Much of the world lavishes cursory attention on a group called Al Qaeda and a militant religion dubbed â€˜Wahhabist’ or â€˜Salafi’ Islam, the first being a product of the second. Since September 11th, 2001 Western nations, especially America, have sought to undermine and thwart the goals of these forces. But how precisely does the West even understand their intentions, their strategy? Though somewhat vapid in its analytical rigor, the West has attacked two countries to stymie the tide of radical Salafi Islam. It has leapt out and pinned much of its hopes on the transformative power of liberal democracy. This, in essence, is the West’s counter-strategy. But effective counter-strategy is predicated upon an accurate and thoroughgoing comprehension of the terrorist aim. He, after all, started the war. The following essay will attempt to elucidate that material aim and propose a course whereby the Islamic terrorist could potentially accomplish it.
The Art of Strategy
Strategy could be, in a limited sense, described as the art of seizing the initiative to gain a particular objective. Though it would be wrong to apply too classical a definition of strategy to an organization like Al Qaeda, it is still an important function. Strategy is surely an art and though subject to many mechanistic elements, must never be made beholden to them if it is to be successful. It is a game played against an opponent or a myriad of opponents and therefore rests largely upon initiative. The strategist must rob his foe of momentum. He must pursue his course with constant regard to his enemy’s will for in many cases the enemy’s will is the object of strategy.
All conflict, whether it is war or baseball, has an aim. Aim or purpose, however, can be difficult to quantify, sometimes difficult to even identify. Men have fought for money or love or even for the glory of the fight itself. Aim, though elusive and often ethereal, is crucial to the understanding of all conflict. One cannot properly dissect any actions of a foe without some knowledge of his intention. It is manifestly insufficient to say that your enemy merely â€˜hates America;’ this gets you no further than recognizing that you have a problem.
Another powerful and devastating misconception is that the aim must be rational. Wars are frequently if not always fought for irrational purposes. War is, at base, an irrational endeavor. Surely mankind could find greater prosperity and happiness if he universally foreswore war. Yet man fights because he is not, as some surmise, fundamentally rational. This does not mean, however, that war is bereft of logic or devoid of thinking. Definitely not. Strategy, at simplest, is the application of rational thought to the process of war that may or may not have had its origin in rationality.
Before one can ever hope to dissect the method in strategy, one must fully grasp the object of that strategy. Al-Qaeda, in the popular mindset, is a loose organization of crazed fanatics drunk on hatred. Serious analysis of their motivations is frequently lacking because the West assumes, perhaps hopes, that their violence is a product of dementia and not of thoughtful planning. Those assumptions are wrong. The logic of terrorism is powerful and direct, though terrifying. As Martha Crenshaw observed, “terrorism can be considered a reasonable way of pursuing extreme interests in the political arena.”1 We can begin to examine that logic only if we understand its root, its teleology, if you will. To determine that root and identify the aim of the Salafi jihad we must first delve into its history and theology.
Since its very beginning Islam established that one of the foremost roles of the Muslim state was to carry out jihad (striving) against the unbelievers. In fact, Muslim tradition recounts how Muhammad sent letters to the kings of all foreign nations demanding their submission to the new religion and law.2 This early prerogative divides the world into two competing and mutually exclusive spheres. The first is the dar al-Islam (land of Islam). The corollary to this world is the dar-al-harb (land of war). The land of war is that part of the world that is not yet living under the justice of Islamic rule. It is, therefore, the duty of every Muslim to expand the former at the expense of the latter.
An additional interpretation, and one that ultimately gave rise to Al Qaeda, is found in the writings and thought of Mohamed ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Wahhab was a religious reformer from central Arabia in the early part of the eighteenth century. He deplored what he saw as the moral laxness of the faithful and their devotion to religious innovations not in keeping with the lives of the original followers of the Prophet. He labeled the prevailing reverence for Muslim saints and the mysticism of the Sufi orders as irreligious.3 Wahhab believed that the Islamic community had descended back into a condition of jahiliyya, the barbarism and idolatry that had typified Arabia before the coming of Mohammed. Wahhab vehemently condemned much of Muslim tradition as pagan accretions and therefore idolatrous. He advocated death for those who had slipped into and persevered in this unacceptable malaise.
Wahhab eventually garnered the support of a local ruler, Mohamed ibn Sa’ud. Under their auspices the new virulent form of Islam ransacked the Arabian Peninsula, killing many Muslim pilgrims and destroying a host of sacred sites. Their alliance justified this war against fellow Muslims by liberally applying the label of jahiliyya to the unconvinced. Ottoman intervention foiled the Wahhabist alliance for some time, but by 1925 the Sa’ud family, along with their version of religious purity, had conquered what is now the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.4
In general the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were not kind to the Islamic world. Their former majesty was crushed and most of them fell under the sway of some foreign power. Inchoate socialism and Arab nationalism tried to solve the problem, but both courses seemed always lackluster. The abject failure of the 1967 war against Israel highlighted the prostrate nature of the Arab world and spurred many to look for different solutions.5
It was Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian, who revived the thought of Wahhab and offered a compelling diagnosis of the Islamic world’s problem. Qutb touted originalism. In his mind the power of the original Islamic state had been compromised because it has deviated from the path of true righteousness. God, in his displeasure, will not restore the glory of the Islamic empire until correct belief once again reigns as it did in the first century of Islam. Qutb preached salafiyyah, which means â€˜ancient one’ and connotes the companions of the Prophet. He taught that the powers of the world, especially the secular rulers of Islamic states, were too strong and entrenched for preaching alone to be effective. He argued for the formation of a vanguard that would clear away these obstacles through violence. After that, correct preaching would reinvigorate the lost faithful.6
Qutb, like Wahhab, pronounced all societies on the world to be jahili. By doing so he established the legitimacy of jihad against all powers on the earth, to include the secular rulers of places like his homeland, Egypt. In essence, Qutb sought after an Islamic society based on the model of the original umma (community or nation). To that end Qutb justified numerous means of coercion, not the least of which were violence and sedition.7
Qutb’s message was readily received. The call to a Salafi style Islam spread quickly and found resonance throughout the Muslim world. His disciples included many of the founders of Al Qaeda, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, Ali Amin Ali al-Rashidi and Subhi Muhammad Abu Sittah. Their vitriolic attitudes furthered Qutb’s cause, which gained immortal status after his execution by the Nasser government in 1966.8
Fundamental to the new thought was the notion of the original Muslim state guided by a righteous ruler and devoted to the strict application of Islamic law, Sharia. Salam Faraj, one of Qutb’s most eloquent devotees, argued that the formation of a truly Islamic state was a duty for all Muslims. He, furthermore, argued that since war would be necessary for this end, war too was an obligation.9 But perhaps the most influential of all of Qutb’s disciplines was Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri would eventually join with Osama bin Laden in Al Qaeda, and in Zawahiri the Salafi movement found its most concrete spokesman.
Zawahiri’s thought gave the movement doctrinal force and a singular objective, especially after he joined the highest levels of the Al Qaeda network. To him the ultimate and only goal of the Salafi jihad is the establishment of a “Muslim nation” in the very center of the Islamic world.10 What he desires is simply the re-vivification of Islam so that it can once again produce a unified Muslim empire, a Caliphate. The caliphate refers to the Muslim empire formed after Mohammed’s death by his successor rulers. It also denotes a period of religious purity and Islamic unity. During the reign of the caliphate Islam enjoined a time in which “religious truth and political power were indissolubly associated: the first sanctified the second, the second sustained the first.”11 This idyllic state, however, did not last. Factionalism and religious discord rent the unified authority of the caliphate, much to the chagrin of the Salafis.
This desire for a rebuilt caliphate is what separates and defines the Salafi jihad from other Islamic movements. The West often chooses to label Al Qaeda in skewed contrarian terms. We view them as an organization of hate, as if that hate were an end in and of itself. This is profoundly not the case. The Salafis bemoan the position of Islam and seek to redress this grievance, and in doing so have found themselves drawn into conflict with Western powers. As Zawahiri saw it there was a confluence of factors preventing the emergence of a renewed caliphate. Among these was the acquiescence of Muslim rulers to the narcotic of secular culture and the semi-covert attempts by Western powers to prevent what should be the ascendance of the Islamic world.12 By viewing the Salafi objective in its proper light we can understand that Al Qaeda’s hatred of the West is actually ancillary to its primary objective. From this we may postulate that were there no â€˜West,’ but still no caliphate, Al Qaeda would yet exist.
In short, the restoration of the caliphate is the source and origin of the Salafist jihad. Though individuals may pursue martyrdom, the collective goal is a material aim granted legitimacy by religious prerogative. A West which views the Salafi movement as a form of collective pathology will always fail in its analysis, as will any discussion which relegates the goal of Al Qaeda solely to the political sphere. Al Qaeda, in keeping with Islamic tradition, recognizes no distinction between politics and religion.13 A religious mandate therefore translates immediately into a political goal. Any and all attempts to split the two constitute an inappropriate grafting of Western systems onto Islamic patterns of thought.
The first step in our analysis is now complete. We have identified the objective of the Salafi jihad. We can now move on to determine how the movement has sought to affect that aim in the past, and how they might seek to accomplish it in the near future. Of importance is the knowledge that these men are not recidivist criminals nor are they brainwashed lunatics. A study conducted by Dr. Marc Sageman on a sample of Salafi terrorists indicated that most members of the movement are middle or upper class young men with fairly impressive educations.14 Sageman, in fact, observed that over 60 percent had at least some amount of college education.15 This, of course, debunks the idea that terrorists are country rubes tricked into a life of murder by silver-tongued ideologues.
What the world is dealing with is a network of intelligent, yet zealous strategists. They adopt courses based on pragmatism and readily change tact should the result prove unattractive. Typically the Salafi jihad has proposed two strategies to accomplish their end. The first targets what they dub the â€˜near enemy.’ The â€˜near enemy’ consists of the secular regimes that hold sway over Islamic countries. Some quick examples would be the Turkey of Ataturk or the Egypt of Nasser. These countries, though they espouse Islam, have fallen into decadence and therefore stand in the way of the true Islamic empire.
Plans to overthrow this â€˜near enemy’ erupted in Jordan during the abortive Black September coup of 1970. Salafi radicals hatched similar plots in Egypt in the following years. The logic was that a righteous Islamic society would form naturally if the apostate ruler were removed. To that end militants made several attempts on the lives of Egyptian leaders. The successful assassination of President Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat in 1981, however, did not produce the desired result.16 Government forces promptly crushed the ensuing rebellions and a wave of arrests further crippled the jihad. Many of the leaders who escaped prison, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, fled to Pakistan where they hoped to join the struggle against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.17
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan gave an international flavor to the Salafi jihad. For the first time jihadists from different countries met and discussed their predicaments. This cross-polinization of ideas along with the apparent failure of targeting the â€˜near enemy’ led the Salafi movement to readdress its strategy. In Afghanistan the Salafi movement coalesced around the figure of Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden had created the Mekhtab al-Khidemat (Service Bureau), an organization that aided foreign volunteers in the Afghan jihad. Possessed of substantial financial resources, bin Laden came to direct much of the wider movement and was instrumental in the formation of Al Qaeda. He, like Zawahiri, viewed the fight in Afghanistan as a transitory state, a stepping-stone for the larger jihad.18 Yet even at this point the jihad itself was directed primarily against the facile Muslim world or her periphery.
The withdrawal of Russian forces from Afghanistan robbed Al Qaeda, in a certain sense, of its raison d’etre. The infidel had departed and the Salafis were left again to agonize over the hurdles involved with tackling the â€˜near enemy.’ Still the organization retained Afghanistan as a base and center of operations. The U.S. involvement in the 1991 Gulf War changed things. Men like bin Laden and Zawahiri came to see in U.S. policy a secret attempt to conquer Muslim lands.19 They furthermore came to attribute their failures against the â€˜near enemy’ as a product of the support rendered to those governments by Western interlopers, particularly the U.S. To topple any apostate regimes became an exercise in futility so long as the U.S. was present to prop up flagging governments. By this strategic logic, the Salafi jihad abandoned the â€˜near enemy’ in favor of targeting the â€˜far enemy,’ i.e. the U.S. and its supporters.
Al Qaeda was quick to put their strategy to the test. The ignominious withdrawal of U.S. troops from Somalia in 1993 and the timid response to attacks like the first World Trade Center bombing seemed to validate the strategy. The 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and in Dar es Salaam and the subsequent lack of response further vindicated the move to switch to the â€˜far enemy.’ These efforts also earned bin Laden an international acclaim that cemented his control of the worldwide Salafi jihad.20
Believing firmly in the success of his new strategy bin Laden then planned his masterstroke. It would fall on New York City on September 11th, 2001. The multiple suicide attacks of 9/11 horrified the West and galvanized the U.S. into action. In a dramatic reversal of policy the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, taking bin Laden by complete surprise.21 This action eliminated the privileged sanctuary and struck at the central node of his vast terrorist network. Al Qaeda was sent reeling; its leadership made fugitives and the strategy of attacking the â€˜far enemy’ rendered an abject failure.
The Iraqi Interlude
But Al Qaeda is a many-headed serpent and a resilient cellular network. The invasion of Afghanistan left the organization wounded, but certainly not dead. The subsequent incursion of the U.S. into Iraq provided Al Qaeda with room for maneuver and, above all, opportunity. Soon after the defeat of the decrepit Iraqi military, the U.S. forces in Iraq found they faced a more sinister, nebulous opponent. Though certainly no fan of a secularist like Saddam Hussein, the Al Qaeda faithful flocked to Iraq to repel the infidel invader. Once more foreign troops occupied Muslim land and new lieutenants rose to take the place of the exiled bin Laden.
Foremost among these is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. We cannot know how closely affiliated Zarqawi was to Al Qaeda before the war, but it is clear that they are unified by a common religious affection which allows for a commonality of purpose lacking in rigidly hierarchal organizations. This religious prerogative also supersedes any notion that Zarqawi and bin Laden may be at odds due to personal rivalry. The name of Zarqawi’s militant organization, the Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, means the Unification and Holy War Group and is a direct reference to the theology of Mohamed ibn Abd al-Wahhab of eighteenth century fame.22
In Iraq Zarqawi has vacillated between strategies. At times the insurgency has targeted U.S. forces, but, in general, has found them to be too difficult to attack effectively. The U.S. material superiority precludes most direct action, leaving the terrorists with recourse to strategies of weakness, e.g. suicide bombings. The suicide attack, though it appears superficially irrational and a product of unvarnished malice, is supported by a malignant logic. At the core of suicide attacks is the belief that such feats will compel governments to abandon their policies or sufficiently terrify the population into forcing government change. This method is bolstered by an impressive array of supporting factors. For one, a suicide attack is very likely to succeed, as the attacker does not seek a means of escape. A corollary is that suicide attacks are usually extremely destructive. The last pillar for the justification of the suicide attack is the fact that the act of suicide signals an intense commitment to the cause. A suicide terrorist is unlikely to fear any retaliation if he is willing to kill himself.23 This obviates many counter-strategies and can create a feeling of hopelessness among the â€˜forces of order.’
Recognizing that U.S. forces represent a â€˜hard target,’ Zarqawi has altered his strategy and in September 2005 declared an “all-out war” against Iraq’s Shi’a population. Zarqawi, in keeping with Salafi doctrine, considers Shi’a Muslims to be heretics who have perverted the true faith through the adoption of saint worship and other religious â€˜innovations.’ This strategy was aimed at sparking a civil war in Iraq between Sunni and Shi’a religious groups. The remarkable Shi’a discipline, in the face of these withering attacks, is a testament to their cohesiveness as a people and has firmly incapacitated Al Qaeda’s strategy in Iraq. This strategy also earned Zarqawi the disapproval of Al Qaeda luminary, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
A letter intercepted sometime in late 2005 revealed that Zawahiri was concerned with the chosen strategy in Iraq. Zawahiri begins by restating the objective of establishing an “Islamic authority or emirate” which can then be developed until it “achieves the level of a caliphate.”24 In the letter Zawahiri explains to Zarqawi that the killing of Shi’a civilians, though religiously acceptable, is confusing to the umma and damaging to the cause. It is no doubt that Zawahiri is recalling the popular fallout from the Salafi terrorist activities in Egypt. He enjoins Zarqawi to ignore sectarian differences for now so that confused outsiders cannot accuse them of killing fellow Muslims.
Zawahiri continually stresses the importance of gaining popular support for the jihadist cause in Iraq. He puts political action on the same level as the violent pursuits and wishes to see Zarqawi gain popular approval even among the Shi’a. In the final run Zawahiri in the letter states that America will leave Iraq shortly and that the departure will be the moment when Al Qaeda in Iraq should work to seize control. Once Al Qaeda can establish an Islamic state in Iraq it can then move to subvert the surrounding regimes until a true caliphate is formed.
This particular letter from Zawahiri to Zarqawi may be a forgery. Much of the phraseology seems odd if written by a hard-line Salafi Egyptian. It has also not elicited any real change in course by Zarqawi. He continues to attack the Shi’a population and seems bent on provoking civil war. He may simply be ignoring the advice or the advice may be intentionally duplicitous.
The New Strategy
Forgery or not, Al Qaeda, in my estimation, will soon realize, if they have not already, that their short-term strategy in Iraq is doomed to failure. It was bootless almost from the beginning. The Shi’a hold on Iraq is already too strong and with approximately 60% of the population that control will only grow firmer as Shi’a officials gain control of the Iraqi bureaucracy. Al Qaeda’s repeated attacks on Shi’a population centers and holy sites have yet to produce the desired civil war. The Shi’a’s ability to call on their powerful and co-religionist neighbor, Iran, also circumvents any realistic claim Al Qaeda could make on Iraqi state control. Iranian influence may also, over time, help create an Islamic theocracy in Iraq along the model of the prevailing political system in Iran. Though equally committed to a decidedly anti-Western dogma, faithful Twelver Shi’a are highly unlikely to ever adopt the puritanical Islam of the Salafi jihadists. The Kurds in Iraq are too committed to their parochial notion of independence to lend much aid to the cause of international terrorism.
And yet Iraq is not a complete loss for Al Qaeda and the international Salafi movement. The continued presence of foreign troops on traditional Islamic soil creates an ample pool of resentment among the Sunni community in the Middle East. Whereas in previous years one had to travel far and face possible arrest to fight America, now that same man can simply travel to Iraq. The war in that country provides Al Qaeda with a certain moral inertia and a ready reservoir of recruits as nascent terrorists flock to Iraq to perfect their art.
Various intelligence reports estimate that there may be up to 20,000 terrorist insurgents operating in Iraq.25 These men, like their forebears in Afghanistan, are learning how to fight and how to effectively attack the â€˜forces of order.’ They are becoming brutally efficient and with each passing year they are throwing their lot more firmly with the cause of international Salafi terrorism. Many, if not most, of these men are unlikely to simply abandon that calling if the war in Iraq turns against them.
At some point the Shi’a powers in Iraq will seize definitive control. With Iranian backing the Shi’a powerbrokers in Iraq will move against Al Qaeda, and Zarqawi will know that the game is finished. He may realize this already and simply chooses to keep fighting in order to sharpen the edge of his terrorist army. The U.S. will eventually leave, and Zarqawi will be faced with the prospect of trying to overthrow a government among a population largely inimical to his cause. He will have also lost the allure of fighting the U.S. in the environs of traditional Islam.
Rather than waste massive effort in Mesopotamia, Zarqawi and Al Qaeda will turn their attention to greener pastures. In doing so, the leadership of Al Qaeda will realize that their pursuit of the â€˜near enemy’ or the â€˜far enemy’ in exclusion of one another has been the secret of their repeated strategic bankruptcy. Instead of pursuing a phased strategy Al Qaeda will mount a syncretic effort in the desert nation to the south of Iraq.
Saudi Arabia is a kingdom founded upon the religious principles of Wahhabi Islam. In recent years, however, the ruling house has fallen into a state of perceived moral decadence. The Saud family is no longer viewed as righteous in the eyes of the Salafi.26 The royal house’s flirtation with Western opulence has earned them the healthy enmity of their devout subject population. The family’s strict control of the country’s oil wealth has also ensured that there is no love lost between the Sauds and the average Arabian.
It is here that Salafi Islam has fertile ground for Islamic revolution. The House of Saud is keenly aware of its vulnerability and has chosen to walk a precarious middle road between courting its bankrollers in the West and abiding the more fundamentalist attitudes of its subjects so that the enmity against the royal house does not wax into outright hatred. The Saudis are also sufficiently frightened of a coup from inside their army to keep the force incompetent and untrained. There was, after all, a military coup attempt as recently as 1969.27 Because of this the Saud family relies heavily on a contingent of foreign mercenaries for its security.28
With pathetic means to ensure internal security, Saudi Arabia would seem a prime target for the inception of the perfect Islamic state. Bin Laden would certainly be amendable to the project. He has maintained for years that the Muslim community in Saudi Arabia is living in “sin” because of the continued U.S. presence there.29 He also despises the Saud family for not abiding strictly to the dogmas of Wahhabi teachings.30 Additionally, the bin Laden family and the Saud royals have had an extremely strained relationship since at least 1979. Osama would gladly watch them fall.
Taken alone, however, a pursuit of the â€˜near enemy’ allows the â€˜far enemy,’ i.e. the U.S., to intervene and stabilize the regime. It would certainly be in the U.S.’ interests to maintain the vexing, but moderate, Saud family; it is clearly preferable to watching the Saud supplanted by a militant, extremist government. The problem for Al Qaeda then becomes twofold. In the first place, Zarqawi must infiltrate his highly trained terrorists into Saudi Arabia. This is not as problematic as it sounds. The border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia is exceedingly porous and a large number of the Iraqi insurgents are probably of Saudi extraction. Once inside the country, Zarqawi’s agents will look to foment discontent and organize for the eventual takeover. With several thousand agents honed by their war in Iraq that task is perfectly achievable as well. Some will undoubtedly be caught but not enough to significantly check the process.
The sticking point for Al Qaeda is the potential for U.S. intervention. How can Al Qaeda cripple the â€˜far enemy’ as it strikes the â€˜near?’ To answer that question men like Zarqawi and bin Laden will analyze the nature of their enemy and attempt to descry weaknesses. The most obvious and one that is seemingly made apparent by such disasters as the debacle following Hurricane Katrina, is the racial divide in America. Al Qaeda, in all probability, maintains a low opinion of the cohesiveness of American society. Events like Hurricane Katrina and the Toledo riots seem to betoken a festering racial antipathy in the U.S.
Much of the swift and terrible response to the 9/11 attack was made possible by the foreign nationality of the hijackers. The assessment that outsiders had brutally murdered thousands of American citizens created a mood of powerful solidarity, an â€˜us’ versus â€˜them’ thought pattern. This solidarity outweighed all previous political or ethnic divides, allowing the U.S. to pursue an aggressive policy against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In effect, targeting the â€˜far enemy’ gave that enemy a unifying force.
In the future Al Qaeda will not be so careless. Attacks leveled against the â€˜far enemy’ must capitalize on his weaknesses, not allow him to overcome them. Understanding this, Al Qaeda will not allow Middle Eastern individuals to execute terrorist operations in the U.S. In order to enfeeble the U.S. foreign policy, the future attack must create a maximal degree of domestic mayhem. A well-timed strike at America’s perceived racial divides could accomplish this end.
Al Qaeda is certainly aware of the racial stains that plague American society, most specifically the tension between blacks and whites. They are furthermore cognizant that a sizable portion of the African-American community has converted to Islam. The most popular Islamic organization among African-Americans is the Muslim American Society (MAS). Though styling itself as moderate, the MAS is well acquainted with the tenets of radical Islam through their association with men like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi. Statements from Islamic leaders indicating that up to 80 percent of American mosques now espouse radical Islamic theology further demonstrate the degree of ideological infiltration.31 From Al Qaeda’s perspective they have found a large people group at least somewhat disaffected with the American experience. They have also found a group familiar and perhaps sympathetic to their international goals. If Al Qaeda could convince an American-born black Muslim convert to attack what is viewed as a â€˜white America’ target, the organization would hit at the U.S.’ most dangerous fault line.
Instead of bolstering solidarity this type of attack might cause America to implode. With no outside foe to pursue Americans would turn on themselves. Neighbors become potential enemies; suspicions fracture entire communities. In the worst-case scenario the attacks create massive havoc in the form of race riots throughout the U.S. Given this staggering domestic violence, the U.S. is libel to let the overthrow of the Saudi government go unnoticed. The relative unpopularity of the Iraq war has also significantly raised the bar for international intervention. A future U.S. administration will probably be hard-pressed to sell any further tampering in Middle Eastern politics, especially if the domestic situation has gone awry.
But perhaps the easiest way to envision this Al Qaeda strategy is through a brief hypothetical narrative. Though events would probably not unfold in this exact fashion, this scenario could easily play out and adheres to the doctrine of striking the â€˜near’ and â€˜far’ enemies simultaneously:
It is some time in the near future. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has determined that the war in Iraq has become untenable. Shi’a control of the government is assured, and the prospect of establishing a Salafi regime through civil war has become a pipedream. Zarqawi, however, is not defeated. He gathers his capable terrorist army and sends them streaming into Saudi Arabia. Over the next few months these war-hardened agents infiltrate Saudi society, linking in to already existing Al Qaeda cells. They spew forth hatred against the traitorous Saudi government. The passive resentment of the Saudi population quickly turns to active malice. Zarqawi’s interlopers find the Saudi internal controls ineffective and hopelessly outmatched now. Several of his men are caught, but the vast majority continues at their seditious work.
Soon all is ready for the coup. Al Qaeda operatives are present in every Saudi city, and many are ready to storm various armories at a moment’s notice. But Zarqawi delays. His plan has not yet ripened fully. Secretly he has dispatched a pair of his most trusted emissaries to Sudan. These men link into preexisting Salafi circles. They develop contacts with a group of black Sudanese Muslims and assign them a crucial mission. These men are to travel to America and find native-born African-American Muslims who harbor a similar hatred for American society.
After several months the Sudanese agents have planted the seeds for this plan all across the U.S. They have successfully indoctrinated and coordinated with four or five burgeoning American Al Qaeda cells. These cells then look to the task at hand. At the appointed hour they are to explode a device at a predominately white target. Some have chosen an elementary school in a white suburban neighborhood. Others have decided upon shopping malls in white parts of town.
Then on that fateful day America once more awakes to flame and devastation. Hundreds are killed in multiple synchronized suicide attacks. By the end of the day the authorities have determined that it was not foreigners who perpetrated the crimes. It was Americans, born and bred. The nation is flabbergasted and appalled. The connection to Al Qaeda is suspected, but investigations take time. In the meantime fear and anger are on the move. Collectively the eye of American suspicion retracts from the world abroad and focuses sharply within our shores. Retaliation this time comes in the form of sporadic violence carried out against black American Muslims across the country. Even non-Muslim blacks are mauled in a score of high-profile murders. The black community, incensed at the immoderate blowback and worn haggard by heightened police suspicion, erupts into riots in most major cities. In some cases states are forced to call out the National Guard to quell the violence. The scene of troops suppressing black protests feeds the fire. Before long all of America is riven by racial conflict.
Across the sea Zarqawi watches CNN and determines that the time is right. He orders his vanguard to initiate the attack. The Saudi government crumbles under the onslaught. Most population centers are under Salafi control before the bungling Saudi army can even leave their bases. The more seasoned internal security forces put up a spirited resistance but are eventually bowled over.
In a matter of days the country falls squarely in Zarqawi’s hands. Through his chosen political mouthpiece, Zarqawi announces the formation of an Islamic Republic in Arabia. He touts it as a democratic overthrow of a despotic regime. The U.S. notices but can hardly look away from its own severe troubles. Zarqawi is also careful to continue the flow of oil to the rest of the world. He will give no one else a pretext for meddling in his affairs. He has at last created the cornerstone of the new caliphate.
Once established in Arabia, Zarqawi sends out his loyal terrorist armada again. This time they steal into places like Jordan, Syria and Egypt. With Arabian money in hand, these soldiers of the prophet go to work plotting the destruction of the governments in these countries as well. To his nascent empire Zarqawi will add new provinces.
As we can clearly see this account, though fictional, is entirely plausible. Through this method of attack Al Qaeda could perhaps achieve their desired end of a reborn caliphate in the landscape of the Middle East. There are, of course, many potential points of failure that inhere in this plan, and finding those is truly the intent of this analysis.
If strategy is the art of seizing initiative as it pertains to achieving a goal, it is vitally important to stay several steps ahead of your enemy. Right now the U.S. is perhaps a half step ahead of Al Qaeda, but is more likely a full step behind. Al Qaeda is an adaptable opponent free of the bureaucratic inertia that so often stultifies American endeavors. They are thinking, even now, about the next phase in their plan. If and when Iraq goes sour for them, they will change courses. I would hazard to guess that they have already devised some plan similar to the one I have laid out. After all, they are totally committed to terrorist plotting. My interest in the matter is, at best, fleeting.
Recommendations and Conclusions
If adopted the success of the aforementioned strategy rests on several key points. The recognition of these points is all-important if one hopes to diffuse the terrorist strategy, thereby foiling their decision cycle, at least for one iteration. The fundamental steps are:
* Exodus from Iraq and transition into existing Saudi terror network
* Secure acquiescence of U.S. through aggravation of domestic racial/religious hostility
* Speedy coup d’etat in Saudi Arabia
These steps in their proper order spell out the dual strategy of attacking both the â€˜near’ enemy and the â€˜far.’ An additional step might be to make immediate peace with neighboring Islamic countries in order to forestall any local reprisals. It is also possible that Al Qaeda will continue oil shipments even to the West. This action would supply much needed income and prevent any European countries from rousing themselves from their protracted international lethargy.
Still this strategy has many points of potential failure. The most glaring is the reliance on racial/religious hostility to cripple the U.S. internationally. There are certainly good reasons to suppose that this might happen, but it is still far from certain. This is where the U.S. can most effectively inoculate itself against the new strategy. The U.S., as a culture, must address the problems that have given rise to sentiments like those expressed by entertainer Kanye West in the wake of the hurricane disaster. Saying that the President of the U.S. “doesn’t care about black people” demonstrates a clear problem and puts Al Qaeda on the scent of societal weakness. This essay cannot hope to address all the facets of America’s social ills. It only seeks to establish that the U.S.’ internal coherence may become her primary concern in regard to supposedly ‘foreign’ matters.
The U.S. must also look hard at its domestic policy toward terror. Prior to 9/11 Al Qaeda was able to create an entirely new terror cell for the purpose of executing those attacks. This new cell was formed â€˜from scratch’ so as to not establish any detectable links with existing cells already under surveillance by American law enforcement. Al Qaeda capitalized on the liberality of American law enforcement to launch the attack basically undetected.32 To avoid this in the future the U.S. must keep a close watch on idealogy, not just on proven terror connections. The advantage of Salafi Islam is that the ideology is just as much a bond as any actual personal ties. The pervasiveness of this ideology presents law enforcement with the challenge of discovering potential terror networks that may spontaneously generate from nothing more than a close study of the radical theology. This state of affairs presents justice systems in the West with vexing but pressing problems of legitimate legal protocol.
The other two salient features of the new Salafi strategy are assailable, but perhaps not as critical to the overall intent. The U.S. can and should attempt to foil the extrication of Al Qaeda to Saudi Arabia, but this is a daunting task indeed. Closing the Saudi Arabian border prior to any Al Qaeda withdrawal from Iraq presents massive intelligence and material problems. A large military operation to curb the militant traffic between Iraq and Saudi Arabia is perhaps not worth the effort only in that it will slow the plan, not defeat it.
The only other place where the U.S. can seriously hinder Al Qaeda’s intentions is by strengthening the Saudi regime now. The method for that plan, however, is less than forthcoming. Increased U.S. involvement in the holy seat of Islam is just as likely to spur the Salafi revolution as it is to prevent it. Still, some effort must be made, probably in terms of increased intelligence help to the Saudi internal security forces. If the Saudi government can identify and target more Al Qaeda nodes now, they perhaps stand a fighting chance in the future. But even this is not a deathblow for Al Qaeda. Were Saudi Arabia wholly denied them, they could still affect their plan from another country. Egypt is a candidate as is Jordan, though less so. A Salafi revolution is less likely in those countries, but their plan to subvert America still offers dire prospects. Saving Saudi Arabia for Egypt may be a Pyrrhic victory if America is already in flames.
More profound than any dissection of the mode for terrorist strategy is to acknowledge that their ideology provides their goals and their sustenance. Napoleon once noted that “there are only two forces in the world, the sword and the spirit. In the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.” It is a testament to the failure of our dealings with the Salafi jihad that we have not recognized that aphorism. Neither guns nor bombs nor walls along our borders can keep out ideas. The sword, in this case, is rusted and useless.
Thus far the Islamic world has been unwilling or unable to intellectually defeat what it has labeled a â€˜misinterpretation’ of its Islamic teaching. No effective counterpoise from the traditional Muslim theology has yet emerged. The Salafi message seems to be too direct, too simple and ultimately too appealing. In short, we cannot count on Muslim thought to tame its wanton offspring. It would seem that the most effective design for countering any and all accretions of Salafi strategy would have to come from the realm of ideas. The ongoing U.S. strategy in Iraq is to subsume radical Islam in a tide of heady democracy. That proposition remains untested and does not seem to offer, at least in the short run, a workable rebuttal to what may be Al Qaeda’s next strategic endeavor. The emergence of a Shi’a democracy in Iraq will deny Al Qaeda control of that country, but it is a control that they had not initially intended on gaining. Furthermore, that development offers no ideological response to the fundamental Salafi call for empire. Al Qaeda’s strategies may fail or advance haltingly, but their cause will live on so long as their core beliefs remain umolested.
1 M. Crenshaw, “The logic of terrorism: Terrorist behavior as a product of strategic choice.” In Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 24.
2 B. Lewis, Islam and the West (Oxford University Press, 1993), 9.
3 A. Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), 257-258.
4 M. Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 8.
5 M. Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2002).
6 Sageman, 12.
7 Ibid., 11.
8 Ibid., 14.
11 B. Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003), 7.
12 Sageman, 20.
13 B. Lewis, The Arabs in History (Oxford University Press, 1993), 13. The Introduction contains an excellent discussion of the combined notion of church and state in Islamic thinking.
14 Sageman., 96.
21 R. Gunaratna, Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (Berkley Books, 2003), 305.
23 R. Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2005), 27-28.
24 Letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, dated 9 July 2005 available online at http://www.dni.gov/letter_in_english.pdf
25 United Press International, 27 Dec 2005.
26 A. Abukhalil, The Battle for Saudi Arabia: Royalty, Fundamentalism, and Global Power (Seven Stories Press, 2004), 36.
27 Abukhalil, 166.
28 P.W. Singer, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 13.
29 Gunaratna., 117.
30 Abukhalil., 66. Traditionally the Saud family has given the duties of religious protocol to the House of Shaykh. They are the family of Muhammad Ibn’ Abdul Wahab. As such, they generally adhere closely to the tenets of Wahhabi Islam. The royal family, however, has grown very soft in its religious affections. It is ironic that the creed which carried them into power may actually drag them from it as well.
31 Gunaratna, 137. This figure is culled from a statement made by Sheikh Kabbani of the Islamic Council of America in 1999.
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