Where are the New Salafi Jihadist Military Thinkers?

There was a time when there was a lot of military thought coming out of the Salafi Jihadist world.  This time appears to be largely over.  So the question is, is Salafi Jihadist military thought dead?  Or is it just resting?

Even before 9/11 there was significant strategic military thought in the jihadist movement.  (Perhaps this will be the topic of some future post.)  But, the first three or four years after September 11 saw a real flowering of the genre.  During this period a modest handful of what Jarret Brachman calls jihadist “pundits” wrote some very insightful things on military topics.  In fact, there were enough of these to carry a large part of a book that I worked on and an article that I wrote some time ago but which has only recently been published.  Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi was my favorite.  For a time, starting in early 2002, he wrote a regular column (for lack of a better word), on military affairs for the jihadists.  He was very well acquainte with western military thought and modern military history.  For instance, he had clearly read Harry Summers’ On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War and once quoted from the Paret/Howard translation of Clausewitz’s On WarTo my mind, his best piece was an essay in which he assessed the lessons of the Tupamaru rebels of Uruguay in the 1960s and 1970s.  He noted that they lost because they conducted operations which led the public to perceive them as thugs and bandits not revolutionaries and he urged Al Qaida not to fall into this trap.

There were others of this period, however, notably Abu Ayman al-Hilali, Sayf al-din al-Ansari, and Abu Bakr Naji.  The latter’s Management of Savagery became a minor classic within jihadist circles and was translated into English by Will McCants, the founder of Jihadica.  You can even find the McCants translation circulating around the jihadist world.  Naji laid out a strategic concept for stretching security forces thin so that ungoverned spaces would be created into which the jihadists could step.  They could then “manage the chaos” of these zones by providing governance and then expand outwards.  During the time, Saif al-Adel, a major player in Al Qaida also wrote some articles on security issues.

Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin, the one-time head of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (before it mostly got chased out of Saudi Arabia and into Yemen) also published a substantial if not particularly innovative treatise on guerrilla warfare which Norman Cigar has recently translated.  At least one important work during this period, “Jihad in Iraq: Hopes and Dangers” also was a very sophisticated bit of strategic thought.  It laid out a plan for ejecting the American military from Iraq by peeling away its coalition partners and causing the full cost of the war to fall on the United States. 

By about late 2004 all of these writers had gone silent.  At least one, al-Muqrin, was killed.  Why the others stopped writing is not clear.  It is also not clear that the author(s) of “Jihad in Iraq” have written anything since.

Probably the crowning piece of military thought, however, came from Abu Musab al-Suri, whose Call to Global Islamic Resistance came out on the web in late 2004 about eight months before al-Suri was captured.  Al-Suri’s argument is hard to summarize as his book ran to 1601 pages, but he ends by calling for “individual jihad” a kind of leaderless resistance.  Al-Suri, like al-Qurashi, was heavily influenced by western military thought.  In fact, he was deeply enamored of Robert Taber’s War of the Flea, which tries to encapsulate the findings of modern guerrilla warriors and theorists.

After this, the well started running dry.  Muhammed al-Hukaymah in 2006 recycled/plagiarized some of al-Suri’s ideas.  However, he has been mercifully silent for quite some time.  And in 2007-2008 Abdurrahman al-Faqir produced some interesting writings on nuclear weapons and on the role of perception in warfare.  (Mind you, he also wrote a funny article about the Democratic Presidential primary contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in which he identified Clinton as the head of the American white power movement.)  Al-Faqir also seems to have vanished.

Now it may be that there are new writers out there of whom I am not aware.  Because I suffer from the handicap of not reading Arabic, this is certainly possible.  I’d be very interested in hearing from others who may be able to point me to recent works which I have missed.

However, it does rather appear that there is not much new military thought emerging in the Salafi jihadist world.  Why should this be?  I can think of two possibilities.

  1. There’s no particular perceived need for such works anymore.  Perhaps a shift toward (TOWARD not all the way to) “leaderless jihad”/leaderless resistance has largely obviated the need to think high-speed military thoughts.
  2. This is simply a statistical fluctuation meaning nothing in itself.  The number of people doing serious military writing inside the Al Qaeda world was never very big.  Perhaps what with one thing and another they’ve all been killed or captured or have decided to retire but there is no particular structural reason why new ones won’t emerge.  Perhaps in a year or two another two or three bright guys will be churning out this stuff and the field will be as fertile as it ever was.
Published in: on January 7, 2010 at 3:23 AM  Comments (7)  
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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Mark – great to discover you blogging. I’ve just been reading your exceptional book while researching a paper – a great read.


  2. What about the possibility that such writing has been disallowed by higher ups in AQ? Perhaps they feel that such writings didn’t add substantial value to their operations while exposing important leaders?

    It’s hard to believe that they’ve simply done away long-term strategy, even if the direction toward leaderless jihad is what they are pursuing, and (as you said) just as hard to believe that all the strategic thinkers are dead or retired and new ones aren’t emerging.

  3. Just to be clear, I don’t suggest that they’ve done away with strategy, rather that there appears to be no new strategic writing.

    That said, you raise an interesting possibility which I had not considered that the higher-ups might have discouraged new strategic publications. It’s an intriguing idea. If true, it would suggest that there is a desire to move away from the leaderless jihad type of operations; you can’t have people acting in accordance with a strategy if you don’t tell them what the strategy is.

    Good food for thought. Thanks!

  4. Here’s a few long shot explanations: perhaps current or potential strategic authors see a need to reassess the existing published strategies in light of the failures of ISI/AQI. Or perhaps the overall quality of jihadi discourse has become less intellectual, and there’s no demand for serious military strategic thinking among the broader jihadi community. Or maybe they’re tired of seeing our dissections of their strategy…

  5. […] […]

  6. Do you know Abu al-Harith al-Ansari? I think he is also an important strategist. But I think the most texts published today won’t be translated.
    Here the link about Abu al-Harith al-Ansari.

    william McCants wrote about Abu Amr al-Qaidi, too. He wrote about media strategy.

  7. […] to “fulfill the vacuum of intellectual, ideological, analytic, original, and serious thinking left untreated by other sites and to draw writers, thinkers, researchers, and others to reengage in debating and finding solutions to important issues;”… [I'm reminded of my earlier post.] […]

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