This kind of analysis has helped the United States before. During the Cold War, the country invested a great deal of effort in understanding the enemy’s ideology. But that battle of ideas was perhaps simpler. Our communist adversaries had a worldview that we understood and that had its origins in Western thinking; we were confident that our own system offered a more attractive model to the world. In the fight against Al Qaeda, the United States has largely stayed away from the ideological battle because of concerns that any information campaign would involve counterproductive arguments about Islam.
Focusing on the secular origins of Al Qaeda’s violent strategies, however, gives the United States a new kind of leverage—an opening to publicize the worst aspects of Al Qaeda’s ideology, which are just as alien to our Muslim allies and American Muslims as they are to other Americans. Al Qaeda’s military doctrines have resulted in the deaths of many more Muslims than non-Muslims; their call for eternal jihadism is a recipe for endless urban and rural warfare. They have no theory of stable government beyond the clichés in their propaganda.
What is clear, based on the intolerance and dedication to violence enshrined in its strategic literature, is that the communities most immediately at threat are the surrounding Muslim ones. That is not a sentiment likely to show up in the group’s public propaganda. But it’s a fact that the United States has a very good incentive to recognize and to communicate to the passive and sometimes sympathetic public that Al Qaeda depends on for its very existence. Once we have fully absorbed Al Qaeda’s strategic literature, it will give us ample material to use against them, in their own words.
Michael W. S. Ryan is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and a Middle East Institute scholar. He studied Arabic for his PhD at Harvard and at the American University in Cairo, and is author of “Decoding Al Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America,” published last month.