Stealing al-Qa`ida's Playbook
June 27, 2006 8:14 PM   Subscribe

Stealing al-Qa`ida's Playbook (PDF)
If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete. - Sun Tzu

In 2005 Harvard's Olin Institute for Strategic Studies & West Point's Combating Terrorism Center worked together to translate what appears to be one of the most important works defining al Qaeda's strategic goals & methods, Management of Savagery (PDF) by al Qaeda strategist Abu Bakr Naji. Then they analyzed it along with three other al Qaeda works: Knights Under The Banner of The Prophet by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Between Two Methods by Abu Qatada and Observations Concerning the Jihadi Experience in Syria by Abu Mus’ab al-Suri. The result is Stealing al-Qa`ida's Playbook (PDF) (also Google cached HTML). If you want to understand more of al Qaeda than the simplistic cant that "they're evil", these two books are the place to start.
posted by scalefree (26 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Just read through the main link. It makes a strong argument that the invasion of Iraq really does play into Al Qaeda's stated plans. On the other hand, the insurgency's increasingly sectarian nature doesn't seem to bode well for Al Qaeda's PR efforts.
posted by gsteff at 8:47 PM on June 27, 2006

One choice nugget: "The jihadi movement had been unsuccessful in the past because the superpowers propped up ... proxy governments and convinced the masses through the media that they were invincible. The solution, Naji says, is to provoke a superpower into invading the Middle East directly. This will result in a great propaganda victory for the jihadis because the people will 1) be impressed that the jihadis are directly fighting a superpower, 2) be outraged over the invasion of a foreign power, 3) be disabused of the notion that the superpower is invincible the longer the war goes on, and, 4) be angry at the proxy governments allied with the invading superpower. Moreover, he argues, it will bleed the superpower’s economy and military. This will lead to social unrest at home and the ultimate defeat of the superpower."
You're doing a heckuva job, Bushie!
posted by twsf at 8:48 PM on June 27, 2006

Once they have gained control of these regions, these "administrations of barbarism” can network with each other and move towards a caliphate (Naji is not clear about the transition from the second to third stage).
1) Establish administrations of barbarism
2) ???
3) Prophet!!
posted by scalefree at 9:16 PM on June 27, 2006 [3 favorites]

one of his favorite tactics was to call jihadis “Qutbis” rather than Salafis, since they agreed with the political doctrines of Sayyid Qutb, a leading jihadi thinker who was executed by the Egyptian government in the 60s. Doing this denied them the legitimacy of being known as Salafis, followers of the pious forefathers, and suggested that they were members of a deviant sect.
This is the kind of information warfare the US should be involved in. Attack them where thery're vulnerable, in their beliefs. If Bush, et al, had started out calling them Qubtis (pronounced ka-ta-bees), they would have isolated al Qaeda from the rest of Islam. I've always thought that al Qaeda should be treated as a cult. But then they wouldn't get all that mileage from drumming up hatred of all things Muslim that's so prevalent in Conservative circles.
posted by scalefree at 9:53 PM on June 27, 2006


They are still evil.
posted by caddis at 9:59 PM on June 27, 2006

It seems to me that the 'powers that be' already have a playbook and they're trying increasingly risky plays (from that same book) because despite that their initial intelligence failed.

From previous plays, it seems like someone high up doesn't want to be proven wrong - so the increasngly low-percentage/desperation plays are going to keep getting called.

Old people who can't won't adapt. psshh.
posted by porpoise at 10:03 PM on June 27, 2006

How do we know this isn't a new version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion?
posted by spazzm at 10:11 PM on June 27, 2006

Well, there's this note:
With the exception of Ayman al‐Zawahiri’s Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, the other books discussed below can be found in Arabic on al‐Qa`ida’s premier electronic library, Zawahiri’s work is readily available online in English translation.
I think "appears on al Qaeda's website" is a strong indicator that it's authentic.
posted by scalefree at 10:28 PM on June 27, 2006

I think "appears on al Qaeda's website" is a strong indicator that it's authentic.

It might be, if it did. If you load, you get the following message:
This site has been removed from the server.
Disregarding that, how do we know that any given website is or is not associated with al-Queda?
Given how easy it is to provide fake registration data and so on.

I'm not saying these documents are fake, but I curious of how we can be reasonably sure of their authenticity.
posted by spazzm at 10:40 PM on June 27, 2006

Given that al Qaeda is a shadowy underground organization, absolutely authenticating specific works or websites would be a tricky matter. You'd have to fall back to assigning a confidence level to a text or site based on a number of factors like agreement with other works, internal evidence, acceptance by partisans & outsider experts, etc. All the source documents in Stealing seem to rate pretty highly in all those factors from my admittedly short investigation.
posted by scalefree at 10:54 PM on June 27, 2006

It's a damn shame, there's a lot of really good strategic advice that the Bush administration will never touch with a 10 foot pole because it conflicts with their horrific ideology. Institutions aren't things to be strengthened but rather realigned, infiltrated or discredited depending on the circumstance, sometimes all at once. Islam is a monolithic, impenetrable entity not subject to reason. I could go on & on.
posted by scalefree at 11:11 PM on June 27, 2006

In addition, I find it strange that Stealing... does not address the issue of the authenticity of the documents it bases its conclusion on.
posted by spazzm at 11:11 PM on June 27, 2006

scaleffreecan you explain what you mean by "internal evidence"? (I don't intend to be obtuse, I just want a clarification. Any examples?)

How is a work's authenticity strengthened with other works, if there is nothing to determine the authenticity of these other works? Especially given that with the site down, these other works may be hard to find?

...acceptance by partisans & outsider experts...

What are they basing their acceptance on?

Aw, shoot. Maybe I'm just being overly sceptical.
posted by spazzm at 11:21 PM on June 27, 2006

If you want to understand more of al Qaeda than the simplistic cant that "they're evil"

Why do you hate America?
posted by pompomtom at 11:38 PM on June 27, 2006

What are they basing their acceptance on?

Evidence not readily available to us like provenance, linguistic & stylistic elements for example. Everybody has little quirks & flaws in how they write, they can be as distinctive as fingerprints. There's actually an applied math that deals with it, that you can use to essentially prove whether an author with a known body of work wrote a suspect text or not [insert languagehat commentary here]. Also an al Qaeda member can be pretty sure that anything that comes to him from regular channels is authentic. On the flip side, a counter-terrorism expert can be pretty sure of anything that comes from Abu Musab al Zarqawi's stash. If you really want to be sure of it, you'll have to either trust the community of experts as a whole or become one yourself. I haven't really looked far but I haven't seen anybody questioning these texts yet.
posted by scalefree at 12:04 AM on June 28, 2006

Evidence not readily available to us like provenance, linguistic & stylistic elements for example.

Well, why don't they tell us what this evidence is? Even in a superficial, dumbed-down form, it could be useful and interesting.

Also, isn't provenance what we're trying to establish - based on the evidence? Unless that by provenance one means "found floating on the internet".

There's actually an applied math that deals with it, that you can use to essentially prove whether an author with a known body of work wrote a suspect text or not.

What's that method called? Any such analysis I'm aware of hinges on the fact that you need to have known samples of the author's writing to compare with. You might be able to verify that several documents are from the same author, but if you don't know the author of any of the docuemnts to begin with you're still at square one. Is there any indication that analysis of this type has been performed here?

On the flip side, a counter-terrorism expert can be pretty sure of anything that comes from Abu Musab al Zarqawi's stash.

Was any of this actually found in Abu Musab al Zarqawi's stash? Is it possible that he might have in his possession in-authentic documents for whatever purpose?
posted by spazzm at 12:17 AM on June 28, 2006

I'm talking in a theoretical sense, you're looking for specific evidence for this instance. It's reasonable to assume that some or all of the methods I'm talking about have been applied to these documents by various people but I have no evidence beyond "everybody seems to believe it's real" for any of them. Do you have any reason to suspect any of them?
posted by scalefree at 12:30 AM on June 28, 2006

Awesome. Thanks, scalefree.

I was astonished by this: In this vein, [Naji] quotes directly from an Arabic translation of Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall: “If America broadens its use of military power and strategically expands more han necessary, this will lead to its downfall.”

Maybe the recommendations should have been put in a separate, secret document? --it is essential that the U.S. hand not be seen. Too late.
posted by russilwvong at 12:33 AM on June 28, 2006

Naji also worries that low‐ranking members of the movement will initiate their own large‐scale attacks against high‐value targets.

This looks like a problem common to terrorist organisations and US drugs gangs, as described in Levitt & Dubner's Freakonomics.

It seems to me that most active terrorists, if not their leaders, are young men seeking status and a sense of self-worth, as young men tend to do. While established high-status leaders have an interest in an ordered strategy and the status quo (e.g. not annoying Pakistani Intelligence or rival drugs gangs to the point that they'll target you personally) a young low-status member at the bottom of the organisation can only benefit from shaking things up a bit: the only way is up for him, so he is more prepared to start a turf war with a rival drugs gang or commit a attack on a civilian target that brings him fame and respect but hurts his organisation's long-term goals.

What might this model suggest we do? We could try to reduce progress within the organisation for successful terrorists. This might involve not killing senior members, or co-opting senior members into preventing terrorist attacks/drug wars by giving them off. Paying the Danegeld doesn't have a good history, though.

The other avenue is to reduce the benefit from terrorism. How? Not report terrorist attacks in the media? Don't change any policy? Deny terrorists the oxygen of publicity? Seems a bit much to ask: hey, MetaFilter, stop posting terrorist-related links and discussing it! You'll only encourage them! I don't think we have the self-control, and it's anathema to use coercion. So it's a question of reducing the relative benefits of terrorism for young men assessing their options at the age of sixteen and deciding what to do with their lives: provide alternative forms of progress (jobs and wives for young men in Islamic communities in the West and Muslim countries) and reduce status gains from terrorism (get mainstream and popular opinion to swing against terrorism, perhaps by meeting some of their grievances where it is right and proper to do so, but also by continuing/starting to be friendly, positive and open in our relationships with Islam.)

All of this, of course, is long-term and difficult to do. We're looking at decades, if we can do it at all.
posted by alasdair at 1:23 AM on June 28, 2006

They are still evil.
posted by caddis at 9:59 PM PST

And who is the "they" that are "good"
posted by rough ashlar at 8:03 AM on June 28, 2006

What might this model suggest we do?

Get a different model?

If there existed an actual, functional court system where grivances could be addressed, there would be the lone-terror bombing types.

But a mass movement would be blunted.
posted by rough ashlar at 8:17 AM on June 28, 2006

And who is the "they" that are "good"

MeFites, of course.
posted by caddis at 8:41 AM on June 28, 2006

And who is the "they" that are "good"
MeFites, of course.
posted by caddis at 8:41 AM PST

posted by rough ashlar at 8:43 AM on June 28, 2006

Old versions of are available at I can't read them, though.
posted by sonofsamiam at 9:15 AM on June 28, 2006

I think your point about younger members not having anything to loose by shaking things up is an excellent point. Considering it, it also makes sense when you apply it to any other sort of human organisation...
posted by BillJenkins at 10:21 AM on June 28, 2006

I already touched on this but I want to say some more about why the recommendations will never be followed by the Bush administration. Basically they conflict with a collection of mostly unspoken premises. Here they are, as I see them:

1) Because institutions are a source of power, they must be manipulated, coerced & discredited to reduce or eliminate the threat they pose to the imposition of American will on a given situation. Diplomacy, cooperation & compromise are lesser forms of action, only suitable for the weak.

2) Because Muslims don't worship Jesus, they are evil. Therefore, fostering the rise of a civil Islam is not only impossible but undesirable. It's much better to push all of Islam to the extremes of Salafism than try to isolate the Salafists. In any event, Jesus is coming soon & we're in the End Times.

There are others but those are the two biggies that apply to this situation I think. As long as they hold onto these premises we'll make no progress on winning the GWoT.
posted by scalefree at 11:24 AM on June 28, 2006

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