'A TERRORIST'S HANDBOOK'
Al-Qaida's Doctrine for Insurgency, Translated and analysed by Dr Norman Cigar, Foreword [below] by Dr Julian Lewis, published by Potomac Books, 2009
One of the most striking ideas in the military chapter of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, written in 1516, is its emphasis on targeted assassination. Once a war is declared, Utopians
‘promise great rewards to such as shall kill the prince, and lesser in proportion to such as shall kill ... those on whom, next to the prince himself, they cast the chief balance of the war’.
Even in the heat of battle, shock troops
‘single out the general of their enemies, set on him either openly or by ambuscade, pursue him everywhere ... so that unless he secures himself by flight, they seldom fail at last to kill or to take him prisoner’.
Thus, a technique regarded in this day and age as symptomatic of terrorism, was advocated almost five hundred years ago as an entirely ethical course of action. One does not need to be a moral relativist to understand the logic of insurgents who – believing that God is on their side – view Western codes of warfare as murderous and illegitimate, and terrorist techniques as sanctified and just. This book is not about morality but about efficacy.
Norman Cigar has applied his encyclopaedic knowledge of military doctrine and Middle-Eastern politics to select and preserve what is in effect the field manual of al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia. It will be of consuming interest, not only to scholars and analysts, but also to those involved in government with the consequences of militancy in parts of the Islamic world. Whilst there is a vast body of work commenting on developments both before and after September 2001, much less attention has been paid to what the militants actually reveal about their own methods. Their exploitation of the internet as a means of communication and training offers their adversaries a window on their world.
One of the virtues – if such a term may be applied in this deadly context – of 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Muqrin’s Guerrilla War is its utilitarian focus. Only occasionally does ritual obeisance to his perceived Holy Cause surface in his text. The practical actions he details and recommends could be transplanted, for the most part, into the context of any other revolutionary movement on the extreme left or extreme right. Extreme political movements – even those which appear directly to contradict one another – have a great deal in common. Their advocates share an absolute certainty that nothing must obstruct the One True Doctrine to which they subscribe. Its opponents can, and must, be pitilessly destroyed. This uncompromising stance has featured in extreme interpretations of religion in previous centuries, and in the secular totalitarianism of Communism and Nazism more recently. Indeed, the threat currently posed by militant distortions of the Islamic faith unhappily combines the worst elements of all three: the theocratic intolerance of the Inquisition, the fifth-column potential of revolutionary Communism, the implacable racialism of the Nazis, and the readiness of each to deny justice, human rights and life itself to any perceived adversary. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that techniques employed in any of these contexts transfer quite easily to them all.
After 38 years punctuated by innumerable sectarian bombings and assassinations, the counter-terrorist effort in Northern Ireland was recently declared to be over. Shortly before this, in 2003, when Al-Muqrin was publishing the first instalment of his manual, a history of the main Irish terrorist group – the Provisional IRA – was published in the United Kingdom. In reviewing it, I was struck by the extent to which its author, a distinguished professor of politics in Belfast, seemed somewhat in awe of the intellectualism of leading Republicans. In fact, it is a fallacy to believe that people at the head of extremist movements are stupid. History is replete with examples of the Articulate Terrorist – and Al-Muqrin is undoubtedly one of these.
Although he begins by tendentiously defining Just and Unjust Wars respectively as those waged by and against dispossessed Muslims, he sets out four objective classes of conflict. Two are passed over in a couple of sentences: namely, traditional conventional warfare and total war involving the use of mass-destruction weapons. With regard to the latter, it is typical of his rational approach that he states: ‘this type of war is considered unlikely because it leads to mass destruction, which could spell the end of all of mankind’. It is to be hoped that other jihadists also share his assessment.
Whilst Al-Muqrin’s manual is almost entirely confined to guerrilla warfare, it is intriguing that he regards his third category of conflict – cold wars – as that being waged by ‘the Zionist-Crusader alliance’ against the Muslim world by
‘spending billions of dollars on the media ... setting up fifth columns, and sowing the seeds of division and disunity ... by using the leading Muslim champions of secularism, modernity, and Westernization, who want to spread such abominations among the faithful’
and to groom such secular Muslims to govern Islamic states like Afghanistan and Iraq.
What emerges, time and again, from Al-Muqrin’s writings is his understanding of the crux of the conflict: that this is a battle of ideas – with doctrine underpinning the will to win. The inability to win militarily must be compensated for by the ability to defeat psychologically – to cause the mental collapse and capitulation of the enemy. Assassinations and explosions in cities are described as ‘diplomatic-military’ initiatives, with ‘a political meaning connected to the nature of the ideological struggle’ and designed ‘to send messages to multiple audiences’. For this reason, al-Qaida chooses its targets ‘extremely carefully’ and such targets may be ideological, economic or human.
Dealing with the first two categories, at the beginning Chapter 6, Al-Muqrin maintains, for the most part, his objective style. Nor does he entirely forswear it in explaining why human targets should be attacked: it is for the purpose of
‘making clear what the ideological struggle is about. Thus, when we target the Jews and Christians, we make clear the religious nature of the struggle’.
Such attacks lift the morale of the Islamic Ummah, shatter the prestige of the regime which is attacked – as when ‘America’s nose was ground in the dirt’ – and thwart the political plans of one’s opponents, such as securing the withdrawal of Spanish troops after the bombings in Madrid.
Yet, one passage above all reveals the depth of hatred and the unappeasable global ambition of al-Qaida:
‘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.” In today’s circumstances, borders must not separate us nor geography keep us apart, so that every Muslim country is our country and their lands are also our lands. We must turn the idolaters’ countries into a living hell just as they have done to the Muslims’ countries ... all the active cells in every corner of the world must pay no attention to geographic borders which the enemies have drawn. Instead, these cells must make every effort to transform the infidel countries into battlefronts and to force the infidel and collaborationist countries to deal with that. Just as the Muslim countries have been turned into test labs for their weapons and inventions, so also their countries must be turned into hell and destruction. The sons of the Islamic Ummah are capable of doing that (God willing).’
What also emerges, underneath the ritual denunciation of Christians and Jews, is the reality that most prime targets for assassination are Muslims who do not share the views, values and objectives of al-Qaida. The detailed exposition of assassination ‘tradecraft’ includes two contrasting accounts of attempts on the life of Muslim Presidents. One was made when President Mubarak visited Addis Ababa and reads like a lethal parody of a script for the Keystone Cops:
‘The owner of the Volvo which had been tasked with blocking the motorcade had turned off the engine and was not able to restart it ... The RPG which was to be fired at the car had a faulty trigger mechanism and did not fire, may God help us.’
The other – the successful assassination of Algerian President Mohamed Boudiaf – was a model of ruthlessly planned infiltration, diversion and execution, with the assassin standing directly behind the President as he delivered a speech, and only a curtain separating them:
‘The brother threw a hand grenade under the curtain, which rolled before stopping in the middle of those present. When they all turned their attention to that, he fired two shots at [Boudiaf’s] head, with all that happening in a matter of only a few seconds.’
Indeed, of all the examples of past assassination operations listed by Al-Muqrin, only one of the victims was Jewish and none was Christian.
In 2007, in a paper written for the British defence think-tank the Royal United Services Institute, I set out a mantra – ‘Double-I, Double-N’ – of four criteria for counter-insurgency. These were: Identify, Isolate, Neutralise and Negotiate. The first deals with intelligence; the second with separation from the community; the third with security measures; and the fourth with striking deals – not from an early position of weakness, but from a later position of strength or at least near-stalemate. Of particular interest to me, therefore, is Al-Muqrin’s description of what he expects his enemies to do during the attrition phase of guerrilla warfare. Although he mocks as ‘preposterous’ the idea that such methods would prevail, the terms in which he describes some of them indicate a degree of apprehension on his part:
‘Continuous fears and frantic campaigns to distort the image of the guerrillas or the mujahidin and to mislead the public ... deceptive propaganda about the guerrillas or the mujahidin ... [the] claim that the mujahidin are criminal killers who were failures in life and who have despaired of life’
– a pretty fair description, by Dr Cigar’s account, of Al-Muqrin himself.
Real anxiety is indicated, too, by the reference to the Saudi regime having
‘even used the leading figures of Islamic movements who until recently have been calling for opposition to the oppressors’.
This technique he describes as disinformation and diversion employed
‘to expel the mujahidin from the ranks of society and to cut off the logistic and material support which the people provide to the mujahidin’.
Al-Muqrin is also alert to the danger of secret offers to negotiate and throw down one’s weapons in exchange for a blanket amnesty or exile from the country:
‘Negotiations during this phase are prohibited – no negotiations, no military truce, no abandoning your military bases, no dialogue – because the principle of fighting and the appearance of the jihadi movement are based on irreconcilable differences, since the conflict is between the Muslims and the Crusaders, and between the mujahidin and the apostates, so that there is no room for compromise solutions.’
For all this bravado, Al-Muqrin is undoubtedly well aware that, when insurgencies are successfully infiltrated, isolated and contained, their defeat is generally secured via terms negotiated with those leaders who prefer to salvage something from the campaign rather than facing total elimination in the long term.
It can never be repeated too often that propaganda – in the non-pejorative sense of the word – is central to the outcome of ideological conflict. When the Allies were fighting the Second World War – the most extensive high-intensity conflict in history – they still felt it necessary heavily to invest in positive propaganda to boost morale and remind society what was at stake, and in negative propag nda to demoralise the enemy. With the absence of open conflict during the Cold War, the battle of ideas became still more important. Military deadlock between East and West encouraged a strategy of containment within which the concepts of freedom and democracy could be promoted against the alternative totalitarian dogma. Al-Muqrin’s manual clearly shows how well he understands this dimension in addition to the bloody mechanisms of terror and targeted killings. Norman Cigar has done a great service by applying his linguistic and analytical skills to this deadly document and dissecting it so comprehensively.