do, of course, stand ready to further analyse your prospects and would point to two long-term trends that demand further work that we will be only too glad to undertake.

The first is that the major shifts across the Arab middle east in the past three years have led to changes in government and governance, with the incoming leaderships being faced with high socio-economic expectations that no regime can fulfil. There is the particular problem of unemployment among young people, currently at 18% in Morocco, 21% in Algeria, 25%  in Egypt and over 30% in Tunisia, and this in a region with a particularly youthful population. The frustration, resentment and anger of young people at the lack of life-chances means that opposition will grow towards the new regimes, giving radical Islamists every opportunity to argue for their own path to change as the only solution.

The second is that these problematic economic conditions are already being exacerbated by the effects of climate change, and this is well-nigh certain to get progressively worse.

The combination of the two trends - deepening socio-economic divisions and ecosystems constraints on growth - mean that circumstances are right for radical alternatives, not excluding those advocating violent overthrow of regimes that have failed to deliver.

These trends will, we believe, increasingly integrate into an environment that will be particularly susceptible to your message. While you appear hardly to exist as a defined and clearly structured movement, the al-Qaida idea is there, it is resilient and appears increasingly relevant. Where this will take us is far from certain but we do believe that the so-called war on terror is far from ended.

Wana, London and Washington, 17 May 2014


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

"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."

"The SWISH Report" (23) - 17 May 2014

"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."

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