Taber’s book, a classic popular study of insurgencies, examines how guerrillas end up succeeding or failing in wars against overwhelmingly powerful enemies. The book’s title was translated into Arabic as, approximately, “The War of the Oppressed”; a more literal translation would be “the war of those thought to be weak.” The message is clear: If you feel weak, this book shows you how to be strong.
Except for history and military buffs, few Americans today read Taber’s book in English; similarly, few Al Qaeda terrorists would have read it in Arabic. But its lessons ended up embedded in Al Qaeda’s philosophy and insurgency campaigns. Al-Suri even recorded a lecture course on the book, and both the failed mid-2000s terrorist campaign in Saudi Arabia and the current war in Yemen bear its imprint.
Other Al Qaeda authors have drawn on guerrilla thinkers from very different parts of the globe. Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi (a pseudonym for a bin Laden adviser), in his article “Revolutionary Wars,” translates the Vietnamese General Giap’s characterization of guerrilla warfare in his book “People’s War People’s Army” into Arabic: “a type of war in which the weak side, with poor equipment, takes refuge among the masses to fight a powerful enemy, which possesses superior equipment and technology.” To al-Qurashi, the ultimate American withdrawal from Vietnam offers a lesson in how the psychological costs of guerrilla warfare can break a powerful nation’s will to keep fighting.
Al Qaeda’s fundamental approach, as multiple authors explain in various texts, mirrors classic Maoist three-stage strategy. First, small groups weaken a government’s hold on a remote area; then they establish themselves in villages or communities to consolidate their power and expand. Finally, they join with similar groups until a large area is under their control, as the government withdraws and ultimately falls. Such an effort is underway in North Africa, the Sinai, Syria, Iraq, and South Asia. The goal may be couched in Islamic terms, but the methods are profoundly secular. Violence for Al Qaeda, as in classic guerrilla strategy, always has a political objective.
Al Qaeda’s books and articles on strategy in Arabic and occasionally in translation can now be easily found on the Internet, if one knows where to look. Besides al-Suri’s “The Call to Global Islamic Resistance” and al-Qurashi’s articles “Revolutionary Wars” and “Fourth Generation Warfare,” they include Abu Bakr Naji’s “The Administration of Savagery,” Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin’s “A Practical Course for Guerrilla War,” and many more. All the authors mentioned here were active jihadists and close to Al Qaeda’s leadership; all were killed in insurgency operations or captured by local forces by 2006.
But their work survives. Though Al Qaeda is increasingly fragmented, and some observers see it less as a single organization than a banner for various insurgents to fight under, these strategies and Al Qaeda’s ideology do appear to bind them together. The current leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen, for example, has credited Naji’s book for the group’s strategy today while expounding Al Qaeda’s ideology in his propaganda.
The principles of warfare these writers espouse are by no means mainstream in the countries where they lived. It is evident from their writings that, like Osama bin Laden in his last days, these authors know that ordinary Muslims find their violent tactics to be morally offensive. To this they have no real answer except that they are following the universal laws of war, which are the same to establish a religious state or a secular state. In other words, if you agree with their goal of establishing a strict Islamic state, then the ends justify the means.
In the fight against Al Qaeda thus far, this strategic literature has taken a back seat to tracking its propaganda, tactics, and actual activities. This is understandable: Military and police operations against terrorist cells and groups depend on actionable information, and strategic writings don’t tell us where the group’s terrorists might strike next.
But in the long term, understanding its strategy is crucial. Perhaps Al Qaeda’s greatest strength has been its ability to rise out of the ashes of miserable defeat, recruit more young men, and continue its long war against the established order. Understanding the strategy, ideology, and “heroic” history its strategists write about is key to winning the deeper battle to prevent Al Qaeda from refilling its ranks when our operations decimate them.Continued...