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The 9/11 Reading List: Al-Qa'ida's Insurgency Doctrine

Commentary, 9 September 2011
Alistair Harris reviews 'Al-Qa’ida’s Doctrine for Insurgency: Abd Al-Aziz Al-Muqrin’s "A Practical Course for Guerrilla War"' translated and analysed by Norman Cigar

Alistair Harris reviews
Al-Qaida's Doctrine for Insurgency: Abd Al-Aziz Al-Muqrin's "A Practical Course for Guerrilla War"
Translated and Analysed by Norman Cigar
Potomac Books, 2008

The recent upsurge in international attention to Yemen can be attributed to the activities of Al-Qa’ida in themArabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local Al-Qa’ida franchise. AQAP was formed in early 2009 with the merger of Al-Qa’ida’s Yemeni and Saudi Arabian branches. Five years earlier, a purely Saudi incarnation of Al-Qa’ida was battling the authorities under the short-lived leadership of Abd Al-Aziz Al-Muqrin. Following his death at the hands of the Saudi security forces in 2004, Al-Muqrin’s experience of jihad in Afghanistan, North Africa, Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia was compiled into a seventyeight-page manual covering strategic, operational and tactical doctrine. Whilst attention is naturally paid to the internet radicalisation of Yemeni militants, such as US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, analysis of the modern iteration of AQAP must include a detailed consideration of how the organisation thinks and operates. Cigar’s contribution, as both translator and analyst, is to bring alive in English the classroom instruction of AQAP. It is a fair assumption that this seminal work, what Cigar calls Al-Qa’ida in Saudi Arabia’s field manual, continues to inform the training and operational planning of AQAP today.

The book neatly divides between a succinct analysis and a translation of the original text. Reminiscent of the Combating Terrorism Center, West Point’s ‘Stealing Al-Qaeda’s Playbook’, Cigar’s intent is to utilise the organisation’s doctrinal literature in order to understand how the organisation plans, trains and operates, in order to help craft more effective responses. Cigar’s analysis explores the theoretical and practical elements of the manual. Al-Muqrin’s prescriptive instructions attest to his personal experience and the utilitarian focus of the manual: ‘We must target and kill Jews and Christians. To anyone who is an enemy of God and his Prophet we say, “We have come to slaughter you”’. How to do so is explored in detail as Al-Qa’ida’s tactics, techniques and procedures are explored in detail – from the use of GPS and digital photography, to the need for fusion intelligence. Al-Muqrin, who authored edited both AQAP’s military journal, Mu’askar Al-Battar, and its sister political publication Sawt Al-Jihad, was as Cigar states ‘not only a formidable commander but also an educator and thinker’, who was versed in Clausewitz and Mao.

Al-Muqrin outlined a blue print for the overthrow of an unjust regime. In the initial phase of ‘Strategic Defence’, protracted combat is initiated to exhaust the enemy. A second phase, dubbed ‘The Policy of a Thousand Cuts’, begins once there has been a mobilisation of popular support. Whilst the vision Al-Muqrin had of the final or ‘Decisive Phase’ was based on the Taliban defeat of the post-Soviet Afghan government, there can be little doubt that his thinking has been adapted for use by today’s AQAP military commanders and ideologues. November’s release of the third edition of AQAP’s English-language magazine Inspire reminds its readership that Al-Qa’ida is engaged in a battle of attrition: a battle of a thousand cuts. Unsurprisingly perhaps, our understanding of the threat posed by the current incarnation of AQAP can be better understood by looking at the historical, primary source output of Al-Qa’ida and its ideologues. Whilst much effort is directed at the English-language output of radical AQAP-associated Anwar al-Awlaqi, his ‘44 Ways to Support Jihad’ is essentially a reworking of Muhammad bin Ahmad Al-Salim’s ‘39 Ways to Serve the Jihad and Mujahidin Fighting for God’s Cause’, which in turn borrows heavily from Al-Muqrin.

Al-Muqrin’s doctrine noted correctly that for AQAP to be successful, it had to address the needs of the ordinary person, and as such ‘the mujahidin must undertake to relieve the injustices from those who are oppressed and restore their rights’. This theme is repeatedly stressed in Sada Al-Malahim, the current journal of AQAP. As such, Cigar rightly recommends that despite a focus on the military capabilities of Al-Qa’ida, it is the non-military that must form our counter-terrorism response, ‘with the military component playing only a supporting role, providing a shield of time and security for the “sword” of socioeconomic, political and ideological response to occur and win the war’. As further military options are considered to contain the threat posed by AQAP, Cigar’s holistic recommendations are timely.

Alistair Harris is an Associate Fellow of RUSI and director of the research consultancy, Pursue Ltd.

This book review was first published in the RUSI Journal (Vol. 155, No. 6, December 2010).


Alistair Harris OBE
Associate Fellow

Alistair Harris OBE is a former diplomat and UN staff member.

He is an Associate Fellow at RUSI and at the South African... read more

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