Attacking Al Qaeda's Operational Centers of Gravity

By Witty, David M. | Joint Force Quarterly, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Attacking Al Qaeda's Operational Centers of Gravity


Witty, David M., Joint Force Quarterly


Today, Islamicist organizations are becoming more widespread and diffuse. They often lack a direct connection to al Qaeda's strategic leadership but are inspired by its ideology. Al Qaeda's operational role is subdued, but its ideological, propaganda, and support roles are critical to its affiliates. Many groups now adhere to the original goals and ideology of al Qaeda, which extends the scope of its influence well beyond that of the original organization, although al Qaeda itself is still considered the most dangerous of all transnational extremist groups and is America's principal enemy. (1)

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In U.S. joint doctrine, the basis for defeating an enemy is properly identifying its center of gravity (COG) and subsequently attacking it. This concept is applicable to the current war on terror. Al Qaeda is both an ideology and an organization providing operational level inspiration to insurgencies throughout the Muslim world. It has a strategic COG (ideology) and operational COGs (the ability to generate the support of local insurgents and populations). U.S. operational commanders can attack al Qaeda's operational COGs directly or indirectly through the decisive point of consanguinity, the ideological affinity between al Qaeda and local insurgents and populations. By designating consanguinity as a decisive point at the operational level and targeting it, one can attack al Qaeda's operational COGs and disconnect local insurgencies from the global insurgency.

Goals, Ideology, and Basis of support

Al Qaeda's goals and ideology are found in the writings and statements of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, to include a fatwa, or religious ruling, which bin Laden himself issued in 1998 declaring war on the United States. Other writings have also appeared by Islamic extremists with ties to bin Laden. They all represent a Salafi version of Sunni Islam: fundamentalist, puritanical, and advocating the end of secular governments in the Muslim world. (2)

There are five principal goals of al Qaeda:

* All U.S. and Western forces must be removed from the Arabian Peninsula, which contains Islam's holiest sites.

* All U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim lands must be expelled.

* America must stop its support of nations such as Russia, India, and China that oppress Muslims.

* America must stop its support of repressive Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, and stop its support of Israel.

* An Islamic caliphate under the rule of Islamic law must be established in an area corresponding to the historic Islamic empire. (3)

These goals, along with Salafi Islam, comprise the ideology of al Qaeda. Besides imposing Islamic law in an Islamic caliphate, purged of Western influences, little is discussed. Specifics such as economics are not addressed, other than that the Muslim world's energy resources will be better used.

Ideology is the critical component of extremist movements; it can enable extremists to produce followers faster than they can be killed. However, only a small percentage of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims adhere to al Qaeda's ideology. Most Muslims do not want to live in an Islamic caliphate, and surveys show support among Muslims for Western principles such as elected governments and universal education, although many Muslims sympathize with the causes al Qaeda advocates.

War on Terror as Counterinsurgency

Al Qaeda's jihad is best viewed as a global insurgency. Traditionally, an insurgency has sought to change the government in a single state; however, the global insurgency spans many countries and seeks change in the Islamic world. Its goal is to weaken Western influences, change the balance of power, and establish a caliphate. Al Qaeda integrates local grievances to create the ideological synergy of a global insurgency. (4) This ideology is applicable at local levels because it is based in the transnational Muslim consciousness. …

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