Al Qaeda: Refining a Failing Strategy

By Hart, Martin J. | Joint Force Quarterly, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Al Qaeda: Refining a Failing Strategy


Hart, Martin J., Joint Force Quarterly


Al Qaeda's inability to translate its post-9/11 approval in the Muslim world into a mass movement jihad against the West is prompting a search for new ways to regenerate lost momentum, but the group's inherent weaknesses are likely to prevent progress and gradually discredit its vision for the future of Islam. Al Qaeda's long-term plan--according to the writings of its core leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri--is to move from a small vanguard movement to the leadership, at least at a nominal level, of a global Islamic insurgency in order to destroy Western influence in the Muslim world and reestablish the historic caliphate. (1) Although many Muslims viewed al Qaeda's early attacks as heroic acts of defiance against unjust U.S. policies, al Qaeda has failed to make the transition to a popular insurgency or win any permanent gains as a result of its conceptual, organizational, and material shortcomings. These include an over-reliance on violence, weak efforts to organize political support in the Muslim world, a small and diffuse cellular structure, and insufficient safe havens and state sponsorship.

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Because these weaknesses have their roots in al Qaeda's radical founding ideology, the group is unlikely to correct them quickly, if at all, and they will undermine any plans to regain the initiative. For instance, although al Qaeda writings show a realistic streak in recognizing the need for operational level adjustments, at the strategic level the group's leaders rigidly believe that violence is a religious obligation, alliances with Muslim "apostates" should be eschewed, and victory is inevitable. (2) Moreover, al Qaeda's religiously based disdain for the materialist aspects of its enemies, both Muslim and Western, will continue to cause the group to underestimate the resilience of its opponents. As a result, any new plans are likely to be neither completely flexible nor fully realistic. They will contain a continuing mismatch between grandiose aims and inadequate strategic concepts and means. Nevertheless, some of al Qaeda's weaknesses, including its rigid worldview and cellular structure, lend the group a measure of determination and survivability that will make its eradication a difficult process that may take decades.

Flawed Strategy

As Western strategic thinkers have observed, for a nation or group to be militarily effective it must harmonize tactics, operations, strategy, and policy goals, paying particular attention to strategy as the critical bridge between policy goals and military means. (3) So far, al Qaeda's key strategic concept--fomenting a multistage insurgency against the West and its allies across the Islamic world--has failed to provide this bridge. The group has been unable to knit together its limited tactical means and moderate propaganda capability with its messianic goals.

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Al Qaeda's policy goal is to establish a single Islamic fundamentalist government in the territories previously controlled by the historic caliphate or currently containing large Muslim populations--a region stretching from Spain and the Balkans in the west to Indonesia and parts of the Philippines in the east. (4) This government would be based on Sunni Salafist principles, including a return to the practices of Muhammad's first and "most pure" followers, rigid adherence to shariah law, jihad against unbelievers and apostates, and rejection of Western social values. Salafists believe that deviation from "true" Islam is responsible for the loss of Muslim power in the world and that a return to "purist" principles is necessary to restore Islam to its "rightful" position.

Although these goals may appear to Western eyes as so ambitious that they strain credulity, even when viewed as propaganda for eager Islamic militants, al Qaeda believes they are not only possible but also preordained by Allah. (5) Al Qaeda leaders admit that the disparity in material power between the jihadists and the West necessitates a prolonged struggle, but they also maintain that, because Allah is on the side of the jihadists, the only prerequisite for victory is dedication to jihad--or violent action persistently applied. …

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