Twelve years after its horrifying attack on the United States and two years after Osama bin Laden’s death, Al Qaeda is still very much alive—dispersed, but with a critical role in the violence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere. Its leaders and locations have changed, but its ideology has proved tenacious and adaptable.
We often misunderstand what that ideology is. Americans generally discuss Al Qaeda chiefly as an Islamist group, one fanatically dedicated to imposing its harsh version of Islamic law on the Middle East and to extinguishing all American presence there.
But there are many active Islamist organizations, and among them Al Qaeda is distinct—unique both in its single-minded focus on the United States and in its approach to violence. To fight its influence requires more than just tracking its personnel or analyzing its tactics: It requires grasping the deeper strategies and long-range thinking that set it apart and help create its mystique.
Al Qaeda’s strategic foundations are laid out in a variety of documents written by its ideologues and trainers. Originally produced secretly for training recruits and as a legacy for future generations of jihadi guerrillas, the documents began to emerge in the early 2000s—published on jihadist forums, stored on commercial websites, or confiscated from terrorist safe houses and training camps by local police or military.
What this body of work reveals might strike even informed readers as surprising. When it comes to strategy, close readings of the documents suggest that Al Qaeda draws its ideas less from classical Islam than from a broad array of sources in 20th-century guerrilla warfare, as well as older European and Chinese military strategists. Its books and articles refer to the ideas of Mao, Che Guevara, Regis Debray, the Vietnamese strategist General Giap, Fidel Castro, and even the somewhat obscure Brazilian urban guerrilla Carlos Marighella. They are secular and analytic, and do not rely on religious arguments as a detailed guide to action.
To study Al Qaeda’s strategic literature is to realize that we should understand it primarily as a new type of revolutionary group—one that is, in fact, less classically “Islamic” than Maoist. It is a modern ideology built on Al Qaeda’s distorted version of Islam, one that is rejected by mainstream Islamic scholars. And this deeper understanding may give us new tools in what is shaping up to be a long fight against Al Qaeda’s influence.
The first unclassified evidence of Al Qaeda’s thinking about guerrilla warfare surfaced in December 2001 after the American journalist Alan Cullison, assigned to cover events in Kabul, had an accident in the wilds of the Hindu Kush that destroyed his laptop. When he bought a used computer in Kabul, he came into possession of a hard drive previously owned by Ayman al-Zawahiri, then bin Laden’s deputy. Cullison bought it from a man who claimed he had stolen it the day before Al Qaeda’s leadership fled Kabul after the collapse of the Taliban government.
This hard drive contained a book written by al-Zawahiri about jihadist insurgencies in Egypt, titled “Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner.” It also included many other professional-grade documents about espionage and security. A section titled “The Future of the Jihadist Movement” outlined some of Al Qaeda’s long-range strategies and would later be the basis for further writings by the leadership’s advisers and lieutenants.
Thousands of pages of documents have emerged since then, laying out Al Qaeda’s ideology, military doctrine, and tactics. In 2004, the Norwegian scholars Brynjar Lia and Thomas Hegghammer coined the term now used to describe this body of writings: “jihadi strategic studies,” the collective efforts of a radical group to adapt the lessons of the past into a modern guide to action. Since 2008, I have been among the growing number of scholars and experts trying to unlock what they tell us about Al Qaeda.
The most influential strategic documents appear to be anything but religious in origin. For example, Al Qaeda strategist and trainer Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri wrote in his voluminous “The Call to Global Islamic Resistance” that one of the most important books on guerrilla warfare has been written by an American. That book, published in 1965, is “War of the Flea,” by Robert Taber, an investigative journalist who covered Castro’s operations in the late 1950s. The title refers to Mao’s often-cited analogy that guerrilla warfare is like the attack of a weak flea against a powerful dog. The flea first agitates the dog with a few bites, and then the dog attacks itself in a frenzy but is unable to kill the flea; as the bites multiply and other fleas join, the dog is weakened and eventually dies.Continued...