Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting al-Qa'ida's Organizational Vulnerabilities
This study, conducted by the faculty and research fellows of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point, serves multiple purposes, the most important of which is contributing to the depth of knowledge about the al-Qa’ida movement. Evidence supporting the conclusions and recommendations provided in this report is drawn from a collection of newly-released al-Qa’ida documents captured during recent operations in support of the Global War on Terror and maintained in the Department of Defense’s Harmony database. In the text of these documents, readers will see how explicit al-Qa’ida has been in its internal discussions covering a range of organizational issues, particularly regarding the internal structure and functioning of the movement as well as with tensions that emerged within the leadership.
In the first part of the report, we provide a theoretical framework, drawing on scholarly approaches including organization and agency theory, to predict where we should expect terrorist groups to face their greatest challenges in conducting operations. The framework is informed as much as possible by the captured documents, and provides a foundation upon which scholars can build as more of these documents are declassified and released to the public. Our analysis stresses that, by their nature, terrorist organizations such as al-Qa’ida face difficulties in almost any operational environment, particularly in terms of maintaining situational awareness, controlling the use of violence to achieve specified political ends, and of course, preventing local authorities from degrading the group’s capabilities. But they also face problems common to other types of organizations, including private firms, political parties, and traditional insurgencies. For example, political and ideological leaders—the principals—must delegate certain duties to middlemen or low-level operatives, their agents. However, differences in personal preferences between the leadership and their operatives in areas such as finances and tactics make this difficult and give rise to classic agency problems.
Agency problems created by the divergent preferences among terrorist group members present operational challenges for these organizations, challenges which can be exploited as part of a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy. Thus, the theoretical framework described in this report helps us identify where and under what conditions organizations can expect the greatest challenges in pursuing their goals and interests. Understanding a terrorist organization’s internal challenges and vulnerabilities is key to developing effective—and efficient—responses to the threats they pose and to degrade these groups’ ability to kill. The captured al Qa’ida documents contribute significantly to this type of understanding.
The experiences of the “Moslem Brotherhood” and “The Fighting Vanguard” (al-Tali’a al-Muqatila) in Hamah, Syria are examined as a particularly relevant case study. The lessons learned from these groups’ efforts during the 1970s—based on the actual internal assessments of senior jihadi ideologues themselves—are summarized here. Many of the jihadi experiences in Syria have striking parallels to current al-Qa’ida sponsored operations in Iraq, and we highlight several that we believe are especially relevant. This case study not only expands our understanding of the al-Qa’ida network and how it operates under pressure from the government, it also provides a useful model for other researchers to follow in applying a similar theoretical framework to the study of other terrorist organizations and their potential vulnerabilities.
Leveraging our framework and historical context from the Syrian case, we assess al-Qa’ida’s emerging organizational challenges, internal divisions, and places where the network is most likely vulnerable to exploitation. Our analysis emphasizes that effective strategies to combat threats posed by al-Qa’ida will create and exacerbate schisms within its membership. Members have different goals and objectives, and preferred strategies for achieving these ends. Preferences and commitment level vary across specific roles performed within the organization and among sub-group leaders. Defining and exploiting existing fissures within al-Qa’ida as a broadly defined organization must reflect this intra-organizational variation in preferences and commitment in order to efficiently bring all available resources to bear in degrading its potential threat. While capture-kill options may be most effective for certain individuals—e.g., operational commanders—we identify a number of non-lethal prescriptions that take into account differences in al-Qa’ida members’ preferences and commitment to the cause. Many of our prescriptions are intended to induce debilitating agency problems that increase existing organizational dysfunction and reduce al-Qa’ida’s potential for political impact.
To achieve long-term success in degrading the broader movement driving terrorist violence, however, the CTC believes the United States must begin aggressively digesting the body of work that comprises jihadi macro-strategy. We therefore also seek to apply our model to the ideological dimension of al-Qa’ida revealed in numerous instances in these documents, the goal being to identify ways to facilitate the ideational collapse of this body of thought. The included documents provide insights into the points of strategic dissonance and intersection among senior leaders that must be better understood in order to be exploited.
In sum, this theoretically informed analysis, along with assessments of the individual captured documents themselves, contributes to existing bodies of research on al-Qa’ida. It provides several tools for identifying and exacerbating existing fissures as well as locating new insertion points for counterterrorism operations. It presents an analytical model that we hope lays the foundation for a more intellectually informed approach to counterterrorism. And perhaps, most importantly, this assessment demonstrates the integral role that scholars can play in understanding the nature of this movement and in generating smarter, more effective ways to impede its growth and nurture the means for its eventual disintegration.
In war, traditional nation-states have specific attributes, such as territory, military forces, governmental structures, and economic capacity that can be the objectives of grand strategy and resulting military campaigns. Non-state actors, such as al-Qa’ida, do not have these same centers of gravity. Al-Qa’ida has non-traditional strengths and weaknesses reflecting its own unique human personalities, structure, organization, processes, and procedures. The purpose of this study is to examine the internal characteristics of al-Qa’ida so that policymakers and analysts can develop strategies to focus on their key vulnerabilities and degrade their effectiveness in supporting the global Salafist insurgency.
One of the best ways to learn about al-Qa’ida is to read the papers, manuals, and other documents which al-Qa’ida leaders have written to guide and discipline their own enterprise. Many of these documents have been captured by military and law enforcement forces and can provide insight into the way the organization works. Other key references are readily available on the World Wide Web. The Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point was given 28 recently de-classified documents from the Defense Department’s “Harmony” database, which consists of literally thousands of documents. Analyzing these documents is akin to gathering several parts of a complex jigsaw puzzle. The documents themselves are interesting, but to get a more complete picture, the CTC authors found that it was important to combine the pieces from the al-Qa’ida documents, other published reports, books, articles, and studies on al-Qa’ida, organization theory, and other similar historical cases. The resulting analysis provides a complex but coherent assessment of al-Qa’ida’s organization, identifying several areas of vulnerability and potential strategies to exploit these vulnerabilities. This analysis of these documents, buttressed by the CTC authors’ insight and other publications comprises part 1 of this study.
While Part 1 is an extremely helpful analysis, ’Part 2 of this study may be even more important and useful for researchers. Part 2 contains the complete original text of all of the documents selected from the Harmony database for this study—in both Arabic and English—with a useful synopsis and short analysis of each document prepared by the CTC authors. These documents are hyperlinked on the compact disk version of the study and on the CTC website at: http://www.ctc.usma.edu/aq.asp. The intent is to provide open access to these documents for other researchers so that they can be analyzed and used to learn more about al-Qa’ida and better understand the organization. We expect that future research into these documents, the al-Qa’ida websites, and other newly captured materials will continue to advance our knowledge of al-Qa’ida and its franchises and imitators. In any case, the intellectual discussion about—and understanding of—the internal organization and functions of al-Qa’ida is critical to developing an effective long-term counterterrorism strategy.
This project contributes to the mission of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, which is to better understand the foreign and domestic terrorist threats to U.S. national security, to educate leaders who will have responsibilities to combat terrorism, and to provide policy analysis and assistance to leaders dealing with the current and future terrorist threat. The Combating Terrorism Center is part of the Department of Social Sciences of the U.S. Military Academy, and the work of its faculty and staff is closely integrated with the instruction of cadets and with the Academy’s outreach and support of projects to educate and inform current and future leaders.
The work for this project was done by a team of associates and faculty members in the Combating Terrorism Center, which was led by Lieutenant Colonel Joe Felter and included significant work by Major Jeff Bramlett, Captain Bill Perkins and Professors Jarret Brachman, Brian Fishman, James Forest, Lianne Kennedy, Jacob Shapiro, and Tom Stocking. They have tried to make this as user-friendly as possible, with hyperlinks to all references throughout the documents to facilitate understanding and cross-checking of the source material. Additional questions about the report can be directed to LTC Felter at (845) 938-3247 or email@example.com.
A proliferation of research on al-Qa’ida within the last decade has revealed much about the strategic objectives, ideology, members, tactics, finances and other relevant aspects of this organization. Scholars such as Bruce Hoffman, Rohan Gunaratna, Michael Scheuer, Peter Bergen and Gilles Kepel have described in great detail the nature of political Islam and how al-Qa’ida has incorporated its own interpretation of jihad into a global insurgency against sectarian political regimes and symbols of western globalization. Other researchers, like John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, have explored the growing incidence of networked organizations in areas of transnational crime, insurgency, and terrorism. By integrating these areas of research into an analytical framework informed by organization and agency theories, this report seeks to identify specific vulnerabilities within the al-Qa’ida network that can be of value to combined efforts to combat terrorism.
- A Networked Terrorist Organization
An understanding of today’s al-Qa’ida requires an appreciation for the organization’s adoption of fourth generation warfare tactics. The concepts of fourth generation warfare were first presented in a 1989 Marine Corps Gazette article entitled “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation,” which argued that such warfare was “likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point.” The authors of this article also provide what became an ominous prediction of the terrorist threat we now face: The “political infrastructure and civilian society [will] become battlefield targets.” Adherents of fourth generation warfare call for the use of psychological operations (including propaganda) and terrorism to erode an enemy’s moral, mental and physical ability to wage war over many years until they eventually lose their willingness to stay in the fight. According to one well-received definition, fourth generation warfare is an “evolved form of insurgency [that] uses all available networks—political, economic, social, military—to convince the enemy’s decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit.”
The advantages of this approach for any sub-national or transnational group are fairly obvious: decentralized, networked terrorist organizations are less vulnerable to the traditional counterterrorism measures used by the hierarchically organized security forces of a national government. In February 2002, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported that an al-Qa’ida document posted to the Internet embraced fourth-generation warfare. “This new type of war presents significant difficulties for the Western war machine” the publication said. “Fourth generation wars have already occurred and . . . the superiority of the theoretically weaker party has already been proven; in many instances, nation-states have been defeated by stateless nations.” Al-Qa’ida’s adoption of fourth generation warfare tactics offer a useful case study for understanding networked terrorist organizations. According to most counterterrorism analysts today, al-Qa’ida has evolved from a centrally directed organization into a worldwide franchiser of terrorist attacks. Indeed, since the war in Afghanistan, which significantly degraded bin Laden’s command and control, al-Qa’ida has become increasingly decentralized, and is seen by some as more of a “movement” than any other form of organization. Experts involved in counterterrorism have observed “a growth in this global Sunni extremist movement, partly driven by Iraq, but also by other events, which is much more difficult to track, follow and ultimately disrupt. So as we’re doing really well against what was al-Qa’ida, we’ve got a new threat—this movement, which is much more of a challenge.”
As inspirational leaders of this movement, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have provided ideological guidance, while leaving planning and financing of operations to the local commanders of allied but autonomous organizations. The March 2004 attack in Madrid, which killed 191 people, is often cited as the key turning point in the evolution of this global Islamist extremist movement.
Initially, Spanish and U.S. counterterrorism officials sought to identify organizational links between al-Qa’ida and the Madrid bombers, but quickly they realized those connections were tenuous at best. The Madrid attack was organized and implemented within eight weeks, using stolen explosives and cell phone detonators assembled by one of the conspirators. It required no central direction from the mountains of Pakistan, simply a charismatic leader with links to men trained in the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. For motivation, though, they had Spanish help for the U.S. war in Iraq, and for inspiration they had bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks.
Since the March 2004 Madrid bombings, other groups have followed this model. For example, there is no evidence to suggest the attacks that killed dozens of westerners in Casablanca, Morocco, were carried out with the knowledge of al-Qa’ida leadership. Further, investigators do not believe al-Qa’ida played any role in the July 2005 mass transit attack in London, although a videotape produced afterward by al-Zawahiri applauded the suicide bombers. In essence, al-Qa’ida is becoming what its earliest architects had hoped it would be: a support “base” for Islamist radicals around the world. Even “al-Qa’ida in Iraq,” the new name for Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s group, does not take orders from bin Laden or his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri—rather, the Iraqi insurgents draw inspiration, technical support and military guidance.
From a strategic perspective, it makes sense that Osama bin Laden and his colleagues would seek to nurture a loosely-organized terrorist movement. Indeed, several years ago al-Qa’ida’s leaders recognized that the achievement of their ultimate goals and objectives required a more decentralized, networked approach. In 2001, following the ouster of the Taliban from Afghanistan, a number of al-Qa’ida leaders suddenly found themselves in detention centers facing long months of interrogation. Abu Zubaydah, al-Qa’ida’s “dean of students,” who directed training and placement for the group, was captured in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in February 2002. Ramzi Bin al Shibh, the organizer of the Hamburg, Germany cell that formed the core of the 9/11 hijackers, was captured in Karachi, Pakistan, on the first anniversary of the attacks. These and other counterterrorism successes ultimately led to the capture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 and the financier of the first World Trade Center attack, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in March 2003. And a month later, Tawfiq Attash Kallad, the mastermind of the USS Cole attack, was apprehended in Karachi. In response to the loss of key leaders, al-Qa’ida allegedly convened a strategic summit in northern Iran in November 2002, at which the group’s consultative council came to recognize that it could no longer exist as a hierarchy, but instead would have to become a decentralized network and move its operations out over the entire world. By evolving in this way over the past few years, al-Qa’ida is demonstrating the type of adaptive flexibility that has become a hallmark of networked terrorist organizations.
- The Vulnerabilities of Networked Terrorist Organizations
By their unique nature, terrorist organizations face difficult challenges in almost any operational environment, particularly in terms of maintaining situational awareness, controlling the use of violence to achieve specified political ends, and of course, preventing the authorities from degrading the group’s capabilities. But, as Jacob Shapiro describes in the next chapter of this report, they also face problems common to other types of organizations, including private firms, political parties, social movements, and traditional insurgencies. For example, political and ideological leaders—the principals—must delegate certain duties to middlemen or low-level operatives, their agents. But because of differences in personal preferences, as well as the need to maintain operational secrecy, terrorist group leaders cannot perfectly monitor what their agents are doing. Thus, preference divergence creates operational challenges which can be exploited to degrade a terrorist group’s capabilities.
Overall, the goal of this analysis is to provide a framework which can help us identify where and under what conditions organizations can expect the greatest challenges in pursuing their goals and interests. Understanding a terrorist organization’s internal challenges and vulnerabilities is key to developing effective strategies to combat the threats they pose and degrade these groups’ ability to kill.
As explored in greater detail throughout the remainder of this report, a networked terrorist organization like al-Qa’ida has vulnerabilities that can be exploited. We begin Part 1 of this report by developing a robust theoretical framework that helps us identify and understand these vulnerabilities. When combined with an assessment of what is known about the current characteristics of the al-Qa’ida network, this analysis reveals emerging organizational challenges, internal divisions, and an appreciation for where, and under what conditions, the network is most vulnerable to exploitation.
This theoretical analysis is followed by a case study which highlights the challenges faced by various jihadist movements in Syria during the 1970s and 1980s, providing a historical precedent for discussing current al-Qa’ida organizational challenges and associated network vulnerabilities. A number of interesting parallels between the jihadi’s’ experience in Syria and contemporary challenges faced by Zarqawi’s “al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia” are incorporated into this fascinating and relevant case analysis. This case study not only expands our understanding of the al-Qa’ida network, it also provides a useful model for other researchers to follow in applying a similar theoretical framework to the study of other terrorist organizations and their potential vulnerabilities.
Part 1 of this report concludes with policy-relevant findings inspired by the captured al-Qa’ida documents supporting this study and suggests opportunities to exploit al-Qa’ida’s inherent organizational vulnerabilities. A number of prescriptions, both lethal and non-lethal, are presented here that respond more efficiently to al-Qa’ida’s diversity in preferences and commitment to its cause, in an effort to induce debilitating agency problems that increase existing organizational dysfunction.
In Part 2 of our report we describe the methodology used to generate the document sample and present summaries and cursory analysis of all 28 captured al-Qa’ida documents used in this study. The full text translated to English as well as the original Arabic are accessible through hyperlinks in the document summaries.
The Challenges of Organizing Terror
- A Theoretical Framework for Analysis
This section uses a combination of economic and sociological organization theory to identify where and under what conditions terrorist organizations have faced, and continue to face the greatest challenges in pursuing their goals. Evidence from declassified Harmony documents (the full text of which is provided in part 2 of this report) and open source material suggest al-Qa’ida faces a number of these same organizational trade-offs and operational constraints. This theoretical frame provides a way of thinking about groups that starkly highlights where we expect to see terrorist limitations and vulnerabilities along with corresponding opportunities governments have to make the terrorists’ goals more difficult to achieve.
Terrorist organizations face difficult tasks in a hostile operational setting. First, they must execute a controlled use of violence as a means to achieving their specified political ends. Doing too much can be just as damaging to the cause as doing too little. Second, they must maintain this calibrated use of force in an environment where becoming known to government equals operational failure.
These challenges lead to several recurring themes in terrorists’ organizational writings. We see a consistent focus on how to achieve the appropriate use of violence when the rank and file often clamor for more violence than is useful, or seek to enrich themselves in the course of their duties. Groups also struggle with the problem of maintaining situational awareness while staying covert, so that members understand which actions will support the political goal, and which will be counterproductive. Finally, there is regular concern with balancing the need to control operational elements with the need to evade government attention and limit the consequences of any compromise. Problems of control in terrorist organizations first enter into the organizational writings of early Russian Marxist groups which had regular problems with local cells conducting revenge attacks that could not be justified by Marxist theory. In like fashion, a 1977 “Staff Report” for the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) General Headquarters (GHQ) details reorganization plans intended to minimize security vulnerabilities while maintaining sufficient operational control. Islamist groups are not immune from these concerns, though maintaining situational awareness seems more problematic for them. A lessons learned document from the Harmony database describing the failed jihad waged against the Assad regime in Syria from 1976-1982, includes a discussion of the problem of becoming detached from the masses because of the exigencies of maintaining security. This same document contains a discussion of how to emulate the Italian Red Brigades’ to better compartmentalize information while maintaining operational effectiveness. Finally, captured letters between al-Qa’ida members released from Harmony discuss how planning and conducting too many attacks can become counterproductive, bringing unwanted government attention toward the group.
The key insight is that terrorist groups, and other covert organizations, face two fundamental trade-offs. The first is between operational security and financial efficiency. Here problems of trust and control—agency problems—create inefficiencies in resource allocation. Strategies to mitigate these problems all entail security costs. The second tradeoff is between operational security and tactical control. Here agency problems and other group dynamics lead to counterproductive violence. Strategies to mitigate these problems through greater control entail security costs for groups as a whole. We will explain the enduring importance of these tradeoffs for developing counter-terrorism strategies using theoretical insights developed from the study of firms, political parties, social movements, and traditional insurgencies. There are strong theoretical reasons to believe these problems are inescapable for all terrorist groups; evidence from the Harmony documents and open source accounts reinforce our assessment that al-Qa’ida struggles with similar trade-offs and challenges. Developing a better understanding of how to take advantage of these problems will help government more effectively degrade al-Qa’ida’s (and other terrorist groups’) lethality.
The Terrorists’ Challenge
The terrorists’ challenge is simple to describe. For security reasons, political and ideological leaders, the principals, have to delegate certain duties—planning attacks, soliciting funds, recruiting, and the like—to middlemen or low-level operatives, their agents. Such delegation poses no problem if all the agents are perfectly committed to the cause and agree with leaders on how best to serve the cause. Under those conditions, the preferences of the principals and their agents will be perfectly aligned, and the agents will act exactly as the principals would like.
However, preferences aren’t always aligned. When they are not, the covert nature of terrorist groups necessarily implies that agents can take advantage of delegation to act as they prefer, not as their principals would like. We see this type of problem repeatedly among members of al-Qa’ida who exhibit differing levels of commitment to the cause. Thus, L’Hussein Kherchtou, a member of al-Qa’ida’s operational cell in Nairobi during the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings, testified for the prosecution because he disagreed with the spending priorities of the senior members of his team. He saw their priorities as un-Islamic, essentially charging them with embezzlement. We see this same dynamic in al-Qa’ida’s affiliate organizations. For example, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) has recurring problems with local leaders engaging in counter-productive violence. In October 2003, senior JI leaders had made a decision to develop Poso, in Central Sulawesi, as a safe haven and area for ideological outreach.
However, local motivations led to a series of sectarian attacks against Christians, against the leadership’s preferences. These attacks attracted government attention to the area, destroying its value as a safe-haven.
Thus, terrorist leaders have a problem. Security concerns mean they cannot perfectly monitor what agents are doing. Moreover, the nature of the operational environment means that it is hard to punish agents, even when leaders do catch them taking unauthorized actions. In terrorist groups, the agents hold an implicit threat over group principals—they can go to the government. For example, Jamal Ahmed Al Fadl, who testified in the Embassy bombing trial, stole money from al-Qa’ida, got caught, went on the run, and approached the U.S. government in an attempt to save himself and his family. Moreover, the agents are often operational elements that specialize in violence, so leaders cannot wield a credible threat against them. This problem plagued the leadership of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defense Alliance (UDA), protestant paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, who could not put a stop to the politically damaging mafia-style activities of their operational cells.
The problems outlined above fall into the larger category of “agency problems.” Such problems arise when three conditions exist: (1) a principal needs to delegate certain actions or decisions to an agent: (2) the principal can neither perfectly monitor the agent’s actions, nor punish him with certainty when a transgression is identified; and (3) the agent’s preferences are not aligned with the those of the principal’. The framework of agency theory has been used with great success to explore a wide range of issues including corporate governance, pork-barrel spending in Congress, the behavior of regulatory agencies, civil-military relations, and problems of tactical control in insurgent organizations. Here we use it to frame our discussion of vulnerabilities within the al-Qa’ida network, many of which are revealed by captured jihadi documents in the Harmony database. Understanding why groups face preference divergence, and when preference divergence creates operational challenges, facilitates government actions intended to exacerbate internal organizational problems of the terrorists. Doing so multiplies the impact of other counterterrorism efforts.
The remainder of this section looks at two specific areas of conflict within terrorist groups: resource allocation and tactics. In the first area, agency problems create inefficiencies in how resources are allocated. Methods to mitigate these problems create operational vulnerabilities. Thus, groups face a security-efficiency tradeoff. In the second area, agency problems lead to cells undertaking politically suspect behaviors. Groups can mitigate this by exercising tighter control, which reduces group security. Thus, groups face a trade-off between security and control. In both cases, there are a number of actions that governments can take to make the trade-off harder for the terrorists.
Why Preference Divergence?
Open-source analyses of terrorist organizations generally begin from the perspective that members of these groups are uniformly motivated by the cause, are equally willing to sacrifice for the cause, agree on what the cause is, and see eye-to-eye on the best tactics to achieve their strategic end. However, substantial evidence has accumulated to indicate this is not the case. The Harmony documents reveal a surprising level of infighting and conflict, even within highly capable groups such as al-Qa’ida (Al Adl Letter, Harmony AFGP-2002-600080). Historically, terrorist groups have repeatedly splintered into different factions because of differences of opinion about how to conduct the struggle. For example, the Irish Republican Army has spawned at least 6 splinter groups since the mid-1970s, including the Provisional IRA, Official IRA, Real IRA, Continuity IRA, Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), and the Catholic Reaction Force (CRF). Several documents from our sample provide additional evidence to suggest that the cohesion of Islamist terrorist groups is similarly tenuous. The Harmony documents reveal strong evidence of significant disagreements over strategic focus and conflicts over arcane points of doctrine. We next examine why there is such divergence in preferences over spending and tactics.
Preference Divergence over Spending
The primary cause of preference divergence over spending is a natural selection process that occurs over the course of terrorists’ career paths. Within the population of new terrorist recruits, there is a distribution of commitment to the cause. Even though all may seem quite committed to us, some are always more willing to sacrifice than others. Over the course of many years in the jihad, the most committed members are the most likely to volunteer for risky or inherently fatal assignments. As members of a cohort move into finance and logistics oriented positions, the proportion of less committed members will increase because those more committed remain in comparatively more dangerous assignments and are more prone to be selected out of the population. Note that terrorist organizations typically use individuals who have been around for some time to handle logistical and management tasks. What this career progression means is that, on average, those handling financial and logistical tasks will be more risk-averse and less committed than the leadership or rank-and-file.
These selection dynamics are exacerbated by the fact that participants in terrorist support networks face dramatically lower levels of risk than tactical operatives. Beyond not being asked to participate in risky or inherently fatal ventures, they are less likely to be dealt with by government forces. When they are dealt with, support personnel are less likely to be killed. And when arrested, they face more lenient treatment. Using biographical and network data on 366 members of al-Qa’ida and affiliated groups, we found that financiers’ have rarely been killed and that their survival rate has been consistently better than that of operators. The capture rate for financiers also tends to be lower than that faced by tactical operatives.
When governments do succeed in capturing logisticians and other support network members, they face dramatically lower consequences than operators. Only one of the 32 financiers and logisticians removed from the global Salafi jihad between January 2001 and December 2003 was killed. A particularly telling example is the Jemmaah Islamiyah cell which was broken up in Singapore in late 2001. The cell provided fund-raising services to JI and was engaged in making logistical arrangements for an al-Qa’ida attack in Singapore. Of the 30-plus people arrested, the 13 engaged in direct logistical support each received two years in prison. Those engaged in fundraising activities were released but not permitted to leave the country. This risk differential exacerbates the selection effects, as those who take operational jobs because they are extremely committed are more likely to be removed. This process makes it even more likely that those tasked with managing funds and distributing them to operational cells will have different preferences than the leadership.
Even without this adverse selection process, there is reason to expect preference divergence. The lenient treatment observed for support network members means that the threshold level of risk acceptance and commitment required for participation in support activities is much lower than for participation in tactical roles. Thus, individuals with a given level of commitment might participate in support activities while balking at other roles within the organization. Seeking to maximize operational capability, terrorist groups would concentrate such individuals in support roles, freeing up the true believers for riskier operational duties. These personnel decisions would then lead to consistent variance between levels of the organization.
Harmony documents suggest al-Qa’ida has formally encouraged such preference divergence within their ranks early on in the accessions and recruitment process. For example, one captured document describes the roles and responsibilities of the various committees al-Qa’ida members can serve on. In this document the Military Committee lists the following goals: Preparation of freedom fighting young men, their training, and organizing them for combat; Organization and supervision for combat participation on the battlefield; Preparation of programs and military procedures; Offering what is needed of military mechanics for combat. Compare this with the four listed goals of the Administrative and Financial Committee included in the same document: Offering the best of administrative services for all the group members and their families; Undertake the work of hospitality for the guests of different kinds in the most generous possible manner of hospitality; Undertaking the work of accounting, keeping books on the front, which safeguards the group’s general funds; Undertaking the financial work for the group. Clearly, the preferences of individuals attracted to supporting requirements such as “providing hospitality” and “keeping books” are likely to differ substantively from those who select into positions responsible for organization and supervision for combat participation on the battlefield.
Groups may even refrain from centrally-directed personnel movements because they create connections between cells, yet still suffer preference divergence. Because of security considerations, some terrorist organizations recruit directly into specific positions with little opportunity for movement.
Terrorist organizations often fill positions using a strategy of recruitment through existing social ties. Any member tasked with the recruitment and early ideological training of potential members will have access to a limited population. From this population, he will need to fill various spots.
Commitment to a group’s ideology follows a bell-shaped distribution—with the purely ideological or purely venal individuals being rarer than those who place moderate weight on the cause—meaning that it will be harder for the recruiter to find potential tactical operatives than logisticians. Unless the recruiter knows a huge number of potential members, he will place individuals in the riskiest position they will accept. Thus, individuals will rarely be more ideologically motivated than is necessary given the risk level of their occupation, leading to preference divergence by position.
Preference Divergence Over Tactics
The causes of preference divergence over tactics in terrorist organizations are somewhat more straightforward, stemming from the very nature of terrorist operations. The first cause is that people who are good at violence, who make ideal recruits as far as their ability to conduct operations, often seek more violence than is politically desirable. For example, al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia’s campaign of beheadings in 2004 significantly damaged the foreign insurgents’ reputation among Iraqi Sunnis. Early Marxist militants were the first to document this problem. Lenin and others noted repeatedly that those recruited for their ability to conduct military operations often pushed for such activities even when not politically advantageous. In like fashion, the PIRA suffered repeated problems with Active Service Units (ASU), made up of combat specialists, pushing for violence when the organization as a whole wanted to lay low. There is something of a trap here for organizations that adopt limited non-terrorist uses of violence in response to government pressure. Such organizations are often forced to adopt more violent tactics than the strategic situation demanded in order to retain the allegiance of their most radical cells. This trap also affected Italian and German left wing militants. These groups’ dependence on violent factions for survival, given the tactics of state police, pushed them into higher levels of violence against civilians, even when such violence was not politically ideal.
The second cause of preference divergence over tactics is that the cognitive dynamics of an underground organization—isolation from the outside, negative physical incentives to external contacts, excessively strong affective ties, and the like—mean that operational cells often become divorced from reality, seeking to do more violence than those removed from the situation would like. Islamist groups suffered deeply because of this problem in Syria, where Harmony documents reveal local cells repeatedly made attacks that the outside leadership opposed. The Italian Red Brigades suffered this problem as well. Over time the group had to devote an ever-larger portion of its energies to attacks that appealed only to the membership, attacks that were costly in terms of outside support. In larger groups, where the leadership is organizationally isolated from operational cells, or where it is geographically separated from them, these cognitive dynamics will lead to preference divergence between leaders and operators.
Finally, competition for prominence within a movement often leads to more violence then political leaders would like. Here, the best example is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hamas began promoting terrorist events largely due to competition with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), even though such actions ran counter to the preferences of the larger Muslim Brotherhood movement. Before the second intifada, suicide missions were intended to undermine not only the peace process but also the legitimacy of Palestinian Authority.
After November 2000, in the second intifada, Hamas and other radical organizations relied on the success of suicide missions as a key to gaining popular support. Fatah then invested in suicide attacks to stem the growing popularity on the street of Hamas rather than to win concessions from Israel. It was therefore the dynamics of the factionalized internal politics within the Palestinian movement that prompted suicide missions. In essence, the Palestinian Authority could only reestablish its authority by showing the population that it could play the suicide mission game. However, as the subsequent destruction of Palestinian Authority resources by Israel shows, this was tremendously counter-productive with respect to larger political goals.
So we see three internal dynamics leading to preference divergence over tactics: (1) individuals recruited because of their skills in violence will tend to seek more action than leaders would prefer; (2) cognitive dynamics of underground organizations will lead operational units to see the world differently than their leaders; and (3) competition for prominence within the movement will lead factions to engage in politically unnecessary actions. All three result in agency problems.
How Groups Respond to Preference Divergence
This analysis reveals a number of terrorist group strategies for responding to agency problems, all of which create specific security vulnerabilities—the type of tradeoff we highlight throughout this report. One strategy applies primarily to the handling of funds, while other strategies apply more generally. Providing funds only on a need-to-have basis is a very effective way in which principals can prevent less-committed individuals from taking advantage of their control over funds. The Embassy bombings in Africa, the Bali bombings, and the 9/11 attacks were funded in this fashion, with operators receiving a certain amount of funds, burning through it, and having to request more from the central leaders. By increasing the frequency of transfers and reducing their size, leaders build up better knowledge about the nature of the relationship between what they spend and the success rate they observe. This reduces the scope of what the agents can get away with. However, because each additional transfer entails communications and financial transactions, there is a security cost to this strategy.
Auditing strategies are another option for developing better information about what agents are doing. This entails requiring agents to provide periodic, detailed reports on their activities, as al-Qa’ida used to do. These reports effectively make it easier for leaders to know when their agents are behaving differently than they would like. However, this additional efficiency comes at the cost of additional communications traffic, which entails an increased risk of compromise. To the extent that groups believe they have secure communications channels, these strategies will be more likely to be employed.
Punishing agents who do not behave as the principals would like depends on both identifying such behavior and being able to wield a threat over agents. There are both efficiency and security costs to using punishment. The efficiency cost is that engaging in punishment diverts resources from the struggle. For example, as Hezbollah moved into Southern Lebanon in the early 1980s, it encountered efforts by Israeli proxies to penetrate the organization, and had to create a security bureaucracy to police the organization. While this provided better security, it diverted significant resources from the struggle with Israel. The security challenge is that punished agents can always follow the example of Jamal Ahmed Al Fadl and go to the government. This security cost is especially hard for transnational groups who have agents in areas where they lack operational capabilities, and hence the means to violently punish their agents.
Another common way to deal with agency problems is to encourage members to enter into trust-inducing relationships such as marriage within their group. Those who enter into marriages within the movement face a larger cost if they are caught behaving against their leaders’ wishes. Not only do they lose a future income stream, but familial and community connections as well. Such a strategy is central to the success of the hawala funds transfer system. Of course, if a member embedded in a dense network of strong ties is captured, myriad opportunities for compromise are created. A second problem for terrorists groups whose members live far away is that they will enter into close relationships outside the network which can dilute commitment, as competing social costs become important. This dynamic was observed in the Syrian case, as the foreign jihadis who married locals often lost their motivation and left the struggle. Thus, government counterterrorism efforts naturally involve scrutiny and attention toward a terrorist’s personal and social network—attention which creates security vulnerabilities for the group. For example, Hamas had to cut ties with a generation of trusted, experienced operational leaders because they were easily traced.
Terrorist leaders may also reduce preference divergence by requiring initiation rights that either prove their members’ commitment or make it hard to leave the group. The Japanese Red Army followed this strategy, making prospective members commit violent crimes. Some accounts suggest that the training program in Afghanistan served as such a screening process for al-Qa’ida. The problem for groups is that these strategies create predicate offenses that can identify individuals to the government. Former trainees in Afghanistan have received significant scrutiny around the world, with those who evince even tangential ties being arrested in the United States. The lengthy ideological debates that are a critical part of the recruiting process in European Islamic expatriate communities fulfill this function. Indeed, lengthy ideological discussions are an old screening tactic of militant organizations, one practiced by GSPC, the Red Brigades, ETA, and others. However, this strategy may weed out people with useful skills who do not have the patience for lengthy doctrinal debates.
Overall, strategies to reduce agency problems entail security costs. It is vital for government counterterrorism officials to identify ways for raising theses costs.
The Difficult Challenge of Balancing Security with Efficiency and Control
Organizations configure themselves and operate in ways that maximize their utility. For businesses, this utility is normally measured by profit. For terrorist organizations, it is most accurately determined by political impact. The maximum political impact a terrorist group can have is constrained by the security environment in which it operates, the efficiency with which it disburses its resources and the degree to which it can control its members.
As introduced earlier, terrorist organizations face two tradeoffs that create internal discord. The security-efficiency tradeoff creates conflicts over spending when three conditions exist: (1) preferences over spending are not perfectly aligned; (2) principals cannot perfectly monitor their agents’ uses of money or cannot credibly punish them; and (3) resources are constrained so that leaders won’t just accept the financial inefficiencies created by agency problems.
The security-control tradeoff creates conflict over tactics when three similar conditions are present: (1) preferences over tactics are not perfectly aligned, so that some agents want to attack different targets or want to conduct more or fewer attacks than leaders want; (2) principals cannot perfectly monitor their agents’ tactical planning and cannot wield a threat of violence over them; and (3) political goals are being placed at risk by the freelancing of operational elements. Under either of these sets of conditions, terrorist organizations will face significant internal tension.
These tradeoffs are illustrated in Figure 1 below. This figure places the level of security on the y-axis, and the level of efficiency or control on the x-axis. Given the level of government security pressure, and the level of preference divergence within a group, we can define a line expressing the feasible security-control tradeoffs. This line, labeled C, starts at the maximum level of security, achieved when the leadership has no control over operations and is decreasing to the maximum level of control or efficiency where a group is operating openly with no security or without any concern for fiscal accountability respectively.
There is a set of tradeoffs between security and efficiency as well as security and control that are acceptable given the level of discrimination in the use of violence that groups must exercise to achieve their political goals. These tradeoffs define a series of indifference curves where the nature of this tradeoff is represented by the shape of the dashed, solid, dotted curves (U1, U2, U3) presented on the chart. Higher curves—those moving “up” and “right” in this graph—mean greater utility measured in terms of political impact. The terrorists, seeking greater political impact, will prefer to increase their security, control and efficiency—move towards U3, the dotted line indifference curve as shown here. Government efforts intended to degrade terrorist capacity can do so by reducing security, control and/or efficiency—moving the group “down” to U1, the dashed line indifference curve, and its corresponding reduction in potential political impact.
Government agencies can impact both ends of C. Interventions that reduce the level of security for the terrorist group will force them to accept lesser utility given their preferences for maintaining control and financial efficiency. Figure 2 below depicts this in graphic form. Here the government has taken actions that reduce the maximum feasible level of security from S to S’, and the group has had to respond by moving to a lower indifference curve—U’.
Alternatively, a government can encourage agency problems that reduce terrorist groups’ ability to control its operatives or finance its operations. Reducing either or both of these shifts down the maximum possible level of political impact for the terrorist group. This dynamic is represented in Figure 3 below. In this case, the line C represents the possible combinations of security and control, or security and efficiency that a terrorist group can choose from before government intervention.
Here, the line C′ represents the case where government has taken actions to reduce the level of control its leaders can exercise, such as by increasing internal dissension within the group. As demonstrated in this illustration, the best feasible tradeoff for the group has shifted down from U to U’, meaning the group has less capability to achieve political impact. Now the group has to accept much less control than before in order to maximize political impact. A similar tradeoff occurs when the government degrades terrorist groups’ financial efficiency and forces them to accept lesser utility measured in terms of political impact.
The key intuition represented in these examples is that government actions to make the security environment harder reduce the feasible level of political impact for terrorists. Government actions and environmental changes that increase preference divergence and challenge the control and financial efficiency within terrorist groups have a similar effect. Exactly how these changes will alter groups’ optimal tradeoff between security and control, or between security and financial efficiency, will depend on the exact shape of their indifference curves. These will vary across groups for numerous reasons such as . In the concluding section of this analysis, we will use this framework to suggest a number of actions to make the terrorists’ organizational challenges harder. Doing so will reduce their ability to conduct attacks and achieve their desired political impact.
Al-Qa’ida: Back to the Future - The Vanguard and Muslim Brotherhood Operations in Syria
- — Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri
Harmony document AFGP-2002-600080 recounts al-Qa’ida’s “lessons learned” from the Syrian jihad. It articulates the organization’s failure to balance the need for operational security with financial efficiency and tactical control. The experiences of the Muslim Brotherhood and the al-Tali’a al-Muqatila (The Fighting Vanguard) in Syria from 1976-1982 provide a textbook case of an organization that initially possessed little awareness of the agency problem that in retrospect likely doomed the effort from the start.
This section begins with a brief history of the Muslim Brotherhood followed by specifics of the conflict in Syria. Next we address al-Qa’ida’s “lessons learned” in Syria as outlined in Harmony AFGP-2002-600080, which we believe is the work of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri (the nom de guerre of Mustafa Setmariam Nasar). In this document, he details a series of salient points that are meant to transmit the experience of what he terms the first generation mujahadeen (those who fought the global jihad in the time of the Syrian conflict) to the third generation mujahadeen (those who fight currently). Finally, we apply organizational and agency theory to understand these “lessons learned,” and compare the Syrian experience to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s current efforts in Iraq.
The History of the Muslim Brotherhood
The history of the Muslim Brotherhood is replete with examples of preference divergence and factionalism. The Muslim brotherhood sprang from Muslims’ increasing disenchantment with Arab Nationalism and a perceived void in Political Islam after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the last caliphate. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Bannah, an Egyptian schoolteacher from a small town in the Nile Delta, as a small social club. Bannah sought to form an “Islamic System” that would gradually reform civic, social, family, and educational organizations, which he believed had been torn apart by Western secularism (non-religiosity) and materialism.
This movement originally did not advocate the overthrow of national governments and was in fact very supportive of the nationalist ideology that was popular at the time.
The movement gained traction quickly among college students and young professionals. Anti-western sentiment began to increase dramatically in Egypt by the end of WWII largely because of British troop presence and increased exposure to Western ideas resulting from Egypt’s economic expansion. With the increased focus on the West, the group became increasingly radicalized and established a small militant wing known as the Secret Apparatus. Guerillas from this group reportedly fought against Israel in 1948.
Although Bannah’s approach was measured, his goals were perceived as radical by the government. Fearing the Brotherhood was becoming a state within a state, the Egyptian government outlawed the organization and assassinated Bannah. The Brotherhood revived in 1950, and some of its members ran in elections by registering as independents. In 1952, army officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser seized control of the Egyptian government and legalized the Brotherhood, only to ban it again in 1954. The Secret Apparatus retaliated by trying to assassinate Nasser, who responded by deporting or imprisoning and executing many fundamentalists.
Nasser’s imprisonment of fundamentalists during the 1960s had the unintended result of further radicalizing the fundamentalists. The relationship between the Egyptian government and the Muslim Brotherhood continued to ebb and flow. Just before the Six Day War in 1967, Egyptian authorities attempted to recruit inmates for the jihad against Israel. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the notorious Abu Za’bal prison camp expressed unrelenting support for the jihad and resolved to fight. A small group of inmates refused, however. They were led by Sheikh ‘Ali Abduh Isma’il and believed that the state of Egypt was apostate and so were its supporters. The group was turned over to prison authorities and isolated from the rest of the prison community. Eventually, they were returned to the general population, but chose to keep to themselves and refused to associate with Muslim Brotherhood inmates. This was one of the first cleavages between the core membership of the Muslim Brotherhood and those who were becoming increasingly radicalized. This splinter group would eventually evolve into Takfir w’al Hijra, a group that more closely resembled a religious cult than a politically motivated terrorist group.
The defeat of the Arab armies by Israel in 1967 marked the beginning of the end for pan-Arab nationalism. Many fundamentalists viewed the defeat as the ultimate failure of corrupt governments that had attempted to show strength in the struggle against Zionism. The Israeli victory in 1967 reordered the priorities of radical groups. Instead of focusing on retaliation against Israel, they began to turn inward towards Arab society, to fight the “jahiliyya within.” Jahiliyya refers to a state of ignorance—specifically, Arab culture prior to God’s Koranic revelations to Mohammed. The radicals attracted new recruits from those who were turning to terrorist organizations and schools for answers to the societal trauma caused by the Arab defeat. This was a significant departure from previous thinking. In May 1965, a month before his death, the famed Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb met with other leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood to discuss future tactics. He was opposed to large-scale terrorist operations that could weaken Egypt and carry out the work of the “Zionist threat.” The organization overruled him, however, and went ahead planning operations. Any of the residual feelings Qutb—and especially his followers—had with regards to violent tactics were resolved in Cairo’s military prisons. Prison guards would torture and berate the prisoners, likening them to the Jews and accusing them of being a greater threat to Arab society than Israel. Thus, the first generation of what Sivan calls the “New Radicals” was born.
The New Radicals movement was less a cohesive operational organization than it was a collection of ideologically similar national groups with no overall leadership. National decentralization of the groups also occurred, leading to the fragmentation of the New Radicals into many small groups and factions. The theological justification was based on 14th century theologian Ibn Taymiyya’s writings regarding the necessity of having many imams when there are many Islamic states. However, ideological differences and decentralization led to fights among (and even within) the new groups.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria
It was during this same period that a parallel development involving one of these factions transpired in Syria. Similar to Egypt, Syria was experiencing a growing conflict between Islamic groups and a nationalist regime in the 1940s. Initially, this conflict was mainly non-violent, but after the Ba’ath party took power in 1963, the conflict between secular Ba’athists and the Muslim Brotherhood escalated. Beginning with the anti-Ba’athist sermons, events degenerated into riots and violence. The Muslim Brotherhood began operations to undermine the regime and increasingly radicalized sub-groups were formed. This is perhaps best exemplified by the creation of al-Tali’a al-Muqatila (The Fighting Vanguard), founded by Marwan Hadeed.
In this first phase of the struggle between the Syrian Government and the Muslim Brotherhood, the radical factions were fairly unified. The Muslim Brotherhood did not always anticipate the reaction of Damascus, however, and in the wake of repeated assassinations of Ba’ath party officials, President Amin al-Haffez ordered the Army into Hama for the first time, and went so far as to authorize air raids on the Sultan Mosque, a Muslim Brotherhood enclave. Decimated by these attacks, the Muslim Brotherhood was forced to temporarily cease militant activity.
In the mid-1970s, they resumed operations against the Alawite controlled regime of Haffez al-Assad. Once again there was a failure to anticipate the threshold level of violence that could be inflicted on the government without drawing a crushing response. The Vanguard, allegedly without Muslim Brotherhood authorization, launched a series of deadly attacks, including one on the Syrian Artillery School in Aleppo that killed all the Ba’athist cadets as well as many Sunnis. The prominent Sheikh Mohammad al-Shami was killed in a related attack. In an attempt to distance themselves from the attack, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement denying involvement and denouncing the Vanguard. This did not prevent the government from responding with devastating violence. The most visible and memorable event occurred at the culmination of the conflict when the Syrian government laid siege to Hama for a second time. By this time Hama was a city of 180,000 and a center of Sunni radicalism. In February, 1982 more than 4,000 Syrian troops engaged members of al-Tali’a al-Muqatila (The Fighting Vanguard) as well as other members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in bloody house-to-house fighting. When all was said and done, an estimated 5,000 civilians and insurgents were killed, along with over 1,000 troops. The city was essentially leveled in the course of the assualt.
The Lessons of the 1st Generation: Failure to Manage Agency Problems As shown in the preceding chapter, terrorist organizations face fundamental tradeoffs between operational security on the one hand, and financial efficiency and tactical control on the other. Balancing these needs is a major leadership challenge for any successful terrorist network. In the case of the Vanguard and Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, the leadership failed to understand and compensate for these agency problems and preference divergences. The tradeoff between operational security and tactical control was not effectively managed as evidenced by the following lessons learned, described in Harmony document AFGP-2002-600080:
Lack of secure communications. The movement usually used primitive, insecure communication methods. These included un-encoded messages sent by courier, regular face-to-face meetings, and unsecured phone lines. The movement had almost no wireless communication ability until the later stages of the conflict, even at the tactical level. With a lack of secure and reliable communication methods, maintaining even a minimal level of operational security required relinquishing a significant amount of tactical control. By employing more secure communications, terrorist leadership could have executed greater tactical control while still maintaining the same level of operational security. The document also notes the lack of a system for compartmentalizing information. By ensuring that all information is “need-to-know,” leadership could have maintained higher tactical control and operational security, because a captured foot soldier or informant would only know a small part of the overall operational picture.
Ineffective military command structure. The Muslim Brotherhood and Vanguard lacked a centralized planning and strategy capability, and field commanders too often found themselves cut off from the headquarters. Although a certain level of autonomy is necessary for tactical success, this extreme situation resulted in well-intentioned commanders acting out of concert with headquarters’ intent as well as a lack of proper allocation of resources on the battlefield.
Although part of this decentralization was due to the communication problems discussed above, the situation is very instructive. Although the terrorist leaders enjoyed a very high level of operational security, the accompanying loss of tactical control proved extremely detrimental to the war effort. The following examples from Harmony AFGP-2002-600080 illustrate how tradeoffs between operational security and efficient allocation and control of resources were not effectively managed in this case:
Dependence on outside sources for support. The terrorist network did not adequately predict and prepare for the costs and expenses of a high intensity conflict. The movement became dependent on erratic sources of income from such unexpected places as the Iraqi regime. Operational security was subsequently reduced as the number of incoming funding lines increased as well as the influence that donors exerted on operational goals. Had the Vanguard and Muslim Brotherhood ensured that the organization possessed sufficient funding for a continuing conflict, they could have maintained a much higher level of operational security and control. Because it proved so difficult to maintain even a minimal level of financial efficiency due to constant fund solicitation, the operational security suffered dramatically as a result.
Time in training camps inefficiently spent. The leadership “powered down” the training in camps and other locales to very low level leaders in the organization. By providing resources and then staying out of the management, operational security is maximized. However, the efficiency of the resource management, in this case those allocated for the training of recruits, suffers due to a lack of higher-level supervision. Criticisms of the training program include a lack of emphasis on physical fitness training, a lack of practical application of theoretical knowledge, a complete lack of training for vital subject areas, and an inexperienced cadre. This may have been avoided if the leadership sacrificed some operational security and ensured resources for training programs were better disbursed to meet organizational objectives.
Failure to air a consistent public relations message. The terrorist leadership utterly failed to coherently communicate the vision and goals of the movement in order to win the support of the populace. Aside from a few ineffective communiqués, there was no organized public relations campaign, leading to a situation where lower level members were the primary mouthpiece of the movement. Operational security was maximized due to the isolation of the higher-level leadership. Predictably, however, the loss of message control ensured that the public relations of the movement was ineffective. Although the Muslim Brotherhood later tried to start a public relations campaign in exile, the propaganda-like nature ensured its failure.
The Lessons of the First Generation: Strategic Failure
In addition to the agency problems and preference divergences discussed at length above, there are numerous reasons why movements, in particular insurgent/terrorist groups, experience schisms. One theory, posited by Bard O’Neil, suggests that there are seven main causes for disunity within insurgent/terrorist groups – social, political-cultural, personal, teleological, theoretical, strategic, and tactical. The movement in Syria suffered from all of these to one degree or another, but the strategic problems assume a greater significance when examined through our framework.
As highlighted in Harmony AFGP-2002-600080, the level of strategic planning was quite poor at the outset of the conflict. This problem only worsened as factionalism set in and the mujahadeen began taking heavy casualties. There are three strategic subcategories worth examining. The first is the mobilization strategy, the second is leadership strategy, and the last is political-ideological strategy.
Mobilization. One example was the failure to mobilize rural areas and focus recruitment efforts solely on urban centers. The urban poor had long been dissatisfied with the Assad regime, and members of this segment of Syria’s society were considered the “low hanging fruit” in terms of recruitment. The failure to mobilize them is particularly interesting because there had been a similar failure in the 1940s when the radical anti-government clerics targeted their efforts almost exclusively at the urban poor. The president adroitly turned this strategy back on them by shutting down social welfare programs in these neighborhoods and declaring that if the people needed milk they should “go to the sheiks, let them give you milk.” When the sheiks could not supply these services, the disenfranchised poor turned against them very quickly.
There was a great deal of resentment in the outlying areas as well, but the mujahadeen failed to capitalize on this. Syria had long been a class-driven society, and the Ba’ath party’s ascendancy had significant class implications that extended to those within the Islamist movement. The Ba’ath party gained power largely on promises of land redistribution and the restructuring of Syrian society to enfranchise the poor. These promises were rarely realized, which opened the door for the kind of disillusionment that the mujahadeen could have capitalized on.
The mujahadeen’s failure to expand the jihad to the countryside made targeting significantly easier for the regime. The Assad government used siege tactics to wear down the insurgency. Allepo, Damascus and Hama—all major urban centers—became the battlefields in this struggle. Because the movement was so heavily concentrated in the cities, the regime had a much easier time isolating the various wings and destroying them.
It is critical for an insurgency to avoid isolation from a supportive population or containment. Isolation in Syria was initially self-imposed through a poor recruitment strategy, which allowed the Syrian army to capitalize on their lack of broad public support. Had the mujahadeen employed a more diffuse recruitment strategy, they would have had a much more secure network for moving people, supplies and money into and out of cities as they fought. The decreased operational security through such a strategy would have been significantly outweighed by the increased tactical control and greatly benefited the movement in terms of the political impact of its activities.
Leadership. Leadership defines strategy. Many successful insurgencies have had a key individual leader who drew support from charismatic appeal of one form or another. Personal valor, a dynamic personality, and other laudable traits can greatly bolster an insurgent movement, though it is hard to quantify the impact of such leadership. What is safe to say is that the loss of such leadership can have an equally negative impact. Even more disastrous are public fractures within the leadership that can be amplified within the movement as a whole.
The movement in Syria suffered from both. From the beginning there were serious schisms between the field commanders and the international leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. Marwan Hadeed—who had participated in the jihad against the Syrian government in 1965—tried to bridge these gaps, which were both internal and external to Syria. Within Syria, there were fractures between the Vanguard and the Muslim Brotherhood, and within the Brotherhood itself there were regional fractures between the cells in Damascus, Allepo, and Hama. Several key leaders tried to forge more cohesive ties. Marwan Hadeed and Adnan Akla both had limited success, but were ultimately stymied—the latter by unilateral agreements between Iraq and the International Leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and the former by his capture, torture and execution by the Assad regime. Adnan Akla was also eventually captured on the Syrian border. His persona had grown to such mythical proportions that when he was imprisoned, the Vanguard in Syria—now with all ties to the Muslim Brotherhood severed—could not recover.
Political-ideological. Once the political-ideological schisms started, they were exacerbated by political failures on the part of the leadership. As the leaders with the clearest understanding of the political goals of the group were killed or captured, their replacements began to operate along increasingly disparate political agendas. Adnan Akla, leader of the Vanguard, at one point declared that all who followed the Muslim Brotherhood or supported the alliance they entered into with Iraqi Ba’athists were kufar (infidels or heretics), even as Adnan Sadduddin declared in an interview that the members of the Iraqi Ba’ath party were true Muslims. This mixed message was not only indicative of diametrically opposed political stances, but also evidence of a burgeoning ideological fracture, which was far more troubling for the long-term prospects of radicals in Syria than diverging political views.
This growing factionalism was not unique to Syria. The various chapters of the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood all dealt with internal political divisions in their home nations. Adherence to a central political line began to waver. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, for example, ended up providing religious justification for the Hashemite kingdom’s legitimacy in exchange for concessions from the rulers.
Though some group members perceived these moves simply as the realpolitik of the Middle East, others—particularly the extreme elements—saw such actions as Faustian bargains which would ultimately corrupt the cause if left unchecked. This and other similar actions only exacerbated the divide growing within the Muslim Brotherhood.
Another leadership problem facing the mujahadeen in Syria was that power and leadership were concentrated in the hands of a few, creating a considerable amount of cronyism that eventually eroded the quality of the leadership throughout the movement. Harmony AFGP-2002-600080 delves into this to some extent, though the author takes care not to besmirch the names of those who may have died in the jihad. This, too, harkens back to the isolation discussed in the strategy section of this report, and is a clear example of how reductions in control can lead to agency problems. The movement was simultaneously isolated and factionalized, and so leaders tended to circle the wagons. While this may not matter in a lower intensity environment where leader deaths or detentions are somewhat infrequent, it most likely will cause friction in a higher intensity environment such as that in Syria.
The problems triggered by this strategic disunity are deeply intertwined with the tactical problems. In the jihadist insurgent movement there are often few degrees of separation between those controlling strategy and those executing tactics, especially relative to more traditional models such as the nation-state or state-sponsored terrorist groups. Thus in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Vanguard in Syria, several tactical decisions had dire strategic consequences. One of these was the decision to assault the Syrian Artillery School in Allepo in 1979, a decision made entirely by the Vanguard and ultimately disavowed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Third Generation: Applying Syria’s Lessons to Iraq
The existence of a formal third generation of jihadists is debatable, but there is some evidence that they exist and are now fighting in Iraq. A recent study of the posted list of names on al-Qa’ida in Iraq websites shows that only about 5% of those slain in Iraq have previous mujahadeen experience and that their average age is 27. In the recently discovered and declassified letter from Zawahiri to Zarqawi, there are several allusions to the generational nature of the jihad and the importance of handing over the fighting to this new generation.
This generation appears to have learned some of the lessons discussed in AFGP-2002-600080, while others seem to have been disregarded. The final portion of this case study focuses on three recurring problems mentioned in Harmony AFGP-2002-600080 that appear to be continuing problems for the insurgency in Iraq.
Ideological and Religious Indoctrination
The author of Harmony AFGP-2002-600080 spends a good deal of time discussing the problems among the mujahadeen in Syria due to insufficient indoctrination. Clearly, al-Qa’ida learned from this and did not make this mistake in Afghanistan in the 1990s, as they incorporated indoctrination heavily into their training regimen. Since late 2001, however, groups have been highly constrained in their ability to conduct consolidated training. Agency problems arise when principals have a difficult time controlling their agents. In the Syria case, when the training of new mujahadeen became more decentralized and was delegated out of necessity, we observed a greater variance in the quality and intensity of the indoctrination of the new recruits. There is a positive correlation between the level of ideological indoctrination and the level of control a group exerts over its members. Thus we can expect increasing agency problems going forward as newly matriculated members are increasingly less ideologically grounded.
It is very difficult to exert central control over a group like the Muslim Brotherhood except by sacrificing security. The best example of this is the use of various Salafi-Jihadist websites, which are frequently used as repositories for messages from radical clerics and ideologues. The websites are then accessed by operational cells, thereby ensuring some degree of homogeneity in the global jihadi message, even though the cell may be physically quite decentralized. Here we see an example of the security-efficiency tradeoff described earlier: In order to spread centrally approved “talking points” to the scattered operational cells, the messages must be posted in a fairly accessible place. This is an efficient but inherently insecure method. If the leadership were to make more use of encryption, for instance, they would clearly reduce their vulnerability but they would also exert less centralized message control given the expectation that fewer members would ultimately access these encrypted “talking points.”
Alliances of Necessity with Untrustworthy Arab Regimes
The historical precedent set when the alliance with Iraqi Ba’athists greatly undermined the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, suggests that cooperation between jihadists and secular elements of the Iraqi insurgency will be temporary. There is certainly an alignment of short-term goals among the various components, but an insurgency—more so than any other form of warfare—is intrinsically political, and there is a high degree of dissonance between the political goals of the various groups in Iraq. Ba’athist nationalists have always held views considered heretical by al-Qa’ida. Furthermore, the Ba’athist component has goals which are more practical. Reasserting control by members loyal to the former regime, while unlikely to succeed given continued U.S. presence, is still far more achievable than restoring the caliphate, which is the ultimate goal of al- Qa’ida.
The difference in the probability of success provides an opportunity to fracture the insurgency. The Sunni component of the insurgency is primarily interested in local power. By designing a package of incentives that incrementally increases political power, it is possible that much of the causus belli could be drained away from this component of the insurgency over time. Because the long term goals of al- Qa’ida are so much broader, we can achieve a market separation within the insurgency. Additionally, any acceptance of these “carrots” by the Sunnis will be seen as a betrayal by the more ideologically motivated within the movement, just as the realpolitik decisions of the Muslim Brotherhood ultimately isolated the Vanguard in Syria. The targeting of Shiites is likely an attempt to provoke a backlash on Sunnis that will compel moderate groups to adopt Zarqawi’s more extreme positions. Countering this will be a tremendous challenge. The coalition’s tenuous peace with the Shia militias makes managing their outrage appear almost impossible. Nevertheless, providing political insurgents access to the political process, coupled with mitigating the security impact to them of political failure, while simultaneously urging Shia restraint in the face of Zarqawi’s provocations, seems the best policy option.
As in the Syria case, there is a growing gulf between the central al-Qa’ida leadership and those engaged in close combat. Al-Qa’ida’s central authority has been heavily disrupted and been reduced largely to providing ideological leadership in the form of frequent messages. There is a palpable degree of discomfort with this detachment from the field commanders, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, when one reads documents like the recently declassified letter from al-Zawahiri. The undercurrent within this letter seems eerily similar to the situation described in Harmony AFGP-2002-600080, where the author describes the increasing tensions between the leadership within the country and the foreign leadership. Again, this can be examined using agency theory framework. The preferences of al-Qa’ida’s central leaders and Zarqawi, while always a source of tension, are diverging in new and important ways. This is evident in the shifting tactics and targeting of attacks and corroborated in the captured documents and correspondence. This preference divergence will almost certainly continue to grow, and the agency problems associated with this divergence have an increasingly deleterious impact on al-Qa’ida’s capability to centrally direct future operations.
In fact, this may have already occurred. In October 2004, al-Qa’ida publicly released a letter from al-Tawhid wa’l Jihad (Tawhid refers to the Muslim declaration of monotheism) where Zarqawi offered a bayat or pledge of loyalty to Osama bin Laden and al-Qa’ida. The subsequent name change to al-Qa’ida in Iraq reflected this new arrangement. While this relationship caused concerns within the intelligence community, it is worth noting that, by al-Qa’ida’s own admission, this pledge of loyalty was the result of eight months of negotiations between Zarqawi and al-Qa’ida. This bargaining process reflects the serious strategic and tactical differences which had to be reconciled between the two groups. Undoubtedly, compromises were made by both sides, but those compromises could easily become untenable in the light of the shifting tactical situation faced by al-Qa’ida in Iraq. The June 2005 letter from Zawahiri to Zarqawi suggests that even after the bayat there are still latent tensions that can be exploited.
Critical examples are Zarqawi’s persistent attacks against Shiites. Although these attacks reflect a policy publicly articulated long before signing on with al Qa’ida, Zawahiri’s letter suggests that they are now a source of tension between the two. This separation between an operational commander and a senior leader is indicative of the kinds of agency problems that the author of Harmony AFGP-2002-600080 believes undermined the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts in Syria.
Zarqawi: Building an Ideology of Isolation
Although maintaining his loyalty to al-Qa’ida for the time being, Zarqawi’s recent public statements emphasize his unwillingness to follow orders from the center. In a lecture entitled, It is Allah Whom ye Should More Justly Fear, Zarqawi explains his disapproval of scholars advising mujahadeen from safety far from the jihad’s actual fighting. Although Zarqawi defends his position in ideological terms, an unwillingness to take direction seems as much a personality trait as ideological decision. Nevertheless, Zarqawi’s argument has two components: he takes orders from God, not from men, no matter how wise; and calling for jihad is not nearly as important as taking action for jihad.
There are two possible targets for Zarqawi’s vitriol in his Justly Fear lecture. The first is Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Zarqawi’s spiritual mentor while he was imprisoned in Jordan. The two have waged a very public debate about the acceptability of suicide bombings and attacks on Shiite civilians over the past two years. Furthermore, the tension between Maqdisi the scholar versus Zarqawi the soldier has long defined their relationship. In prison, Maqdisi—by far the more renowned scholar—took a backseat to Zarqawi as he used impassioned speeches and promises of bold action to recruit supporters. The tension between the idealism of scholars and the practicality of soldiers may be an increasing dilemma for the modern radical Islamic movement.
The second possible target is Ayman al-Zawihiri, Al Qaeda’s number two leader and author of the well publicized letter to Zarqawi criticizing his attacks on Shiite civilians. Zarqawi does not explicitly identify who he is targeting in Justly Fear, which is odd because he has shown no qualms about using Maqdisi’s name in past statements.
Despite Zarqawi’s vagueness, it is likely that he is again targeting Maqdisi rather than Zawahiri. Zarqawi identifies scholars that avoid the hardships of jihad and live “in the land of infidels,” a characterization that fits Maqdisi much more than what is known about Zawahiri.
Zarqawi’s critique is that scholars merely issue declarations and live far from the arena of jihad. This is important because the violent fundamentalist Islamic movement is largely tied together by ideologues able to disseminate their views using modern communications systems. Zarqawi, essentially, is arguing that this alone makes them ill-fit to be leaders of the radical militant movement. Only by sacrificing do they demonstrate their worthiness to lead the jihadist movement. Zarqawi makes his case quite explicitly:
Those who examine the situation of religious scholars and leaders will see that their status varies in the eyes of people according to the association between their words and their actions. People always respect the one who accompanies his words with deeds and the opposite is true…Action is more forceful than the verbose call itself.
The problem with scholars, Zarqawi argues, is that even the wisest among them are human, while the true mujahadeen should take direction only from God.
The members of the victorious group, although they respect the status and worth of religious scholars, do not know the truth through these scholars. They know men through the truth, since men are only a means to know the truth by stating its proof and basis. This is not because truth is known through them and therefore their words and deeds are followed. Following men, irrespective of their religious knowledge and performance, leads to the widest paths of falsehood and greatest causes of misguidance if they lack authority.
After explaining why scholars are misguided, Zarqawi begins to discuss his current situation.
Recently, some of our brotherly scholars, who were pioneers in the call for God’s way, fell into fault and made mistakes, caused by their distance from the arenas of jihad and by the fact that they are not actually involved in jihad. Thus, their lapses were greatly advertised, and the guided news media carried them everywhere. All that was aimed at causing disunity, dissension, keeping people away from jihad, and making them hate the mujahadeen.
Zarqawi argues that scholars should not simply be thinkers; they must have knowledge of both “the rule of God and the situation to which this opinion applies.”82 Zarqawi rejects what he calls the term “theoretician of the Salafist Jihadist Trend,” which in essence are men like al-Maqdisi who have provided the intellectual foundation for jihad but failed to fight themselves. It is not clear that Zawahiri, who has been involved at the operational level of al Qa’ida, would fall into this category.
This term is actually an undesirable separation between words and deeds. Scholars were throughout the ages at the forefront of the bandwagon of jihad…the theoreticians of the jihadist current were the ones who carried the Book and sword in their hands and took the front line. They led the masses and abandoned the transient pleasures of life. They preferred the reward of eternal life. They abandoned their palaces and houses and chose to live in caves and mountains. They did so to protect their religion and couple their words with deeds. A scholar living in the land of infidels away from the arenas of jihad and the real situation of the mujahadeen should not issue fatwas to the people on issues the least that can be said about them is that they express an independent judgment that can be interpreted differently.
The destruction of al Qa’ida’s Afghanistan-based hierarchy drove the movement underground and initiated a metamorphosis into the loosely-linked, ideological-based network we see today. This transition makes the movement very difficult to track, but raises critical agency problems because of the absence of a typical command structure. Particularly for agents pressured by intense operational demands, as in Iraq, we are likely to see tension between central ideological thinkers and the operational leaders on the ground.
Zarqawi and al-Tali’a: Side by Side Comparison
Zarqawi’s unwillingness to accept direction is not the only way that AFGP-2002-600080’s lessons provide perspective on Zarqawi’s organization. Zarqawi’s Al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia most closely resembles the al-Tali’a in Syria. Both are extremist, even compared to their militant Islamic peers, and relatively small components of a multifaceted insurgency. Table 1 compares the mistakes AFGP-2002-600080 attributes to al-Tali’a and compares them to Zarqawi’s performance on similar issues.
Zarqawi’s most important improvement on al-Tali’a’s model is his media operation. Unlike al-Tali’a’, Zarqawi has effective media and ideological operations designed to both indoctrinate his followers for a drawn-out fight and to publicize his activities to domestic and international audiences. This will build a resilient movement and is critical for de-territorializing the Iraq conflict in order to attract non-Iraqis to the fight.
Zarqawi also has a clear set of strategic and operational goals, necessities that al-Tali’a did not possess. But, like his al-Tali’a predecessors, Zarqawi’s ideological perspective is extraordinarily exclusionary. Zarqawi labels Shiites, Arab governments, and all those that cooperate with secular regimes as either ‘infidels’ or ‘apostates’ and vows to fight them.
Furthermore, Zarqawi’s insistence on a purely ‘Islamic’ perspective may prevent him from successfully exploiting the unique political opportunities posed by an occupation in an ancient, proud, and tribal society. In other words, Zarqawi’s religious lens allows him to transform the war in Iraq into a struggle relevant to all Muslims, but it may limit his ability to successfully exploit the unique grievances of Iraqis. The author of AFGP-2002-600080 seems to believe that al-Tali’a’s dependence on foreign logistical support was a major handicap; in Iraq, Zarqawi can easily access the materials of guerilla warfare, but depends on a universalist ideology that may create a similar dynamic for him in Iraq. The primary limitation of Zarqawi’s ideology is that it limits his ability to develop strategic relationships with different insurgent organizations. In an effort to recreate the persecution and struggle of the prophet’s companions, Zarqawi recognizes and embraces the exclusionary nature of his ideology. His understanding of Islam is that it is in a continual struggle against numerically superior forces of infidels and apostates. Zarqawi likely sees widespread condemnation of his movement as a sign that his interpretation of Islam is correct.
Nevertheless, this perspective is politically limiting. Although Harmony AFGP-2002-600080 points out the danger of accepting large numbers of low quality recruits into the ranks, Zarqawi’s insistence on Islamic ‘purity’ as he understands it is a major weakness. Harmony AFGP-2002-600080 quotes a Muslim Brotherhood cadre speaking about al-Tali’a leader Adnan Akla in a manner that could easily be used to describe Zarqawi: “I do not doubt Adnan Akla’s loyalty and integrity as a leader, nor do I doubt his courage, I also have no doubt that he lacks the wisdom to benefit from those two characteristics.”
As Zarqawi attempts to expand his reach beyond Iraq, his agency problems will likely increase. Within Iraq he has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to organize near simultaneous attacks in geographically separated areas. This tactical control is harder to exert over operatives working farther away. For example, the Amman hotel bombings last year should be considered strategic failures from Zarqawi’s perspective—although many were killed, the bomb was detonated in the middle of a wedding, which generated a predictable backlash against the attack and Zarqawi’s group generally in the Jordanian population. Although it is possible that Zarqawi approved of targeting the wedding, it is equally possible, and perhaps more likely that the bomber detonated himself in the midst of the largest crowd without thinking through the strategic impact of his tactical decision. Zarqawi seems to have recognized the negative strategic impact and disavowed the bomb detonated amongst the wedding party. This is indicative of the agency problems we have identified in Syria and will be increasingly common if Zarqawi continues to broaden his reach beyond Iraq. The need to delegate tactical control to subordinates increases as the theatre of operations expands, and that in turn increases the chance that tactical decisions made by subordinates will undermine Zarqawi’s strategic intent.
Organizational Vulnerabilities and Recommendations to Exploit Them
The recently declassified documents used in support of this study are a small sampling of those contained in the Harmony Database. These documents do not provide compelling evidence that U.S. counterterrorism policies to date have been misguided or have overlooked any major developments. To the contrary, the documents reflect ongoing jihadi concerns about operational security and sustainability in the midst of America’s counterterrorism efforts. Encouragingly, some of the documents even reflect al-Qa’ida’s fear that U.S. intelligence collection efforts are in some cases exceeding al-Qa’ida’s ability to enact countermeasures.
Perhaps the most interesting insight from the present collection of documents is the way in which they demonstrate how al-Qa’ida executives deal with the same banal challenges that occupy any other organization—be it employee salary and benefits, debates over strategic vision, or underlying doctrinal interpretations. This report’s application of principle-agent theory and organizational approaches to this declassified document collection are meant to provide a useful model for conducting terrorism analysis as well as identify new insertion points for counterterrorism policy.
Any external assessment of al-Qa’ida’s weaknesses will have inherent limitations. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point believes an internal assessment—from actual members of the al-Qa’ida organization—is the best method to accurately assess their own true vulnerabilities. Whereas Western analysts rely on incomplete information and informed speculation about such matters, jihadi strategists are enmeshed in the daily functioning of their own organization, and have a privileged perspective from which to view such shortcomings. Although the jihadis have been quite open with one another about those weaknesses, few in the U.S. Government have recognized the significance of these internal “lessons learned” documents. Abu Musab al-Suri’s reflections on “what not to do” based on the experiences of the mujahadeen in Syria, for instance, need to be viewed as a guidebook for the United States in formulating policy recommendations. The following section will illustrate how even a seemingly eclectic and disparate set of documents such as these can produce important and novel counterterrorism policy recommendations, when taken in concert with an existing body of scholarship and a rigorous theoretical framework.
Like all terrorist groups, Al-Qa’ida values the ability to achieve political impact. In the pursuit of this, the organization must balance its need for security with operational control as well as with financial efficiency. Government efforts to degrade al-Qa’ida’s capacity will succeed if they reduce its security environment, the degree to which it can control operations, and/or its ability to fund its activities. We identify potential points of pressure and methods for achieving these ends. We also suggest methods of exploiting al-Qa’ida’s network vulnerabilities and creating internal discord within the organization that leverage underlying preferences for security, control, and efficiency of its leadership.
- 1. Disrupt al-Qa’ida’s control of operations and limit its financial efficiency.
Government interventions that reduce operational control and/or efficiency within the al-Qa’ida organization generate a corresponding reduction in the political impact al-Qa’ida is capable of generating. These captured documents shed further light on al-Qa’ida’s organizational preoccupation with their ability to control their membership as well as their position vis-à-vis other jihadist organizations. Abu Huthayfa’s memo to Bin Laden for instance, shows an al-Qa’ida member calling for the establishment of a database on al-Qa’ida members and programs, the goal being to guide the organization and the broader jihadi movement by the study of its people.
This need for control is not limited, however, to just intra-organizational activities.
For example, an al-Qa’ida employment contract from another Harmony document reveals the obligation for new members to swear loyalty to al-Qa’ida alone and the requirement that members “have no dealings with any other Islamic group.” The document describing al-Qa’ida’s bylaws reinforces the same theme, arguing that al-Qa’ida should not be “distracted” by relief and aid operations around the world. This obsession with control is a vulnerability that can be exploited by the government. Figure 4 illustrates the consequences of external efforts that decrease the maximum possible level of control over al-Qa’ida’s organizational functions.
In this diagram, the line C′ represents the projected impact of government actions to increase internal dissension within the group and other interventions that degrade the leadership’s ability to control their operatives. As indicated here, the resulting best feasible tradeoff for the group has shifted down from U to U’, meaning the group has to accept much less control than before to maximize political impact. The optimal tradeoff between security and financial efficiency is reduced in the same manner through efforts to increase inefficiencies in the financing of operations.
Figure 4: The Impact of Constraining Organizational Control Security
The U.S. Government can intervene to reduce al-Qa’ida’s control and financial efficiency within the organization—thus limiting its potential political impact—by pursuing carefully crafted policies grounded in al-Qa’ida’s own assessments of their vulnerabilities. The following general prescriptions highlight possible ways governments can thwart al-Qa’ida’s organizational development.
Refrain from actions that encourage preference alignment. Al-Qa’ida members who appear less committed should not necessarily be removed from the network if they can be reliably observed, even if they present easy targets. By leaving them in place, the probability that the group will identify agency problems and hence adopt security-reducing measures increases. Consider the February 11, 1999 e-mail by Ayman al-Zawahiri to a Yemeni cell leader:
“With all due respect, this is not an accounting. It’s a summary accounting. For example, you didn’t write any dates, and many of the items are vague. The analysis of the summary shows the following:
1–You received a total of $22,301. Of course, you didn’t mention the period over which this sum was received. Our activities only benefited from a negligible portion of the money. This means that you received and distributed the money as you please....
2–Salaries amounted to $10,085–45 percent of the money. I had told you in my fax...that we’ve been receiving only half salaries for five months. What is your reaction or response to this?
3–Loans amounted to $2,190. Why did you give out loans? Didn’t I give clear orders to Muhammad Saleh to...refer any loan requests to me? We have already had long discussions on this topic...
4–Why have guesthouse expenses amounted to $1,573 when only Yunis is there, and he can be accommodated without the need for a guesthouse?”
The individual on the receiving end of Zawahiri’s ire increases agency problems and organizational dysfunction that may arguably contribute more to degrading al-Qa’ida’s capabilities if he is allowed to remain in the organization than if he were selected out. Importantly, it is the perception of financial inefficiency that is important not the inefficiency itself. This can be achieved by pursuing measures that incriminate financial agents and add to suspicions of graft and corruption in the eyes of their leaders.
Make credible punishment of operatives harder for al-Qa’ida.. This is most easily done by providing an exit option for members other than indefinite detention or death. This approach can yield benefits in two ways. First, it will make it harder for groups to enforce discipline-hence control- through the use of force against their own members. This will reduce the level of political impact groups can achieve. Second, offering well-publicized amnesty or reduced punishment for defectors will encourage those dissatisfied with the organization to leave by reducing the perceived costs of exit. In response, al-Qa’ida will have to become more careful about screening applicants, which will in turn reduce the pool of potential members, or increase the use of problematic screening mechanisms.
Increase internal dissension within the al-Qa’ida leadership.. Dissension among the leadership of al-Qa’ida decreases cohesiveness and control within the organization. An example from Harmony includes a letter to “Mukhtar” that refers to senior al-Qa’ida military director Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In this letter, one ‘Abd al-Halim Adl expresses concern that al-Qa’ida is “experiencing one setback after another and have gone from misfortune to disaster.” ‘Abd al-Halim Adl blames this series of failures on faulty leadership, arguing that those in charge rush “to move without vision.” Focusing on the negative impact that Osama Bin Laden has had on the organization in particular, the letter pleads with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to reject Bin Laden’s orders and instead concentrate efforts on reorganizing and reinvigorating both the organizational infrastructure and the relationship between the commanders and the foot-soldiers. Effective information operations can achieve similar effects and will bring into question the theological justification for actions as well as the legitimacy of key leaders within al-Qa’ida.
Publicly emphasize the differences between al-Qa’ida leaders and affiliate groups.. Agency problems can be enhanced within al-Qa’ida by reducing incentives for al-Qa’ida subgroups to remain closely linked to the center. Giving Osama bin Laden credit for Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s terrorist attacks only legitimizes and strengthens their relationship.
Publicly recognizing the differences between peripheral groups and the center, however, may generate competition for authority between them. Terrorist organizations are inherently weak relative to their opponents and must overcome that weakness in order to rally supporters to their cause. Al-Qa’ida’s central leadership maintains nominal relationships with peripheral groups in part to generate a perception that it is a powerful group that can realistically challenge its enemy. Effective policies to degrade al-Qa’ida’s capacity will avoid supporting this tactic and highlight differences in the movement instead. Make the management of al-Qa’ida’s financial assets more difficult. One way to accomplish this is to refrain from publicizing the freezing of funds or seizure of assets. When government freezes funds in this way, the individual responsible for those funds has to explain what happened. Either he must make up the funds from his pocket, or come under suspicion within the group, creating the perception of diverging preferences that lead to agency problems. Keeping asset seizures secret also increases the perceived uncertainty of the operational environment, making it more difficult to maintain effective oversight in many interactions. This in turn leads to a worsening of many agency problems in the long term.
Crack down on fundraising through legitimate businesses and charities. Forcing al-Qa’ida to resort to criminal fundraising will greatly reduce the efficiency of its financial transactions. Illicit fundraising has historically created dissent over both resource allocation and tactics. With respect to resource allocation, money from illicit purposes must be laundered to prevent investigators from using the predicate offense to gain information on the group. The laundering process is inefficient and requires secrecy, making it harder for leaders to monitor how funds are used, and making the group more prone to corruption. Moreover, as the IRA experience shows, terrorist cells trained in illicit fundraising are extremely likely to begin seeking opportunities for personal profit, even at the expense of political goals. In the tactical arena, reliance on criminal fundraising also creates opportunities to generate negative reactions in the community. So, when al-Qa’ida’s cells are allowed to choose their own targets to enhance security, and they choose targets that arouse public ire, the leadership faces an unpalatable tradeoff. Efforts to exert greater control in response to this tradeoff will lead to a reduction in potential political impact.
Make sole source funding unavailable. One further implication of the agency theory framework presented in the first section is that central control over al-Qa’ida’s funding provides at least a minimum level of organizational control to its central leaders. Leaders can control their agents by withholding funds if they do not behave as desired. PIJ leaders in Lebanon reportedly use this method to condition logisticians arranging suicide bombings. Central control of funding occurs when groups rely on a few deep-pocket donors who prefer to deal with one leader rather than several factions, or when they raise funds from sources requiring centralized infrastructure. This centralized process guarantees leaders de facto control over resources. So, to the extent that government actions can deter donations from deep-pocket al-Qa’ida donors, the frequency of agency problems will increase.
- 2. Constrain al-Qa’ida’s security environment.
Government interventions that make the environment less secure for al-Qa’ida also reduce al-Qa’ida’s ability to create a political impact. An illustration of this is provided in Figure 5. Here we see the projected impact of government actions that reduce the maximum feasible level of security from S to S’. Maintaining sufficient operational control and/or financial efficiency in this changed security environment forces the group to move to a lower indifference curve and accept a corresponding reduction in political impact—U’.
In other words, the government’s security reducing interventions produce environmental changes that increase preference divergence among the group’s membership.
Figure 5: The Impact of Constraining the Security Environment Security
Create uncertainty about operationally relevant technical information. One key vulnerability of all terrorist organizations is communications. A greater volume of communications between operational cells and others presents a proportionally greater number of opportunities for compromise. If al-Qa’ida’s operators can readily find reliable technical information on bomb-making and the like, they can operate with a great deal of independence. However, if public technical data sources are rife with misinformation, then cells will need to communicate more to make sure they are using appropriate materials/techniques. These increased communications reduce the maximum feasible level of security.
Make screening strategies appear risky. Al-Qa’ida can reduce preference divergence, and hence increase their ability to achieve political impact, by screening their membership more closely. A common strategy to do so is to recruit within familial networks. By openly monitoring the family relations of known al-Qa’ida members, governments can create the perception that using family ties to screen potential members is a security risk. This takes away a useful screening strategy, reducing the maximum feasible level of security. Note that this is an additional benefit not available when monitoring is strictly covert.
Enhance intelligence collection operations. The greater the level of intelligence activity in an area al-Qa’ida intends to operate in, the lower the feasible level of security it can achieve. This is not a new observation, but it is worth noting that although increasing the density of all types of intelligence collection will reduce al-Qa’ida’s political impact, it does not have a definite effect on how it is organized. Depending on the political goals of the respective al-Qa’ida group’s leadership, it may actually adopt measures to achieve greater control.
- 3. Prioritize efforts based on sub-group vulnerabilities.
We believe that al-Qa’ida sub-groups’ critical organizational vulnerabilities are largely determined by their need for discrimination in the use of violence to achieve political objectives. For example, a group like the IRA is attempting to achieve objectives that require significant popular support. They need to be very careful about who they hit in order to avoid losing this critical support. In contrast, groups like Zarqawi’s in Iraq operate with very loosely defined political goals which appear to extend little beyond driving out the United States and preventing a political settlement. Given their objectives do not hinge on winning broad based popular support, Zarqawi’s group does not need to be as careful about whom they inflict casualties upon. Our application of this theory to the Harmony documents and related cases leads us to conclude that, in cases where terrorist leaders have strong preferences for controlling operatives, interventions that reduce this control have greater impact on the organization than those that degrade the security environment. However, in cases where government is combating terrorist factions that place a lesser value on control, they will do better pursuing actions that reduce the group’s security. For example, when developing strategies to limit the political impact of al-Zarqawi’s group, reducing control does not matter much because he values it less.100
However, for al-Qa’ida terrorists operating in groups whose leaders insist on greater discrimination in their application of violence, reducing their level of control should lead to a greater probability of accepting a lower level of political impact. Terrorist leaders with such preferences would therefore be more likely to scale back on violent actions than risk collateral damage and alienating others.
- 4. Conduct an aggressive study of jihadi strategy and foreign policy.
Operational approaches discussed thus far must be pursued in concert with strategies that focus on undermining the body of ideas driving this violence. Students of al-Qa’ida would be remiss to think that the organization did not have its own understanding of international politics and its own foreign policy objectives informed by that understanding. Each stated objective, however, should be viewed as a new avenue by which to fracture the movement from within. The captured documents presented in this study reflect an important point of tension on the strategic level regarding the prioritization of countries in which to wage jihad, and the criteria for determining whether a population is ripe for accepting jihadi ideology.
The prioritization of countries to be attacked continues to be disputed both inside and beyond the al-Qa’ida movement. One captured document details a scouting trip, likely from the mid-1990s, on the prospects of waging jihad in Kenya.101 Other documents reveal that senior leaders looked to Yemen as a high priority target. In other Harmony documents, jihadi commanders argue for the need to preserve strong, secure rear areas in places like Sudan and Afghanistan while launching offensive strikes into Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.102 The United Arab Emirates slowly made its way up the targeting chain through the 1990s. But Somalia was seen as not being “ready for classic jihad” because the Somali movement had already come close to alienating itself from the masses.103 100 In Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s case, operating at a distance from the center will inherently create agency problems that the United States should be prepared to exploit. It should include closely monitoring goods and people leaving Iraq and preparing intelligence services in neighboring states for the intellectual and operational influence of Zarqawi. For these states, that should mean emphasizing the nationalist nature of opposition groups and the deliberate demonization of Zarqawi’s particularly brutal tactics. Creating a market separation between nationalist groups in Iraq and Zarqawi will be very difficult; neighboring countries should begin that process with their own opposition groups now and head off violence before it begins.
101 Harmony AFGP-2002-600113. 102 Harmony AFGP-2002-600053. 103 Harmony AFGP-2002-600053. 47 The importance of maintaining connections between jihadi leadership and the people has been critical to most jihadi policy planning since Abdallah Azzam advocated such a policy in the 1980s. Al-Qa’ida strategist Abu Musab al-Suri argues, in documents found in this collection and elsewhere, that this loss of connection between jihadi leadership and the people has been a key factor in the failure of jihadi movements, particularly in Syria. By understanding both consensus and dissension among al-Qa’ida strategists about targeting priorities, U.S. policymakers increase their options for posing challenges to the organization’s operations. 5. Deny jihadi groups the benefit of security vacuums they seek to exploit and create.
Policymakers are correctly concerned about the existence of ungoverned spaces as being potential safe-havens for terrorist groups. The Harmony documents demonstrate that al-Qa’ida has been thinking about the necessity to exploit such spaces since their organizational founding. The Somali document referenced above identifies a five-point strategy to unite Somali forces and create an Islamic national front.104 The author argues for:
- expulsion of the foreign international presence;
- rebuilding of state institutions;
- establishment of domestic security;
- comprehensive national reconciliation; and
- economic reform and combating famine.
This approach parallels the June 2005 Zawahiri letter addressed to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq.105 In this letter, Zawahiri argues that jihad in Iraq should proceed incrementally, according to the following phases: – expel the Americans from Iraq; – establish an Islamic authority or emirate, then develop it and support it; and – extend the jihad wave to the secular countries neighboring Iraq. He also notes that jihad in Iraq may coincide with what came before: the clash with Israel, because Israel was established only to challenge any new Islamic entity.
Both of these documents focus on the need to create viable operational space by first expelling occupiers and then by establishing and nurturing their own system. By identifying, catalyzing and swallowing ungoverned spaces, jihadi strategists believe they will be able to consolidate their strength and pursue their broader political and internationalist agendas. Notice that what is important to these thinkers is not the existence of a security vacuum, but what comes next, establishing functioning state institutions under jihadi control. In fact, existing security vacuums have not proven to be a viable base for exporting attacks abroad. No major international attacks, for example, have been supported out of Afghanistan, Iraq, or Somalia. 104 Harmony AFGP-2002-600053. Pg. 6. 105 Available online at: http://www.dni.gov/release_letter_101105.html 48 Thus, while a concern with security vacuums is warranted, the implication is not that we must consistently prevent security vacuums.106 That takes immense resources, as the largely unsuccessful effort to end the security vacuum in Iraq show.107 Indeed preventing all security vacuums would be a Herculean task involving American power in numerous failed and failing states around the world. However, denying terrorists the benefits of security vacuums is likely a more feasible strategy. The massive troop deployment in Iraq has so far denied terrorists the use of that country as a staging ground for attacks in the West. Meanwhile, terrorists are denied the benefits of a potential Afghan security vacuum with 18,000 troops, while CJTF HOA effectively denies jihadis the use of Somalia and the rest of that region with only 1,600 troops108—in both cases, these deployments are far less resource-intensive than would be required to actually end the security vacuum. A more cost-effective strategy, we believe, may be to maintain the capability to act decisively when necessary in security vacuums, without embarking on an unsustainable mission to end security vacuums worldwide.109
- 6. Turn the jihadi vanguard back on itself.
The strategic proponents of al-Qa’ida are what Vladimir Lenin, among a wide variety of other revolutionaries, described as the “vanguard.” These “professional revolutionaries” possessed both the intellectual capacity and the fighting spirit to blaze the trail toward revolution. As most students of jihadi terrorism know, Abdallah Azzam employed this same notion of the vanguard in his early conceptualization of the al-Qa’ida organization. The application of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolutionary doctrine is critical to understanding jihadi strategy. Jihadi strategists have formulated a general roadmap for breaking what they see as America’s physical and virtual chokehold on the periphery—both in the literal international political sense, but also in a cognitive sense. Their solution draws not only on Lenin but also on Mao’s “Rural Strategy” or “Encirclement” path to revolution. Mao argued that the vanguard party needed to engage the masses, who in China were predominantly “poor and blank” peasants. These peasants provided the perfect launching pads for establishing pockets of resistance in the periphery. Although Mao’s long-term goal was to actually overthrow the urban centers of capitalist entrenchment, his immediate objective was to encircle these centers with strategic footholds and wage stealth, pinpoint strikes. In Harmony AFGP-2002-600053, the author (Hassan) bolsters this point when he argues that “the strategy of the ‘Jewish West’ is to strike at the periphery of the Muslim lands.”110 106 What made Afghanistan so useful to Al Qaeda from 1995 onwards was not an absence of state institutions, but that it was that Al Qaeda could operate under the protection of a sovereign state, relying on that state’s sovereignty to shield its infrastructure from potential attack by Western forces. Operating in a security vacuum, where training camps and the like could be targeted directly by the United States, and indirectly by local allies, is much less attractive. 107 Whatever political and military progress is being made in Iraq, it is indisputable that the country suffers from a security vacuum relative to most states. 108 Menkhaus, Ken. Somalia: State Collapse and the Threat of Terrorism. International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2004. 109 This supports the rationale behind SOCOM’s expanded roles and missions in support of the GWOT. 110 Harmony AFGP-2002-600053. 49 As jihadi strategists see it, their Mao-styled mobility has allowed their own resistance to seamlessly open new fronts of battle when other ones close, thereby causing American action to be perpetually defensive in nature. This logic is not only reflected in the upper echelons of al-Qa’ida leadership. Indeed, in a letter included in this Harmony sample from a Central Asia-based jihadi commander, Hassan al-Tajki, one can see this calculus play out. Tajiki sees Russia in a state of economic, political and military chaos. However, as much as jihadi forces would like to exploit this political space, he identifies that “America is planning, indeed has actually begun, to fill the political vacuum occurring in the area.” Unpredictable waves of jihadi “attack and retreat” campaigns serve, in their eyes, to confuse coalition forces and paralyze their ability to formulate and implement their own offensive strategy, thereby freeing jihadists to proceed virtually unencumbered.
We can learn a great deal from jihadi strategists and their application of historical insurgency tactics against our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. can similarly employ tactics that seek to surprise and exhaust jihadi safe-havens by coordinating attacks in an unpredictable yet continuous fashion. Effective strategies will aggressively seek opportunities to create power vacuums within jihadi areas of responsibility
- 7. Confuse, humiliate, demoralize and embarrass the jihadi rank-in-file.
Taken in context with our theoretical model, the Harmony documents suggest government policies would find success facilitating intra-movement rivalries and competition within al-Qa’ida. As one of the Harmony documents details, Tajik mujahideen had been demoralized by the intimidation and bullying from other jihadi forces. Subsequently, “the majority of the young men snuck away and went back looking for work with their old area commanders.”
Jihadi-on-jihadi tension has historically run high, seen in the conflict between the “Afghan Arabs” and the Afghan mujahadeen, as well as in other jihadi combat experiences. When jihadi recruits, at least in this case, felt unwanted, they were compelled to leave the movement and return home. Government efforts to stymie recruitment of new jihadis ought to capitalize on the psychological need by many of these men to feel a sense of belonging to an organization. By denying that psychological payoff, jihadis on the margins of support for the cause may otherwise return home, like the Tajik mujahideen described in the Harmony document above.
- 8. Subvert the authority of senior commanders.
The sample of documents from Harmony released for this study highlight the long-standing concern that the al-Qa’ida organization has had with securing the right kind of leader, often referred to as the Emir. Senior strategists learned from past jihadi experience. As Abu Musab al-Suri’s observations on the Syrian experience illustrates, without an active and highly trained cadre of senior leaders, any movement is destined to fail. This dearth of senior jihadi leaders reduces the maximum level of control al-Qa’ida can exert and thus reduces the potential for political impact as discussed earlier in this section.
While al-Suri’s treatment focuses on general trends concerning the role that commanders play in jihad, other documents contain sections dedicated solely to articulating the professional qualifications, personality characteristics and organizational duties of commanders.114 Still others concentrate on the need for providing leaders with real-time information about the movement, its members and the broader political space in which it operates. In fact, among the documents that speak to the role and activities of leaders, they almost uniformly reflect having learned al-Suri’s lessons from Syria: not letting untrained people into senior command positions; not letting the senior leadership lose touch with its operatives on the ground; and the importance of training junior members not just with tactical and operational knowledge but with the strategic relevance of their participation in jihad. With the goal of turning jihadi strengths against them, increased focus on pursuing strategies that seek to separate leaders from their troops may be effective. Identifying the lines of communication among jihadis is key to this effort. Sometimes these are best monitored clandestinely. In fact, there is significant anecdotal evidence from jihadi use of the Internet that the paranoia about being monitored hampers operations by significantly increasing the types of operational security measures that may be employed. In other instances, those tasked with counterterrorism efforts should seek to inundate those lines of communication with alternative discourse, thereby disorienting and confusing jihadis. In rare instances, it may be both operationally expedient and necessary to shut down these lines of communication. 9. Facilitate misunderstanding as well as understanding of America’s intentions and capacity. Throughout its historical evolution, the al-Qa’ida organization has internally wrestled with a number of strategic concerns, particularly those related to where and how to implement violence. The Harmony documents provide insight into the jihadi understanding of American foreign policy priorities, which jihadis believe to have been significantly handicapped by the American experience in Vietnam. In one series of letters extracted from Harmony regarding the American military experience in Somalia, one jihadi author writes that: The Somali experience confirmed the spurious nature of American power and that it has not recovered from the Vietnam complex. It fears getting bogged down in a real war that would reveal its psychological collapse at the level of personnel and leadership. Since Vietnam, America has been seeking easy battles that are completely guaranteed. It entered into a shameful series of adventures on the island of Grenada, then Panama, then bombing Libya, and then the Gulf War 114 Harmony AFGP-2002-000078 and Harmony AFGP-2002-000080. 51 farce, which was the greatest military, political, and ideological swindle in history.115 This statement reveals several important insights. First, at least throughout the 1980s and 1990s, al-Qa’ida believed the United States to be an aggressive and belligerent power, perpetually seeking opportunities to exercise its military domination. Those following al-Qa’ida rhetoric over the recent decade have heard statements arguing that the only language the United States understands is that of violence.116 America’s perceived bellicose leanings, however, were seen as being tempered by the lessons learned in Vietnam—namely, that protracted wars of attrition should be avoided at all costs. Jihadists writings generally portray the United States as a paper tiger, one that possessed overwhelming military power, but constrained in its ability to employ this strength by a domestic population and leaders who lacked the resolve to sustain military campaigns without public support. Jihadi assumptions about America’s reluctance to use military force were reinforced following the perceived lack of response to the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as to the USS Cole attack in 2000. The predominant jihadi assumptions about America’s perceived risk aversion likely caught them off guard and facilitated American military success against those jihadists in the early 2000s. There may be an advantage in allowing jihadists to underestimate American resolve and power, in certain situations, as it may lead to a decreased perception within al-Qa’ida of the need for operational security measures. 10. Force jihadi propagandists back on their heels. Ultimate success for al-Qa’ida lies in reshaping mass perceptions about good and evil. As was the case since Hasan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood, it is essential to grasp the fact that the long-term goal of this jihadi salafi movement is to change the face of society. Al-Qa’ida has been relatively successful in packaging and marketing their message in a social movement. Through the persuasive figurehead of Osama Bin Laden, the persistent continuation of global terrorism and the work by an army of propagandists to spin the tale of jihad, al-Qa’ida as an idea is actually much more difficult for governments to counter than when it was more or less an organization or confederation with its associated organizational vulnerabilities described earlier in our analysis. The jihadi movement’s strategic coherency to this point is attributable, in large part, to how skillfully its members used propaganda instruments, particularly since 9/11, for weaving a historical record, as one senior al-Qa’ida ideologue called it. As a repository of images, videos and stories, the Internet has come to codify a particular jihadi foundational myth, accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Publishing their ideas in short forum postings, longer articles floated online or in voluminous books, jihadi strategists not only recruit new members into this worldview, but they spoon-feed recruits 115 Harmony AFGP-2202-600053. 116 Bin Laden’s “Letter to America.” November 24, 2002 52 with their virulent (and tedious) vocabulary for expressing their anger, and provide direction to operators on the ground, both in Iraq and abroad. In a Harmony document written in 1994, the author (Hassan) contends that “more effective radio broadcasts are needed to launch a propaganda campaign in Yemen and Somalia.” Much like the prolific jihadi propagandists at work today, Hassan believed that “radio stations are more powerful than atomic bombs.” Again, the target of propaganda campaigns, he argues, must be the youth, who in small numbers can bring “correct teaching” to a large area.117 Bin Laden himself, in a captured letter he wrote to Mullah Muhammad ‘Omar, wrote “It is obvious that the media war in this century is one of the strongest methods; in fact, its ratio may reach 90% of the total preparation for the battles.”118 In “A Memo to the Honorable Sheikh Abu Abdullah,” the author, Abu Huthayfa, suggests that Muslims should seek to integrate jihad into all aspects of their lives. For example, he argues, marriage ceremonies “should include speeches, songs, and poetry promoting jihad.”119 It seems imperative that combating terrorism efforts do everything possible to contain the spread of the jihadi body of ideas. The insight gained from the application of our theoretically informed model to this limited number of documents suggests that governments would find success implementing policies that focus on denying jihadis the operational space they seek; pitting groups, ideologues and even propagandists against one another; encouraging parochial squabbles within organizational leadership; and demoralizing new recruits while providing viable alternatives and exit strategies to them. 11. Understand and exploit the ideological breaks in the jihadi movement. Combating the al-Qa’ida movement over the long term requires identifying where key jihadi thinkers break with one another. The documents in this report reveal how such doctrinal disagreements have historically driven wedges within the upper echelons of al-Qa’ida. It is this intra-movement contention that comprises the soft underbelly of violent jihad, which can be exploited to great ends. Interdicting and corrupting the lines of al-Qa’ida’s ideological influence strikes at the core of its ability to exert indirect control of its members. Ideological influence may prove to be al-Qa’ida’s center of gravity as a social movement; efforts to attack this should be weighted accordingly. One Harmony document, for instance, points to debate among al-Qa’ida thinkers about Muhammad Nasir-ud-deen, better known as Shaikh Al-Albani, who is a renowned name among salafists and a revered Hadith scholar. He—like other late salafi sheikhs (part of what is known as the Awakening Movement) including Abd al-Aziz Bin Baz, Salim al-Hilali, and Rabee Madkhalee, among others—preached about the deviations made by Sayyid Qutb and those who follow in his path, which includes followers of al-Qa’ida. In this document, Ayman al-Zawahiri criticizes Sheikh Albani for constraining 117 Harmony AFGP-2002-600053. 118 Harmony AFGP-2002-600321, pg. 2. 119 Harmony AFGP-2002-003251. 53 the pursuit of jihad to “forgiveness, education and prayer.”120 Zawahiri, like his ideological comrades—whom Awakening Salafis label “Qutubis” for their ardent following of Qutb’s deviant teachings—rejects such limits as appeasement. It is necessary for Muslims to go beyond simply gaining knowledge and education, which implicitly means enduring the oppression of perceived apostate leaders and “imperialist infidels,” and instead take action. This ideological break is but one of many that exist within the broader movement that can be usefully exploited.
12. Anticipate al-Qa’ida’s transformation from an organization to a social movement.
The United States and its allies have found great success fighting al-Qa’ida as an organization. We have significantly degraded its formal command structure, debilitated its capabilities to readily move money and closed most of its training facilities. Despite the success against the organization, however, terrorist attacks in the name of al-Qa’ida, such as those witnessed in London or Madrid, continue. While not coordinated by the al-Qa’ida organization, they are informed by the model that al-Qa’ida popularized. This report highlights a number of effective methods for limiting al-Qa’ida’s potential political impact in cases where the terrorist group can be characterized to a greater degree as an organization. Al-Qa`ida’s continued transformation into a broad-based social movement, however, will pose overwhelming challenges to U.S. and other governments’ counterterrorism efforts and therefore must be stopped at all costs.
One senior al-Qa’ida strategist, Abu Musab al-Suri, advances in one of the included Harmony documents—as well as in other writings found elsewhere—a comprehensive call to violent revolution among Muslims.121 His writings need to be understood for what they are: a template for morphing the loose coalition of organizations, personalities and ideas that has come to be known as al-Qa’ida into a global revolutionary movement. His movement is well-conceived and designed it to be organic, clandestine, adaptable to changes in political reality and self-sustaining.
Since the Afghan training camp system had been shut down, Suri argues for the need to transfer the training to each house of each district in the village of every Muslim. By making appropriate training materials available to more than a billion Muslims in the world, Suri believes that he can catalyze a revitalized culture of preparation among them. Taking advantage of information technology like the Internet, Suri contends that anyone interested can access military and ideological training in any language, at any time, anywhere. Muslim homes, as envisioned by Suri’, not only become the new training camps, where families can recruit, educate and train, but also serve as staging grounds from which ideological adherents are able to consolidate their strength and wage terrorism. Further complicating matters, Suri articulates expanded opportunities to participation in jihad for the large numbers of Muslims who may agree with the ideology he advances but are reluctant to engage in acts of violence.
120 Harmony AFGP-2002-601041.
121 Harmony AFGP-2002-60008 54
Aggressive and proactive efforts are needed to curtail al-Qa’ida’s transformation from a terrorist organization to that of a social movement. Increasing opportunities and mediums for individuals to support jihad, along with greater variation in the types of roles available, will require ever more comprehensive responses and mechanisms to deter them.
The analysis provided in this report and accompanying selection of recently declassified documents from the Department of Defense’s Harmony database included in Part 2 will hopefully accomplish three basic objectives. First, they provide a new source of raw data to scholars, analysts and others interested in learning more about al-Qa’ida from the perspective of the organization’s members. The 28 documents presented here represent a small number of an ever-growing collection of al-Qa’ida related material, which will be increasingly made available to the public.
Second, this report seeks to demonstrate the utility of organization and agency theory for conducting terrorism analysis. Based on the logical frameworks of this field of inquiry, the analysis provided here illustrates concepts and insights that can help conduct a more nuanced study of primary source documents. Its focus on the dynamic interplay between organizational necessity for concomitantly pursuing security, efficiency and control emphasizes opportunities for those tasked with countering the terrorist threats.
Finally, the policy recommendations presented here are meant to expand the perspective of the US Government and all concerned states on the types of instruments and timelines it can use to combat al-Qa’ida. This list is not exhaustive, and as more information is provided through additional documents, the Combating Terrorism Center and other researchers can continue to research, analyze, develop, and refine recommendations. Certainly, this report represents just one component of a much larger, comprehensive effort to combat al-Qa’ida with increasing sophistication and success.
- For example, see: Peter L. Bergen, Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002); Rohan Gunaratna, Inside Al-Qa’ida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002); Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Translated by Anthony F. Roberts (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002); and Anonymous, Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama Bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s, 2002).
- John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, The Advent of Netwar (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1996)
- For further definition and examples of “fourth generation warfare,” see John Arquilla and David F. Ronfeldt (eds.), Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy. (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2002); Robert Bunker (ed.), Non-State Threats and Future Wars (Frank Cass Publishers, 2002); Bard E. O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism: Inside Modern Revolutionary Warfare (Potomac Books, 2001); and Sun Tzu, The Art of War (Dover Publications, 2002).
- William S. Lind, Keith Nightengale, John F. Schmitt, Joseph W. Sutton, and Gary I. Wilson, “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation,” Marine Corps Gazette (October 1989), 22-26
- See Armed Forces Journal, November 2004, as cited in Myke Cole, “From The Military: Applying 4GW Theory to The Intelligence Community,” Defense and the National Interest (10 August 2005). Available online at: http://www.d-n-i.net/fcs/cole_lessons_from_the_military.htm
- Scott Wheeler, “Expert Links Probing Attacks to ‘Fourth-Generation Warfare’” CNS News (16 August 2004). Online at: http://www.cnsnews.com/ViewSpecialReports.asp?Page=/SpecialReports/archive/200408/SPE20040816a.html
- Peter Grier, “The New Al Qa’ida: Local Franchiser,” Christian Science Monitor (11 July 2005). Online at: http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0711/p01s01-woeu.html.
- Robert Windrem, “The Frightening Evolution of al-Qa’ida,” MSNBC.com, (24 June 2005). Online at: http://msnbc.msn.com/id/8307333.
- For more on this, please see James Forest, ed., The Making of a Terrorist (Vol. 2: Training) (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2005); and James Forest, ed., Teaching Terror: Strategic and Tactical Learning in the Terrorist World (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield; forthcoming, May 2006).
- Robert Windrem, 2005.
- Jacob N. Shapiro, the primary author of this section, is a Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University and an Associate of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
- For example, the Real IRA (RIRA) bombing in Omagh in August 1998 proved hugely problematic for both the RIRA and the larger Republican movement. The attack killed 29 people, arousing intense public outrage at the RIRA. Since 1998, support for the group has withered and they have not conducted any significant attacks since June 2003.
- For example, a plot to attack tourist hotels in Morocco was compromised in November 2005 because the operational cell included former inmates at Guantanamo, individuals who were well-known to Moroccan security forces.
- Anna Geifman, “Aspect of Early Twentieth-Century Russian Terrorism: The Socialist-Revolutionary Combat Organization,” Terrorism and Political Violence 4, no. 2 (1992): 23-46.
- John Horgan and Max Taylor, “The Provisional Irish Republican Army: Command and Functional Structure,” Terrorism and Political Violence 9, no. 3 (1997): 1-32. 21.
- Harmony AFGP-2002-600080.
- In the June 2002 Al Adl Letter from Harmony, Abd-al-Halim Adl, a member of Al-Qa’ida vigoroulsy challenges Osama bin Laden’s leadership. He argues that the group needs to take an operational pause to regroup following setbacks in East Asia, Europe, America, the Horn of Africa, Yemen, the Gulf, and Morocco. Continuing to engage in “foreign actions” is described as bringing excessive pressure to bear on the organization.
- L’Hussein Kherchtou testimony: Direct examination, U.S. v. Usama Bin Laden et. al., S(7) 98 Cr. 1023, pp. 1280 – 1284; 1307 – 1316; 1383-1385; 1492-1494; 1536.
- International Crisis Group, “Indonesian Backgrounder: Jihad in Central Sulawesi.” ICG Asia Report 74 (2004)
- Leaders of Al-Qa’ida have attempted to use auditing to check up on their agents, as illustrated in a 1999 e-mail from Ayman al-Zawahiri to a Yemei cell leader. In that e-mail, al-Zawahiri complains that the Yemeni leader is spending too much money and is not properly reporting his expenses. Clearly, such communications are a huge security risk. See Alan Cullison, “Inside Al-Qa’ida’s Hard Drive,” The Atlantic Monthly, September 2004. Similar issues arise in a June 2005 letter reportedly from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In that letter, Zawahiri allegedly notes that the leadership in Afghanistan “do not know the full truth” of the situation in Iraq. He also argues that some of Zarqawi’s most violent activities may be politically counterproductive
- Andrew Silke, “In Defense of the Realm: Financing Loyalist Terrorism in Northern Ireland – Part One: Extortion and Blackmail,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 21 (1998): 331-361; Andrew Silke, “Drink, Drugs, and Rock ‘n Roll: Financing Loyalist Terrorism in Northern Ireland – Part Two.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 23 (2000): 107-127.
- David M. Kreps, A Course in Microeconomic Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990). Chapters 16 & 17 provide an excellent general development of agency theory.
- On civil military relations, see: Peter D. Feaver, Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003). On problems of tactical control in insurgent organizations, see: Scott G. Gates, “Recruitment and Allegiance: The Microfoundations of Rebellion.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 46(1): 111-130. On motivations for violence against civilians by insurgent organizations, see: Lucy Hovil and Eric Werker, “Portrait of a Failed Rebellion: An account of rational, sub-optimal violence in western Uganda.” Rationality and Society 17, no. 1 (2005): 5-34.
- The following are examples of this approach. William F. Weschler and Lee S. Wolosky, “Terrorist Financing: Report of an Independent Task Force Sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations,” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2002); “Report on Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Typologies,” (Paris: Financial Action Task Force, 2004); Jean-Charles Brisard, “Terrorism Financing: Roots and Trends of Saudi Terrorism Financing,” Report Prepared for the President of the United Nations Security Council (New York: JCB Consulting, 2002); and “The Jemaah Islamiyah Arrests and the Threat of Terrorism,” White Paper (Singapore: Ministry of Home Affairs, 2003).
- See for example Harmony AFGP-2002-600053.
- Here, a more discrete notion of commitment to the cause is useful. We can array potential supports or a group along a seven-point scale running from –3 to 3. Those at –3 are die-hard supporters of the terrorist group, willing to sacrifice everything. Those at 3 are die-hard supporters of the government. Those at 0 are neutral between the sides. We believe individuals’ roles within the network are highly correlated with their level of commitment. Senior leadership and operational elements are at –3, and can only be selected out by violent action i.e. captured or killed. Individuals filling logistical and outreach roles will generally be at –2. Tacit supporters of a group, those who attended training camps in Afghanistan as a kind of summer holiday, can be placed at –1 on this scale. The lower an individual’s commitment, the greater the additional inducements required for them to take a given level of risk. This variation in commitment requires different mechanisms for selecting out individuals or shifting them “right” along the spectrum of commitment to the cause. For a full treatment of this idea, see Roger Petersen, Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons From Eastern Europe. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Studies in Rationality and Social Change, 2001)
- For example, those who facilitate suicide bombings in Iraq are not so committed as to send their own children to conduct attacks. See Aparisim Ghosh, “Professor of Death,” Time (17 October 2005).
- The logic for groups is simple. Those who’ve been around know the business, but are also more likely to be known to government, and so are less likely to be able to successfully conduct operations. On the IRA, see Horgan and Taylor (1997). On Hamas, see Shaul Mishal and Avraham Sela, The Palestinian Hamas (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).
- Data generously provided by Marc Sageman. Used originally in Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004)
- A corollary to this line of argument is that lenient punishment for financiers may not be bad as it creates the conditions for inefficiency and conflict in terrorist organizations.
- Maria A. Ressa, Seeds of Terror (New York: Free Press, 2003): 158-160.
- Harmony AFGP-2002-000078 and Harmony AFGP-2002-000080 list various roles individuals can aspire to within these committees along with job descriptions and compensation.
- Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC), an Algerian terrorist organization, uses just such a recruitment system in expatriate Algerian communities in France. See Mohamed Sifaoui’s journalistic account of his penetration of a GSPC fundraising and recruiting cell in Paris, in Mohamed Sifaoui, Inside Al-Qa’ida: How I Infiltrated the World’s Deadliest Terrorist Organization (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003).
- Jemaah Islamiyah has suffered numerous problems of this type related to recruitment of preman, career criminals, to fill out its paramilitary units. International Crisis Group, “Jemaah Islamiyah in South East Asia: Damaged but Still Dangerous.” ICG Asia Report 63 (2003).
- Zawahiri letter.
- Newell, David Allen. 1981. The Russian Marxist Response to Terrorism: 1878-1917. PhD Dissertation, Stanford University. 262-3, 267, 269-272, and others.
- Newell (1985).
- Donatella della Porta, Social Movements, Political Violence, and the State: A comparative analysis of Italy and Germany (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
- For a summary of these dynamics informed by the Northern Ireland case see J. Bowyer Bell, “Revolutionary Dynamics: The Inherent Inefficiencies of the Underground,” Terrorism and Political Violence 2 (1990): 193-211.
- Harmony AFGP-2002-600080.
- Della Porta (1985), 120, 174.
- Harmony AFGP-2002-600080 highlights this well in the context of the Syria as does the Zawahiri letter dated June 2005.
- Mishal and Sela (2000).
- Mia M. Bloom, Dying to Kill (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). Mia M. Bloom, “Palestinian Suicide Bombing: Public Support, Market Share, and Outbidding,” Political Science Quarterly, 119, no. 1 (2004): 61-88. See also, Matthew Levitt, “Hamas Social Welfare: In the Service of Terror,” in The Making of a Terrorist (Vol. 1: Recruitment), edited by James J.F. Forest (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2005); and R. Kim Cragin, “Learning to Survive: The Case of the Islamic Resistence Movement (Hamas),” in Teaching Terror: Strategic and Tactical Learning in the Terrorist World, edited by James J.F. Forest (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield; forthcoming, May 2006).
- Luca Ricolfi, “Palestinians, 1981-2003.” In Making Sense of Suicide Missions edited by Diego Gambetta (London: Oxford University Press, 2005): 77-129.
- These communications were revealed in great detail on the hard drive of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s laptop, which was purchased in a Kabul computer shop by Wall Street Journal reporter Alan Cullison shortly after the fall of Kabul. For summaries, see the series of four Wall Street Journal articles by Alan Cullison and Andrew Higgins on 20 December 2001, 30 December 2001, 31 December 2001, and 16 January 2001.
- For example, JI recruits within existing social networks and encourages intermarriage among members’ families. “Al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia: The Case of the Ngruki Network in Indonesia,” in Indonesia Briefing (International Crisis Group, 2002). See also “Jemaah Islamiyah in South East Asia: Damaged but Still Dangerous,” and Zachary Abuza, “Education and Radicalization: Jemaah Islamiyah Recruitment in Southeast Asia,” in The Making of a Terrorist (Vol. 1: Recruitment), edited by James J.F. Forest (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2005)
- Lisa C. Caroll, “Alternative Remittance Systems Distinguishing Sub-Systems of Ethnic Money Laundering in Interpol Member Countries on the Asian Continent,” (Interpol, 2004).
- Harmony AFGP-2002-600080.
- Mishal and Sela (2000).
- Sun-Ki Chai, “An Organizational Economics Theory of Antigovernment Violence.” Comparative Politics 26, no. 1 (1993).
- “Testimony of FBI Agent John Anticev on Odeh,” United States of America v. Usama bin Laden, et. al., 5 (7) 98 Cr. 1023, 27 February 2001, 1630-1638. See also Brian Michael Jenkins, Countering Al-Qa’ida (Santa Monica: RAND, 2002), 5.
- See for example the arrest and prosecution of the Lackwanna Six.
- For example, some middlemen want to take a larger cut for themselves than is authorized.
- Control and financial efficiency have important distinctions. Placing them here does not imply they are the same but that the potential utility available to terrorist groups in terms of political impact is determined by the possible combination of security and control as well as the possible combinations of security and financial efficiency—both depicted in this case by line C.
- The following development is similar to an analysis of the choices a firm has to make when allocating resources between two producing two goods.
- Although not necessarily more attacks since too much violence can be damaging.
- This quote is from Harmony AFGP-2002-600080.
- Harmony translates al-Tali’a al-Muqatila (The Fighting Vanguard) as “Attilea,” which appears to be a phonetic transcription. We use the term al-Tali’a in this chapter to insure consistency with other sources.
- Ghassan Salame, “Islam and the West” Foreign Policy 90 (Spring 1993): 24
- Emmanual Sivan, "The Clash within Islam" Survival, Vol 45, no, 1, Spring 2003, 25-44.
- “The Battle Within Syria: An Interview with Muslim Brotherhood Leader Ali Bayanouni” Terrorism Monitor III, 16 (August 2005): 8-1
- Sami Moubayed, “The History of Political and Militant Islam in Syria” Terrorism Monitor III, 24 (August 2005): 6
- Thomas Friedman, “A Syrian City Amid Rubble of Rebellion,” New York Times, 23 May 1982
- Bard O’Neil, Insurgency and Terrorism, (Potomac Books, 2001): 101-103
- Sami Moubayed, “The History of Political and Militant Islam in Syria” Terrorism Monitor III, 16 (August 2005): 6
- John Galvani, “Syria and the Ba’ath Party,” Middle East Research and Information Project Report No. 25, February 1974, 3-16
- John F. Devlin, “Syria: Modern State and Ancient Land” Middle East Research and Information Project 125/126 (July-September 1984): 61
- Robert Taber, War of the Flea (Washington, DC: Brassey, 2002) p. 163
- Jiles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Harvard University Press, 2000) p. 335
- Mahan Abedin, “The Battle Within Syria: An Interview with Muslim Brotherhood Leader Ali Bayanouni” Terrorism Monitor III, 16 (August 2005): 8
- Murad al-Shashani, “Abu Mus’ab al-Suri and the Third Generation of Salafi-Jihadists” Terrorism Monitor III, 16 (August 2005): 1
- Letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi declassified in October 2005 and available at http://www.dni.gov/release_letter_101105.html
- Zarqawi letter captured in early 2004 after arrest of Hassan Ghul, provided by Coalition Provisional Authority at http://www.cpa-iraq.org; Gary Gambill, “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: A Biographical Sketch,” Terrorism Monitor II, 16 (December 2004): 1
- Letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi declassified in October 2005 and available at http://www.dni.gov/release_letter_101105.html
- Zarqawi’s Pledge of Allegiance to al-Qaeda from Mu’askar al-Battar, Issue 21, obtained from a translated copy by Jeffrey Pool appearing in Terrorism Monitor Volume II, Issue 24, 16 December 2004.
- Posted on www.world-news-network.net. 14 October. GMP20051019520001 (Internet) Jihadist Websites – FBIS Report in Arabic 19 Oct 05
- Harmony AFGP-202-600080.
- Zarqawi audio statement released 18 November, 2005. FBIS GMP20051118336002
- The CTC thanks one of its Fellows, William McCants, for his insights on this topic.
- Harmony AFGP-2002-003251.
- Harmony AFGP-2002-600045.
- Harmony AFGP-2002-600048.
- Alan Cullison, “Inside Al-Qaeda’s Hard Drive,” Atlantic Monthly, September 2004. http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200409/cullison. The response email to Zawahiri’s pointed concerns explains a number of these financial anomalies to Zawahiri in a defensive, seemingly irate manner.
- An example of this is the defection of Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Faqasi al-Ghamdi from Saudi Arabia in June 2003. Al-Ghamdi was involved in the May 12, 2003 bombings of Riyadh and was known to have close ties with Al-Qa’ida. Debate continues regarding al-Azdi’s impetus to give up, but his own father told reporters that “security agencies have promised that if he gives in and is convicted of the alleged crimes, his punishment would be reduced to half.”
- In an uncertain environment, it is harder to know if an operation failed because your agent did not faithfully execute his orders, or because you got unlucky. More explicitly, the lower the signal-to-noise ratio in the environment, the less informative is any one signal.
- Horgan and Taylor (1997).
- FARC, JI, PIRA, UDA, and UVF all suffered politically for their moves into criminal fundraising.
- According to the sometimes-reliable DEBKA report.
- For example, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) fundraising in the Sinhalese Diaspora in Canada is facilitated by the coordinated use of social pressure. LTTE leaders control organized groups that blacklist businesses and individuals who do not contribute.
- See pages 22-25 for a more complete explanation of how al-Qa’ida’s ability to achieve political impact is reduced when its ability to control operatives or maintain a level of efficiency in its financial transactions is reduced.
- Zarqawi’s “indifference curve” would thus look different compared to those leaders- principals- who demand greater control and discrimination.
- Harmony AFGP-2002-600053. pg. 12.
- Harmony AFGP-2002-600053, Letter Four, pg. 50.
- Harmony AFGP-2002-600080.