zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Farrall in Foreign Affairs:How al Qaida Works

Farrall in Foreign Affairs:How al Qaida Works

Leah Farrall, the Australian former counterterrorism official who blogs at All Things Counterterrorism (and is a friend of Charles Cameron ) has an important analytical article in Foreign Affairs (hat tip to the oratorical Josh Foust):

How al Qaeda Works

Despite nearly a decade of war, al Qaeda is stronger today than when it carried out the 9/11 attacks. Before 2001, its history was checkered with mostly failed attempts to fulfill its most enduring goal: the unification of other militant Islamist groups under its strategic leadership. However, since fleeing Afghanistan to Pakistan’s tribal areas in late 2001, al Qaeda has founded a regional branch in the Arabian Peninsula and acquired franchises in Iraq and the Maghreb. Today, it has more members, greater geographic reach, and a level of ideological sophistication and influence it lacked ten years ago.

Still, most accounts of the progress of the war against al Qaeda contend that the organization is on the decline, pointing to its degraded capacity to carry out terrorist operations and depleted senior leadership as evidence that the group is at its weakest since 9/11. But such accounts treat the central al Qaeda organization separately from its subsidiaries and overlook its success in expanding its power and influence through them. These groups should not be ignored. All have attacked Western interests in their regions of operation. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has also long targeted the United States, but its efforts have moved beyond the execution stage only in the last two years, most recently with the foiled plot to bomb cargo planes in October 2010. And although al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has not yet attacked outside its region, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was reportedly involved in the June 2007 London and Glasgow bomb plots.

It is time for an updated conception of al Qaeda’s organization that takes into account its relationships with its subsidiaries. A broader conceptual framework will allow for a greater understanding of how and to what degree it exercises command and control over its expanded structure, the goals driving its expansion strategy, and its tactics.


Although al Qaeda had tried to use other groups to further its agenda in the 1980s and early 1990s, Osama bin Laden’s first serious attempts at unification began in the mid-1990s, when the organization was based in Sudan. Bin Laden sought to build an “Islamic Army” but failed. Al Qaeda had no ideology or manhaj (program) around which to build lasting unity, no open front of its own to attract new fighters, and many of its members, dissatisfied with “civilian work,” had left to join the jihad elsewhere. Faced with such circumstances, bin Laden instead relied on doling out financial support to encourage militant groups to join his army. But the international community put pressure on Sudan to stop his activities, and so the Sudanese government expelled al Qaeda from the country in 1996. As a result, the group fled to Afghanistan.

By mid-1996, al Qaeda was a shell of an organization, reduced to some 30 members. Facing irrelevance and fearing that a movement of Islamist militants was rising outside of his control, bin Laden decided a “blessed jihad” was necessary. He declared war on the United States, hoping this would attract others to follow al Qaeda. It did not. A second effort followed in 1998, when bin Laden unsuccessfully used his newly created World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders to lobby other groups to join him. Later that year, al Qaeda launched its first large-scale attacks: the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which it hoped would boost its fortunes. But these, too, failed to attract other groups to join, with some instead criticizing al Qaeda for the attacks and its lack of a legitimate manhaj.

With no coherent ideology or manhaj to encourage unification under his leadership, bin Laden instead pursued a predatory approach. He endeavored to buy the allegiance of weaker groups or bully them into aligning with al Qaeda, and he attempted to divide and conquer the stronger groups. In the late 1990s, he tried and failed to gain control over the Khalden training camp, led by the militants Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi and Abu Zubaydah, and over the activities of Abu Musab al-Suri and Abu Khabab al-Masri, senior militant figures who ran their own training programs. Bin Laden’s attempts in 1997-98 to convince Ibn al-Khattab, a Saudi militant who led an international brigade in Chechnya, to come under al Qaeda’s banner also failed. His efforts in 2000-2001 to gain control over a brigade of foreign fighters in Afghanistan met a similar fate: the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who had supreme authority over the brigade, instead handed the leadership of it to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, another group bin Laden was attempting to convince to align with al Qaeda. Around the same time, bin Laden also unsuccessfully lobbied the Egyptian Islamic Group and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group to join al Qaeda’s efforts. And although al Qaeda supported the militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in his establishment of an independent training camp in Afghanistan, bin Laden was unable to convince him to formally join the organization.

The only real success during this period was al Qaeda’s mid-2001 merger with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, now al Qaeda’s second-in-command. The merger was possible thanks to Egyptian Islamic Jihad’s weakened position and its reliance on bin Laden for money. The decision was nevertheless contentious within Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and several of its members left rather than join with al Qaeda. In the end, al Qaeda’s only successful merger during its Afghanistan years added just five people to its core membership. Compared to this dismal record, the past decade has been highly successful….

Read the rest here (subscription required) or for a brief time in full, for free, here.

First, I’d like to say congratulations to Ms. Farrall who has been working hard researching the nuances of ideological, theological, tactical and organizational differences and personal rivalries that existed within the mutable and murky subterranean world of professional Islamist revolutionaries. It’s important work. Her recognition in FA is deserved and American terrorism experts should give her arguments close scrutiny.

Secondly, I will say her article shows the extent to which our takfirist enemies, not just al Qaida,  take seriously the ideas behind their global insurgency and that, to them, it is both global and local. The “internationalist” jihadis like Bin Laden seek to weld themselves together with the parochial “Nationalist-Islamists” and David Kilcullen’s local “accidental guerrillas” with a “eucumenical” radical Islamism. As many USG officials seek to ignore or promote an official line of ignoring the ideological and theological motivations of our enemies, they will probably dismiss Farrall unless she gains enough media prominence that this is no longer feasible – at which point, they will make nasty and anonymous criticism about her on background to The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Thirdly, Farrall has a very important point here when she wrote:

….They drew from takfiri thought, which justifies attacking corrupt regimes in Muslim lands, and on materials that outline the Muslim requirement to target the global enemy: in this case, the United States and the West. (This was framed in the context of defensive jihad, the need for which was reinforced by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.) The hybrid ideology and manhaj that emerged make little distinction between targeting local enemies and targeting global ones and have a one-size-fits-all solution — jihad. Partnering with al Qaeda does not, therefore, require a local group to abandon its own agenda, just broaden its focus. This helped assuage other groups’ fears that merging with al Qaeda would mean a loss of autonomy to pursue their own local goals.

This is what Global Guerrilla theorist John Robb would call “a Plausible Promise“, a required step in building an “open source insurgency” which can attract groups with differing agendas, opportunitic actors and ideologically motivated, socially alienated “lone wolves” to their banner. Al Qaida has tacticians who apparently agree, having formally adopted “Open Source jihad” in late 2010. So far, the executive branch departments of the USG seem to be studiously determined to ignore that as well, a stance that corrupts our analytical integrity and cripples our operational effectiveness. Lying to oneself is rarely a good way to get an advantage over an opponent.

I think I can speak for Charles Cameron in that we here at zenpundit.com hope to see more articles from Ms. Farrall in the near future.


SWJ BlogThe Hasan Slide Presentation A Preliminary Commentary by Charles Cameron

6 Responses to “Farrall in Foreign Affairs:How al Qaida Works”

  1. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks for posting this, Zen. I’m delighted to see Leah’s work get the attention and recognition it deserves at Foreign Affairs.
    I’d also like to draw our readers’ attention to Leah’s blog, All Things Counterterrorism, and in particular to her thoughts about "edge of the network connections" [1, 2, 3 ], and her ongoing conversation with abu Walid al-Masri — and to say that like many others, I eagerly await the opportunity to congratulate her, any day now, on completion of her thesis, and to read what I am sure will be a defining work.

  2. zen Says:

    You are welcome Charles – is Leah taking her dissertation and reworking it to a book form when she is finished?

  3. Daniel McIntosh Says:

    This is a great article.  One of the best I’ve read for at least the past year.  I’m shoving it at my students and telling them to read it.

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    I haven’t heard anything from Leah directly about book publication as yet, Zen.

  5. Fabius Maximus Says:

    An excellent contender in the "rule by fear category."  The competition is strong.  Will AQ kill us before the ice caps melt and flood our cities?  Then there is AIDS, pollution and overpopulation — all strong horses that appear to be weakening.  I remain fond of the global commie conspiracy (I still check under my bed every night, just in case, as I never got over the bomber and missile gaps, and the scarey Team B warnings).
    The author cites little evidence that AQ offers substantial dangers to us, but the article is strong on vague assertions (watch NCIS every week for details, as AQ takes down the US Navy one sailor at a time).  An equally good case could be made for SMERSH, SPECTRE, and THRUSH.  Just in case, check extra careful under your beds!

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    I don’t think Leah is interested in stirring fear, FM.
    In my experience she’s a cautious scholar, and very far from a scare-monger.  This piece strikes me as basically an overview of the history and structure of AQ with some assessment of the implications for risk analysis. If it had contained documentation for every assertion it would have been three times as long — at which point the content would have been cut back to one third of what we now have by the editors. 

Switch to our mobile site