The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point releases al Qaeda documents and recommends a strategy for “Exploiting Al-Qaeda’s Organizational Vulnerabilities”
It is a rare opportunity for the public to be able to view the inner communications, and organizational and planning documents of al Qaeda. This is important as it helps us understand the mindset and inner workings of the enemy. The public statements of al Qaeda leaders Oama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri provide some insight into al Qaeda, however these statements are designed to shore up support among their followers – or propaganda purposes. Recently, we have seen communications between Zarqawi and bin Laden, and Zawahiri to Zarqawi, which shed light on the relationships between the al Qaeda leaders and their strategy in Iraq.
The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point has gathered twenty-eight al Qaeda documents which have been released from the Department of Defense’s classified Harmony Database. The documents have been analysed and the Center has suggested a stratgey for “Exploiting Al-Qaeda’s Organizational Vulnerabilities.”
As the report notes, a reading of the documents removes many of the romantacized notions of al Qaeda. The documents reveal an organization that is highly beaurucratic in nature, with the associated organiational structures, mission statements, bylaws, recruiting guidelines, and employment contracts. There is infighting between the members. In a letter written in June of 2002, “‘Abd-al-Halim Adl vigoroulsy challenges the leadership of Osama Bin Laden and accuses him of being close-minded and oblivious to the great harm suffered by Al-Qa’ida in recent months… The recent time period is one in which the movement has gone from “misfortune to disaster” with serious setbacks encountered in East Asia, Europe, America, the Horn of Africa, Yemen, the Gulf, and Morocco.” Other al Qaeda commanders are criticized as well. al Qaeda is, in some instances, capable of judging its past mistakes. And the organiation does indeed have a foreign policy and a strategy to impliment it. The establishment of the Caliphate and the imposition of Shariah law are the centerpieces of al Qaeda’s goals.
The Organizational Vulnerabilities and Recommendations to Exploit Them section provides a comprehensive plan to combat al Qaeda. It is extensive, and cannot be easily summarized, however this is a brief, bulleted view:
1. Disrupt al-Qa’ida’s control of operations and limit its financial efficiency.
2. Constrain al-Qa’ida’s security environment.
3. Prioritize efforts based on sub-group vulnerabilities.
4. Conduct an aggressive study of jihadi strategy and foreign policy.
5. Deny jihadi groups the benefit of security vacuums they seek to exploit and create.
6. Turn the jihadi vanguard back on itself.
7. Confuse, humiliate, demoralize and embarrass the jihadi rank-in-file.
8. Subvert the authority of senior commanders.
9. Facilitate misunderstanding as well as understanding of America’s intentions and capacity.
10. Force jihadi propagandists back on their heels.
11. Understand and exploit the ideological breaks in the jihadi movement.
12. Anticipate al-Qa’ida’s transformation from an organization to a social movement.
Section 8, Subvert the authority of senior commanders, reinforces a point made here in Middlemen and other articles. The targeting of al Qaeda leadership at all levels, degrades the organization over time, as the leadship skills, connections and experience are talents in short supply in a close-knit groups such as al Qaeda. A reading of the documents shows al Qaeda is highly concerned about leadership, and rightfully so as this an essential element of any successful organization.
8. Subvert the authority of senior commanders.
The sample of documents from Harmony released for this study highlight the long-standing concern that the al-Qa’ida organization has had with securing the right kind of leader, often referred to as the Emir. Senior strategists learned from past jihadi experience. As Abu Musab al-Suri’s observations on the Syrian experience illustrates, without an active and highly trained cadre of senior leaders, any movement is destined to fail. This dearth of senior jihadi leaders reduces the maximum level of control al-Qa’ida can exert and thus reduces the potential for political impact as discussed earlier in this section.
While al-Suri’s treatment focuses on general trends concerning the role that commanders play in jihad, other documents contain sections dedicated solely to articulating the professional qualifications, personality characteristics and organizational duties of commanders. Still others concentrate on the need for providing leaders with real-time information about the movement, its members and the broader political space in which it operates. In fact, among the documents that speak to the role and activities of leaders, they almost uniformly reflect having learned al-Suri’s lessons from Syria: not letting untrained people into senior command positions; not letting the senior leadership lose touch with its operatives on the ground; and the importance of training junior members not just with tactical and operational knowledge but with the strategic relevance of their participation in jihad.
The Combating Terrorism Center and the al Qaeda’s own words within the Harmony documents go a long way in debunking the myth that al Qaeda possesses an infinte pool of talent capable of stepping in for experienced leaders jilled or captured on the field of battle.