ON WHAT ISIS and AL-QA’IDA REALLY WANT
AND WHAT THE US IS/NOT DOING ABOUT IT
By Cindy Storer and Michael S. Smith II
Cynthia Storer previously served as a senior al-Qa’ida analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. Her work as a member of the “sisterhood” of analysts who developed the knowledge base leveraged to locate Usama bin Ladin is covered in the Emmy Award-winning documentary “Manhunt: The Search for bin Laden.” She now serves as Lead al-Qa’ida Analyst with Kronos Advisory, a firm providing terrorism-related research and analysis services. Michael S. Smith II is co-founder and COO of Kronos Advisory. Both Storer and Smith are editors of DOWNRANGE.
In our democracy, public knowledge of the threat environment is the mother’s milk of sound national security policy-making. So we applaud Graeme Wood’s excellent study titled “What ISIS Really Wants” for The Atlantic, in which he presented his findings in an appealing way that sparked much needed interest in the ideology fueling the terrorist group’s agenda. However, not unlike many television news reports on ISIS, or the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which our Arab partners in the “Coalition to Counter ISIL” refer to as “al-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham” (literally the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), or DA’ISH, Mr. Wood’s piece may easily lead some to conclude that DA’ISH is striving to advance a more radical, and, in relation to US interests, a more dangerous agenda than al-Qa’ida. This could foster the strategic judgment that the fight against al-Qa’ida should be secondary to the fight against DA’ISH. That would be a grave mistake. In fact, these groups promote the same ideology, and they are pursuing the same goals while competing for dominance in the Global Jihad movement. And since, as Mr. Wood correctly pointed out, al-Qa’ida is by far the more sustainable of the two, it is important not to put the fight against al-Qa’ida on the backburner, or do anything that would further benefit al-Qa’ida in the fight against DA’ISH.
Both al-Qa’ida and DA’ISH are Salafi Jihadi groups, drawing on the same sets of ideas born in the early years of Islam and made “modern” in the 20th Century by the likes of Sayyid Qutb. Mr. Wood was remiss in not giving this Muslim Brotherhood luminary his due.
Even the millenarianism that Mr. Wood portrays as largely unique to DA’ISH’s propaganda features prominently in the al-Qa’ida mythos. For instance, the name of the media wing created by al-Qa’ida’s branch in Syria and used to announce the entity’s formation, al-Manarah al-Bayda, refers to the site in Damascus where it is said Jesus will descend to earth at the end of the age.
The ultimate goal of both groups is to revive the caliphal model of governance, as they understand it, and assert its primacy on a global scale. They claim their model is consistent with that of the founder of Islam, Muhammad, his companions, and the Salaf (i.e. the first three generations of Muslims). DA’ISH claims to be doing this now, as did the Afghan Taliban before them — hence the black banners.
Part of both groups’ programs to accomplish this goal is the erasure of all “unIslamic” influences in the world because such influences have been shown to “corrupt” caliphal systems in the past. According to both groups, the abolishment of the caliphate in the early 20th Century was the result of growing secularist political influence in the Middle East and North Africa. More specifically, the demise of the caliphate at the hands of Turkey’s secularist-minded premier Mustafa Kemal is viewed in hindsight by these elements as the fruit of Western “imperialist” ambitions in historically Muslim lands. This is what the jihadis refer to as a “Zionist Crusader” plot revealed in political arrangements like the Sykes Picot Agreement, which, if we’re honest, did redraw the map of the Middle East in accordance with Western geopolitical interests.
These groups, and the broader movement of which they are a part, are especially bitter about Western (i.e. “unIslamic,” or kufr) political influence in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and home of its two most important heritage sites. The country’s current situation is difficult and full of irony. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded by an alliance of tribal leaders who were proponents of an earlier form of that which we now call the Salafi Jihadi ideology, and Saudi Arabia was the primary source of funding for jihad theaters in which al-Qa’ida emerged and grew its ranks. Now the Saudi government is under attack by these same elements, but unwilling to give up their missionary program, especially as they are competing with the equally ideological regime in control of Iran for the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims. In essence, they are engaged in their own Cold War against Iran, while trying to fend off groups they helped create in the process. In the West, after the Afghan Soviet War, we called the emergence of al-Qa’ida and its declaration of war on us and the House of Saud “blowback.”
Salafi Jihadists are equally bitter about Western influence on Egypt, the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood and a number of jihadist ideologues who have played prominent roles in the Global Jihad movement, including al-Qa’ida’s current leader.
The Muslim Brotherhood: The Elephant in the Room
Created in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood assumed a lead role among the early non-state elements that opposed the rising tide of secular nationalism in the Middle East during the early 20th Century. Any claim that its founder, Hassan al-Banna, viewed jihad as exclusively a matter of spiritual, not violent, struggle is ridiculous. Hassan al-Banna criticized Muslims who denied that jihad is a term used to describe the use of force, covering at length the militant dimensions of jihad in a popular essay titled “On Jihad.”
For al-Banna, peace was to be attained by waging jihad to effect political changes that would give rise to a rule by divine law (sharia) that emphasized the centrality of Allah’s authority in all aspects of life. He frequently argued that a separation of church and state is anathema to the traditions of Islam.
This is precisely what Qutb opined decades later, and it is precisely what the leaders of al-Qa’ida and the leaders of DA’ISH believe today. Although one is almost certain to find variation when it comes to their understanding of what a caliphal model of governance entails, according to all of them, peace will be attained when Muslims attain universal dominion for their faith. As Qutb noted in Signposts, secular rulers are unlikely to relinquish authority in response to dawa (i.e. proselytizing) alone. Therefore, it is incumbent upon Muslims to relieve them of that authority by force to “defend” the faith.
In the late 20th Century, after decades of attempting to build popular support sufficient to force an overhaul of Egypt’s political system, the Brotherhood revised its strategy. This transition is seen in the group’s focus on attempting to effect change by working within political systems versus mobilizing the masses to reform them through revolutionary “activism.” Presently, however, this may be changing in reaction to the Sisi government’s crackdown on the group.
While the Brotherhood’s officially-stated strategy for advancing pan-Islamism calls for effecting changes at ballot boxes, jihad remains in its toolbox, especially when a case can be made that it is necessary to defend the faithful against “apostate” tyrants. Indeed, highly-influential Ihkwanis (Muslim Brothers), like Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has on numerous occasions declined the Brotherhood’s offers to make him its official leader, and clerics who are part of his inner circle were among the most outspoken supporters of violent revolutions during the Arab Spring. For instance, al-Qaradawi issued a fatwa (religious ruling), broadcast internationally by Al Jazeera, that called for the assassination of Libyan dictator Muamar Qadhafi. More recently, he asserted that every Muslim is obligated to support the Syrian Jihad. His ruling undoubtedly impacted the massive flow of foreign fighters into Syria well before DA’ISH declared it had established a caliphate.
The short-lived Brotherhood-led government formed in Egypt following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak pardoned scores of terrorists affiliated with al-Qa’ida, Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), and other associated terrorist groups, releasing them from prison and welcoming them home from hiding in places like Iran. Among them were Global Jihad movement legacy figures like Muhammad al-Zawahiri, the brother of al-Qa’ida’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who merged EIJ with al-Qa’ida just before the 9/11 attacks of 2001. A number of these icons from the Global Jihad movement played critical roles nurturing the stunning growth of the movement’s adherents during and after the Arab Spring. Titled “A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al-Qa’ida and Other Salafi Jihadists,” a report produced in 2014 by terrorism expert Seth Jones highlights that, from 2010 thru 2013, the number of Salafi Jihadi groups increased by 58 percent.
The difference in the type and degree of violence evident in the activities of DA’ISH and al-Qa’ida, as well as formal Muslim Brotherhood chapters, is what distinguishes them. This distinction stems from how the leaders of each group see their place in the overall effort to “restore” the caliphate. And that provides context for the primary difference between them that is of paramount concern for counterterrorism practitioners: Strategy.
We discussed above the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategic shift over time, from al-Banna’s call for imminent revolution, to a longer-term strategy of building up popular support for eventual revolution, to current Brotherhood participation in the democratic process in some countries. That is not to say that all Brothers everywhere agree on strategy, but that the long-term trend has been toward peaceful political participation.
Al-Qa’ida, for its part, has pursued a three-pronged strategy since its inception in 1988, at the heart of which, when it comes to the critical objective of seizing and holding territory, is what we students of insurgency call “protracted popular war.” The idea is that the people must be indoctrinated, then rallied and defended. Only then will they be ready to join with the jihadist “vanguard” envisioned by Sayyid Qutb in order to wage “their conquest of world domination,” as Qutb put it in his final work, titled Signposts on the Road (alternatively Milestones). Terrorist attacks upon the US et al are intended primarily to compel us to leave them alone while they build worldwide support and conquer all of the territory formerly held under a Caliph. Make no mistake though; they see this as just one step on the path to a worldwide caliphate.
Married up with religious ideology, this means that al-Qa’ida leaders view themselves as the group that leads the preparation for the return of the Caliph, and the second coming of Jesus. Indeed, just like DA’ISH, al-Qa’ida believes “that it is written into God’s script as a central character” — to borrow Mr. Wood’s words from the section of his article which falsely claims DA’ISH “differs from nearly every other current jihadist movement” in viewing itself as a harbinger of the apocalypse.
On the other hand, DA’ISH’s central strategy is what we call “military foco,” or what Cindy likes to refer to as the “if you build it they will come” strategy. The idea here is to build an army first and seize and hold territory, which will attract more followers (i.e. immigration, or hijrah), leading to a bigger army, which then sets out to expand the borders, as was rapidly accomplished by the Salaf following the death of Muhammad in 632 CE, and so on. Their version of this strategy is particularly brutal however. If any of the populace opposes the revolution, they must be eliminated.
The only way DA’ISH can justify wholesale killing of Muslims is by invoking the contentious practice of takfir, whereby one Muslim accuses another of turning their back on the faith (i.e. apostasy and blasphemy) even though the accused still claims to be a Muslim. Traditionally, the punishments for apostasy have included death sentences. Although most Muslim countries downplay the practice of takfir, according to a Pew Research Center study, “laws restricting apostasy and blasphemy are most common in the Middle East and North Africa, where 14 of the 20 countries (70%) criminalize blasphemy and 12 of the 20 countries (60%) criminalize apostasy.”
In the first issue of the group’s English-language magazine Dabiq, which appeared soon after the inaugural address delivered by “Caliph Ibrahim,” DA’ISH criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for becoming too concerned with populism, and therefore “embarrassed of acknowledging undeniable shar’i fundamentals, such as takfir …”
At least until now, al-Qa’ida has overtly tried to downplay the relevance of takfir in their writings and practices for pragmatic reasons. Bin Ladin argued that differences between Muslims, even between Sunni and Shia, should be put aside until secularism is defeated. And, in his infamous manifesto Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, al-Qa’ida’s current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, listed takfirism among the “examples of the torrent of falsehood against the mujahidin [i.e. al-Qa’ida].”
In a nutshell, al-Qa’ida primarily leverages Mao’s protracted popular war model, while DA’ISH is stealing from the playbooks of later generations of communist revolutionaries active in Latin America, namely the acolytes of Che Guevara.
This follows a familiar historical pattern. Splinters, or later manifestations of radical revolutionary groups, are often more extreme than their parent organizations. They tend to want results NOW, and justify increasing levels of brutality to achieve those results.
DA’ISH is one such splinter. Formerly branded ISIS/L, this group was ejected from al-Qa’ida early in 2014 due to its leader’s insubordination. Specifically, the terrorist formerly known to his followers as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi refused to heed al-Qa’ida emir Ayman al-Zawahiri’s demands that he disband his fighters’ operations in Syria so that Jabhat al-Nusrah could assume full responsibility for managing al-Qa’ida’s Syria portfolio.
Concerns that al-Baghdadi’s uber violent engagements with local populaces might lead to popular resentment — as arose in response to the Armed Islamic Group’s (GIA) vicious jihad in Algeria during the 1990s — probably factored into al-Zawahiri’s decision to call for al-Baghdadi to cease his fighters’ participation in the Syrian Jihad. In 2005, al-Zawahiri sent a letter to al-Baghdadi’s predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to convey al-Qa’ida leaders’ concerns that, with respect to the goal of building popular support for the al-Qa’ida brand among Iraqis, al-Zarqawi’s brutal tactics were proving counterproductive. In another letter sent to al-Zarqawi by Atiyatallah around this time, the now deceased al-Qa’ida senior leader referenced the blowback encountered by the GIA. In both cases, those tactics resulted in the deaths of more civilians than “apostate” governmental agents.
Now, DA’ISH claims that they are Bin Ladin’s true heirs, and blame al-Zawahiri for the break. In the seventh issue of DA’ISH’s English-language magazine Dabiq, they argue that al-Zawahiri has steered al-Qa’ida off course.
An article concerning the restoration of the caliphate found in the first issue of Dabiq explains that DA’ISH is employing the same strategy as al-Zarqawi, whom the article says sought to foment “as much chaos as possible” in order to generate power vacuums in large swathes of territory — ungoverned spaces that he and his fighters could assert control over. The following are excerpts from the article:
To achieve this maximum chaos, the Shaykh [al-Zarqawi] focused on the most effective weapons in the arsenal of the mujahidin for creating chaos — vehicle bombs, IEDs, and istishhadiyyin. …
… he tried to force every apostate group present in Iraq into an all-out war with Ahlus-Sunnah [literally the Sunnis; in context, those supporting jihadist groups endeavoring to (re)establish a caliphate]. So he targeted the Iraqi apostate forces (army, police, and intelligence), the Rafidah (Shia markets, temples, and militias), and the Kurdish secularists (Barzani and Talabani partisans).
In his speech titled “Hadha Bayanullin-Nasi wa li Yundharu Bih” (This Is a Declaration for the People That They May Be Warned by it) he threatened war on any Sunni tribe, party, or assembly that would support the crusaders.
Then when some so-called ‘Islamists’ entered into the democratic political process … he officially declared war on them …
Thus, by using methods that led to maximum chaos and targeting apostates of all different backgrounds, the mujahidin were able to keep Iraq in constant instability and war, never allowing any apostate group to enjoy a moment of security. …
Shaykh Abu Mus’ab [al-Zarqawi] planned to later execute more complex attacks of a larger scale sometimes referred to as operation of ‘tamkin’ (consolidation), which were meant to pave the way for the claiming of territory. All this led to the gradual collapse of any authority in the areas the crusaders would refer to as ‘the Sunni Triangle.’
The collapse was followed by the mujahidin quickly entering the vacuum left, to announce and establish the Islamic State of Iraq under the leadership of Amirul-Mu’minin Abu’ Umar al-Husayni al-Baghdadi (rahimahullah) — a monumental event in the history of the Ummah.
It was the first state in ‘modern’ times set up exclusively by the mujahidin — the active participants in the jihad — in the heart of the Muslim world just a stone’s throw away from Makkah [Mecca], al-Madinah [Medina], and Bayt al-Maqdis [Holy House of Jerusalem].
In short, these phases consist of immigration [hijrah] to a land with a weak central authority to use as a base where a jama’ah can form, recruit members, and train them. …
Ultimately, DA’ISH is the result of a predictable — and predicted — split within al-Qa’ida that became manifest following Usama bin Ladin’s death. The “martyr” had held them together; now, however, both groups claim his mantle as they compete for control of the Global Jihad movement. DA’ISH’s argument, however, may be weakened by documents recovered from Bin Ladin’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan that were recently used as evidence in the trial of Abid Naseer. In them, Bin Ladin referred to al-Zarqawi’s strategy as an example of what not to do.
In his article, Mr. Wood opined, “If we had identified the Islamic State’s intentions early, and realized that the vacuum in Syria and Iraq would give it ample space to carry them out, we might, at a minimum, have pushed Iraq to harden its border with Syria and preemptively make deals with its Sunnis.” Yet, contrary to the assumption evident in that statement, for most analysts of al-Qa’ida — which the group calling itself the Islamic State was previously a part of — DA’ISH’s intentions have never been a mystery. The group did not appear out of the blue!
Moreover, contrary to what Mr. Wood’s article suggests, the fact that President Obama called the group a JV team did not mean a majority of attentive analysts inside and outside of government were unaware of the group’s aims, or its capabilities. Rather, this merely reveals that the White House was inattentive to their concerns. Truly, that Mr. Wood would posit that “Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable” showcases just how unplugged he is from the world in which we work. Again, the group did not appear out of the blue! Each of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s predecessors made clear their intentions. The only thing unclear about al-Baghdadi’s intentions was whether he fancied himself a suitable candidate to helm the caliphate he and his followers — like al-Qa’ida’s members — have been striving to restore.
That at least some parts of the administration remain behind the curve is suggested by the dearth of comprehension concerning DA’ISH’s appeal on the parts of General Michael K. Nagata and others managing various pieces of the “counter-ISIL” campaign. Put simply, DA’ISH’s appeal stems from its successes — in some cases real; in most merely perceived — with fulfilling a number of important objectives on the road to restoring the caliphate. Just as the more militant members of the EIJ and al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya (GI) joined al-Qa’ida because it attained various “successes” the EIJ and GI failed to produce, the “successes” of DA’ISH in paving the way toward the restoration of the caliphate envisioned by jihadis serves to attract new members.
Indeed, it should not have taken a voluminous working group document like the one General Nagata commissioned to help him and others recognize this reality. It is notable that few of the participants in his working group generated especially incisive white papers concerning either DA’ISH’s “intangible power,” or how to effectively go about degrading it. Within the pages of those white papers, one who stays abreast of studies in terrorism would be hard-pressed to find much in the way of cutting-edge perspectives on a problem that is, itself, not something new under the sun.
Salafiyya Jihadiyya: The Epicenter of DA’ISH’s and AQ’s “intangible power”
One reason so many officials, academics and journalists miss these points is a lack of knowledge concerning the origins of the Global Jihad movement and its historical antecedents going back to the early years of Islam. As so many have said, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In that spirit, a brief discussion of that history is in order.
First, we would like to make it clear that we are not making normative judgments about faith. Mr. Wood and many of his critics, as well as far too many influential people in and out of government, have put forward statements about what Muslims “really” believe or “should” believe, based on scripture and experience. We will not do this, as it’s a red herring. Frankly, the key issue of concern for America’s national security managers is not who does or should believe what, but what one says they believe and if and how (s)he will act on those beliefs. To this end, Mr. Wood did a good job of elucidating what DA’ISH’s membership says they believe and how they act on those beliefs. However, he did a bad job in comparing DA’ISH to al-Qa’ida, and in putting DA’ISH in historical perspective.
While most Muslims today assert that Salafi jihadism is, historically speaking, not central to Islam, it is not without solid roots in theological tradition.
Fortunately, this ideology does tend to find footing among only a minority of Muslims today.
For jihadis, Islam is far more the stuff of orthopraxy than orthodoxy. Given the severe orthopraxic dimensions of the ideology they promote, it is not just impractical as a basis for governance in the modern world but has been rejected by most peoples historically because of the extreme brutality that comes with it. Its adherents have, without exception, eventually been ostracized, and often destroyed, but not before inflicting much pain and suffering.
The basic ideas of this tradition go all the way back to the early years of Islam, when volunteers (mujahidin) got out in front of the Caliph on the front lines of an expanding empire and developed a code of conduct for fighting jihads. The earliest known work in this vein is Ibn al-Mubarak’s Kitab al-Jihad (Book of Jihad). Two terrific studies which cover that material are contained in David Cook’s densely historical Understanding Jihad, and the briefer, more accessible Knowing the Enemy, by Mary Habek.
These ideas then manifested over and over — just as similar ideas have in Christianity and other religions. They were featured prominently in the 13th-14th Century guidance for Muslims provided by the Damascus-based Islamist theologian Ibn Taymiyyah, as well as in the movement helmed by Ibn al-Wahhab that led to the creation Saudi Arabia. If you doubt the comparison, compare accounts of the Wahhabis’ rampage through the region with early jihadi accounts, and with DA’ISH’s escapades du jour.
Sayyid Qutb, an official in the Muslim Brotherhood who was executed by Egypt’s Nasser government in 1966, synthesized and expanded this school of thought in a manner accessible to the layman of his time. Qutb had briefly lived in the US, and was highly critical of what he viewed as unbridled immorality in Western societies. Found in a series of letters and in an article he published in Al-Risala magazine, titled “The America I Have Seen,” among the examples highlighted to support this accusation, Qutb emphatically referenced the promiscuity of women he encountered in the US.
Qutb’s packaging of fairly sophisticated topics in a manner that could be understood by non-jurisprudents, coupled with his “martyrdom” at the hands of the very secularist-styled government that both DA’ISH and al-Qa’ida regard to be among their “near enemies,” make Qutb’s works favorites among jihadi ideologues and propagandists alike.
Published in pamphlet form to reach a larger audience, Qutb’s final manifesto, Signposts, was penned to offer a jihadist “vanguard” a roadmap for the effort to reassert religious domination of political systems in historically Muslim lands. In his book The Osama bin Laden I Know, journalist Peter Bergen covers the influence of Qutb’s writings on the jihadist movements that emerged following his death, explaining that “not only did Qutb profoundly influence the Islamist movement in his beautifully written, massive masterpiece, In the Shade of the Quran, but in his much shorter polemic [Signposts], he provided the handbook for jihadist movements across the Muslim world.”
In Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, Ayman al-Zawahiri lionized Qutb’s contributions this way:
Sayyid Qutb’s call for loyalty to God’s oneness and to acknowledge God’s sole authority and sovereignty was the spark that ignited the Islamic revolution against the enemies of Islam at home and abroad. The bloody chapters of this revolution continue to unfold day after day.
The ideology of this revolution and the clarity of its course are getting firmer every day. They are strengthening the realization of the nature of the struggle and the problems on the road ahead — the road of the prophets and messengers and their followers until God Almighty inherits the earth and those who live on it.
Professor Sayyid Qutb played a key role in directing the Muslim youth to this road in the second half of the 20th Century in Egypt in particular and the Arab region in general.
Many pages lager, disingenuously, item 5 in the aforecited punch list of “examples of the torrent of falsehood against the mujahidin [i.e. al-Qa’ida]” provided by al-Zawahiri reads, “Al-Qa’ida is Qutbist.” Like takfiri, Qutbist is often used as a pejorative term in much of the Arab world’s popular media. However, regardless of whether al-Zawahiri cares to acknowledge it, to say al-Qa’ida is not waging jihad in the shade of Qutbist thought would be tantamount to calling the Muslim Brotherhood a secularist charity.
Indeed, an exhaustive study completed by analysts at the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point in 2006 found that, in the oeuvre of works by jihadist theoreticians who called for the overthrows of apostate governments to pave the way for the caliphate’s restoration, Qutb’s works are the most influential among the manuscripts that have shaped the worldviews of the Global Jihad movement’s torchbearers. Today, invocation of Qutb is not a point of difference between DA’ISH and al-Qa’ida.
In the late 1970s thru the early 1980s, contents of Qutb’s dissertations concerning jihad were leveraged by the Muslim Brotherhood to cultivate support for its Syrian branch’s violent, failed revolution against the regime of Hafez al-Assad.
Also in the 1980s, in reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a Palestinian-Jordanian cleric named Abdallah Azzam who became the spiritual guide of the Afghan Jihad drew on many of the same ideas channeled by Qutb when he wrote his call to defend Islam in Afghanistan.
Azzam was trained at Egypt’s famed al-Azhar University. As some analysts are leery about categorizing Azzam as a Qutbist, it is worth noting that, while working as a university professor in Jordan, Azzam had earned the nickname “the Sayyid Qutb of Jordan.”
After losing his university post in Jordan, Azzam, by then a prominent figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, found work at a Saudi university that employed Sayyid Qutb’s brother, Muhammad (d. 2014). Muhammad Qutb’s lectures were attended by Bin Ladin, who, according to Ayman al-Zawahiri, was also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood at that time. It was Qutb’s brother-in-law Kamal al-Sananiri who encouraged Azzam to make his first trip to South Asia to assess the situation in Afghanistan.
The article Azzam penned for the April 1988 edition of al-Jihad magazine titled “al-Qa’ida al-Subah” (The Solid Base), which furnished a mandate for his mentee Bin Ladin to create that which we now call al-Qa’ida, reads like a condensed iteration of Signposts. In it, Azzam cautioned that the US was intent upon exploiting jihadis’ victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan to assert its interests in the country:
We saw in all the experiences of the Islamic peoples that the fruits of jihad are mostly picked by the industries of the West and the daughters of the USA, and formerly by the seculars in Afghanistan and in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt.
Now America is trying to steal the fruits of this marvelous jihad and to prevent the book of Allah from serving as the source of legislation …
Echoing Signposts, Azzam proclaimed a “vanguard” needed to be organized to defend the faith by, among other things, preventing that from occurring. Al-Qa’ida fashioned itself as this “vanguard.”
This is not to say that Azzam and Bin Ladin necessarily agreed completely about the third leg of ideology — strategic contemplations concerning “What to Do” — any more than al-Qa’ida and DA’ISH agree. Assassinated in 1989, Azzam, who also helped organize HAMAS, was more interested in the plight of Palestinians and Muslims in other “occupied” territories than in wreaking havoc in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, much less in attacking the US.
Neither Azzam nor Qutb would likely have approved of the strategy adopted by al-Zarqawi, which DA’ISH claims to be leveraging today.
Nevertheless, al-Zarqawi recognized the galvanizing effects of Qutb’s works on jihadist spheres, and cited them at length while mentioning Qutb on numerous occasions. For instance, in January 2005, al-Zarqawi referenced Qutb’s works extensively throughout a 75-minute audio message concerning the battle for Fallujah. The same month, he again referenced Qutb’s works in a 40-minute message focused on democracy, Iraqi elections, and Shiites. Months later, in July 2005, while rallying support for the newly-formed anti-Shia “Umar Corps,” al-Zarqawi again invoked Qutb.
The Muslim Brotherhood has not officially condemned the contentious notions espoused by Qutb, such as those found in the infamous chapter in Signposts concerning jihad that numerous governments later banned. Instead, as most of Signposts was penned while Qutb was serving a lengthy prison term alongside scores of other Ikhwanis jailed by the Nasser government, thought leaders in the Brotherhood have advised their followers it is important to consider the terrible circumstances in which Signposts was produced.
It is noteworthy how many terrorist leaders of concern to the US in recent decades were once members of the Brotherhood, among them is “Caliph Ibrahim” (aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi). The source of that biographical info: Muslim Brotherhood thought leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is among the foremost influential Muslim religious figures alive today. Also among them are the leaders of HAMAS.
Discussed above, al-Qaradawi himself is the spiritual guide of HAMAS, a militant wing of the Brotherhood. He is banned from entering the US and several European states for his incitements of jihadist elements, including his assertion aired internationally by Al Jazeera that sharia permitted foreign fighters to enter Iraq to fight US and allied forces. As noted above, more recently, the cleric asserted that every Muslim is obligated to support the Syrian Jihad. Given that his television program that was broadcast internationally by Al Jazeera had a viewership in the millions at the time, this would have been like Billy Graham calling for Christians to invade China in order to remove a regime that forcefully discouraged the practice of any religion. Although he rejected DA’ISH’s assertion that it has established a caliphate, before the group rebranded itself as the Islamic State and issued that claim, al-Qaradawi described their jihad in Iraq as the machinations of a legitimate “popular revolution.”
Also noteworthy are the linkages between high-profile al-Qa’ida figures and the founder of the Brotherhood’s Yemen branch, Yemeni cleric Abdul Majid al-Zindani. When he called for the protests at the US Embassy Sana’a that served as the springboard for an effort to storm the embassy on 13 September 2012, al-Zindani was a leader in Yemen’s al-Islah party. A political platform for the Brotherhood in Yemen, al-Islah promised a harsh response to the death of American-born al-Qa’ida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, and its members may have actually hidden al-Awlaki just before he was killed in September 2011.
Al-Zindani is one of the most prominent old school figures in the Global Jihad movement, having been a longtime mentor to Usama bin Ladin, who frequently deferred to al-Zindani as a spiritual guide. In addition, according to the US Treasury Department, which has branded him a specially designated global terrorist, al-Zindani has served on the board of trustees of al-Qaradawi’s Union of Good, which has also been designated by the US Treasury Department for its support of terrorist organizations, chiefly HAMAS.
One of the more prominent entities established by al-Zindani is the Sana’a-based Iman University, where Anwar al-Awlaki studied and later lectured. Allegedly a recipient of seed money from Usama bin Ladin, Iman University became one of al-Qa’ida’s key recruitment venues. Other notable American jihadis who attended the school include John Walker Lindh (captured as an enemy combatant during the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan). The Nigerian-born al-Qa’ida operative Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, whom al-Awlaki sent on a mission to detonate a bomb over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, also attended lectures at Iman while studying Arabic in Yemen.
Indeed, although the current leader of al-Qa’ida is an avid critic of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and al-Qaradawi has spoken ill of al-Qa’ida, there is certainly more to the picture of MB-AQ relations than many influential policy advisers in Washington appear inclined to admit. Clearly, as many apologists for Salafists are quick to point out when noting that al-Qaradawi’s radical views are not held by all Ikhwanis, the Brotherhood is not a monolith. Thus an important question for policymakers who are trying to define who is/not a suitable partner in counterterrorism and countering violent extremism campaigns is: Which elements within the Brotherhood — those who view jihad as an important tool for countering “unIslamic” interests, or those who prefer to try to establish Islam’s dominance of political, thus legal systems at ballot boxes — will be the most influential in the coming decades?
Why This Matters
If you’ve stayed with us this long, you are probably wondering what this has to do with current US strategy and with tackling the scourge that is DA’ISH. We are not splitting hairs. How you see the enemy’s goals and strategy informs how you confront them. Diagnose it wrong, and the “cure” will be wrong, too, and sometimes more deadly than having done nothing at all. Both invading Iraq and suddenly withdrawing US forces in accordance with a political plan whose formulators clearly overlooked what might come next fall in this category. So too might any forthcoming policy — whether officially stated or not — that puts the effort to dismantle al-Qa’ida on the backburner until the frightfully slow-moving efforts to deplete DA’ISH’s influence capabilities, thus growth potential take effect.
An essential part of our diagnosis is that al-Qa’ida is not a lesser threat than DA’ISH overall, just a different one due to variance in strategy. Any strategists will tell you that sound counter strategies have a basis in the enemy’s strategy. These enemies are both dangerous, but in different ways that in some respects do require different sets of countermeasures. Still, both require equal amounts of attention from the counterterrorism community.
So, let’s look at US strategy and how it might or might not match our diagnosis:
On one level, the Administration’s new “countering violent extremism” strategy (popularly referred to as a counterterrorism strategy) is aimed at undoing the century-long, Muslim Brotherhood-initiated social engineering campaign described above that has led us to this moment. This is the long view, and if you study social movements, you know it takes at least one generation to turn societal views around — often more.
A careful reading of Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks reveals that, for the Obama administration, tackling bad governance, and the ills that flow from it, is not intended as a direct attack on terrorists, which, as many critics have pointed out, would be futile. Instead, this is considered a means to change the sympathy of and tolerance for terrorist enterprises among the masses, or as Mao put it, the ocean within which the fish swim.
That is a generational project. One that must apply resources in equal parts to countering the influence operations of al-Qa’ida, DA’ISH, and the rest of the Salafi Jihadi movement. Small local and regional groups should not be ignored, as some of the most deadly current groups grew out of just such local groups. Meanwhile, the emphasis here should be on the movement, not just discrete groups.
The second leg of this project concerns discrediting “violent extremist” ideas (i.e., the ideology informing their agendas, hence their resort to acts of terrorism in an effort to advance these agendas). This supports the generational project and hopefully helps dissuade individuals, groups, and societies from supporting the jihadis now.
There are a couple ways to go about this: One is to tackle the religious foundation of these ideas, which must be done by Muslims, though the Administration plans to “amplify” these messages. While laudable on the surface, the US government’s involvement in this manner runs the risk of delegitimizing these messages among anti-American audiences and individuals who are a step from crossing into the dark side. Another way to tackle this dimension of the greater issues at hand is to spread universal ideas that counter any use of brutality and any movement toward totalitarianism for any reason. But it’s unclear to us whether that is actually part of the Administration’s plan.
Whether it’s a good idea to enlist the Muslim Brotherhood in this project is a key matter of debate. Can “quietist Salafism,” as Mr. Wood put it, help to reverse the rising tide it helped to create? Do Muslim Brothers even count as a “quietist Salafi”? Can you even lump them all into one category? Is it better to walk a step or two back, ideologically, or burst the bubble?
This is what our “partners” in the Coalition to Counter ISIL are asking themselves right now, and there is tremendous variation in how our allies in the Middle East view the group. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have now declared the Brotherhood is a “terrorist organization,” but are struggling to define just what that means. The UAE is actively opposing the Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia is trying to parse the group into good guys and bad guys. Jordan continues to allow the Brotherhood to participate in governance. Turkey’s president is arguably the Brotherhood’s most important political ally today, and has been very supportive of HAMAS. Qatar has also been a key supporter of the Brotherhood, but the Saudis have insisted they should put an end to this. Egypt’s president vowed to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood, but, according to Asharq al-Awsat, in 2015, President Sisi has been engaging with former Brotherhood leaders about ways to confront Islamic extremism. Meanwhile, the concerns of governments that have labelled the group a terrorist organization revolve around the Brothers’ activities within their respective borders — not their advocacy of jihad abroad, in places like Syria.
That their advocacy of jihad in places like Libya and Syria has served US interests in recent years is one reason many policymakers have been loath to criticize the Brotherhood. Obviously, the fact that Saudi Arabia was for decades the chief benefactor of the Brotherhood is another reason the group has been treated with kid gloves in the United States and in Europe.
Although the prudence of enlisting the Brotherhood in the White House’s new countering violent extremism programs remains to be determined, one thing is certain: Amplifying the voices of al-Qa’ida ideologues against DA’ISH, as Jordan is doing with Muhammad al-Maqdisi, will not make us safer. At best, this will serve to divert resources — financial and human — from DA’ISH to al-Qa’ida.
The third component of the Obama administration’s strategy, as articulated by Secretary of State Kerry, is to try to spot individuals vulnerable to jihadi recruitment, and intervene. As he noted, the vulnerable have a lot in common with those who join gangs, commit suicide, or engage in general lawlessness. Frankly, however, Western governments don’t have a very good track record of “spotting” these folks before they radicalize, or even in the early stages of radicalization, despite massive investments in programs designed to help our officials do just that. The main reason that these initiatives largely fail is that, to protect civil liberties, we have laws that effectively prevent the government from undertaking much of the activity required to intervene at this stage.
This, too, then is a multi-generation, societal, and maybe scientific (psychological, sociological, and maybe even medical, or what some now call “NEURINT”) project, if it can work at all. Certainly there is nothing wrong with educating people about the signs and encouraging intervention, it just isn’t a panacea.
Once recruits reach the stage of wanting to engage in violence, there are many more tools available, from police work to armed intervention in another country (think Anwar al-Awlaki). This is acknowledged as something we do, but not addressed as an integral part of the overall strategy.
So, what’s missing from the Obama administration’s articulation of strategy is how these vital “kinetic” tools fit with the rest.
We know that how you go about integrating those tools matters. Vulnerable people and groups are not hard to push over the edge. Nothing makes this happen faster than the threat of imminent death, imprisonment, abandonment, and the perception of betrayal. Therefore, parsing out what messages to send to what populations, and what “kinetic” methods to use when and against whom, is critical.
There may be many good reasons not to articulate the kinetic dimensions of the strategy, if they actually exist as such. Yet there is much we can infer from the Administration’s actions: Build coalitions and empower local forces, and take direct action against key jihadi leaders while disrupting impending terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, especially in the case of DA’ISH, this means allying, once again, with dictators, the intolerant, and others whose interests are in many ways contrary to ours. Thus the question policymakers must examine is: Will this undermine the non-kinetic elements of the strategy?
Indeed, as pertains to regional security in the Middle East and North Africa, empowering governments that are marginalizing large segments of their populations will almost certainly create a myriad of other problems down the road — as has occurred in the past.
To build on some words of advice offered by Nietzsche: Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster — or create more of them.
Concurrent with the launch of its countering violent extremism campaign, the Obama administration has requested Congressional approval for use of force against DA’ISH. Some words of advice for General Nagata: Disrupt DA’ISH’s progress in expanding its “caliphate” and take back territory the group has seized de facto control of, and you degrade their “intangible power” by discrediting their chief claim. DA’ISH’s activities constitute a critical near-term problem. At this point, all the soft measures that think tanks love to suck money out of government coffers to manage, such as efforts to degrade the group’s appeal on social media, are almost certainly going to prove exercises in futility akin to shooting rubber bullets at a charging herd of Cape buffalo.
Let’s just hope other unspoken elements of the strategy do not include ignoring al-Qa’ida — much less, enlisting al-Qa’ida in the effort to counter DA’ISH’s expansionist aspirations as Jordan is doing. This, or that the US and its allies don’t resort to any other expedient maneuvers which will undoubtedly have long term negative consequences for the entire strategy. For, in Washington, Mr. Wood’s article, in concert with numerous news organizations’ sensationalistic portrayals of DA’ISH, could serve to bolster misapprehensions that DA’ISH is more dangerous than its progenitor, al-Qa’ida. And that could perpetuate an avalanche of shortsighted counterterrorism policies which could render the US and our allies much less safe.