Harmonizing al Qaeda

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.[27] 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.[28] 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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.


  • Justin B says:

    The MSM and many on the left that continue to preach the “Iraq is a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda and we made them stronger” mantra are sadly mistaken. That is akin to saying if we killed all of the current military generals and most of the colonels and lt. colonels and started promoting junior officers and enlisted men into the positions held by the Generals, we would be just fine too.
    It is interesting to see the degredation of the force in Iraq. We can assume that 18 year old jihadis are plentiful, but imagine waging a war with leadership that lacked experience. Al Qaeda is hurting for leadership due to our disruptions of the command and communication structure, but what we are seeing in Iraq is fighting by proxy by the Iranian and Syrian government that are loaning their intelligence assets, equipment, and know-how to Al Qaeda and the insurgency.
    Bombs made by the senior Al Qaeda folks are growing more lethal, but there are far fewer of them and far fewer leaders to run these complex operations. So AQ is outsourcing to Iraqis that want to make a quick buck. And these folks do poor work.
    What good do a bunch of 18 year old terror wannabes do when there is degraded operational leadership and fewer senior folks to train them? That is why the left is so wrong in their spin. Before the folks could go to Afghanistan and train in Jihad camps, but when we dismantled these camps we seriously degraded AQ’s ability to train and replace their ground troops and middle and upper management.

  • Soldier's Dad says:

    Justin B,
    Are you familiar with “Second Order” problem solving. Most computer problems manifest themselves upon the pressing of the “OK” button.
    (It is actually surprising how many bloggers are techies, including Bill). The vast majority of computer users, when reporting a problem start out by saying “When I push the OK button, it all goes wrong”. Most techies know, that whatever went wrong, it is usually well before the OK button, there is nothing wrong with the Button Itself.
    Pretty much the way the press and the Left view things, as “First Order” problems”.
    I.E. People steal money because they need money, therefore give them money, then they won’t steal.
    If you don’t press the OK button on your computer, it will never go wrong!!!
    Unfortunately, it kind of makes the computer useless. Just as giving money to thief makes him useless.
    To truly solve the terrorism problem, you need to address both the recruiting and training problems. Otherwise, a billion muslims can give birth to terrorist’s faster than we can make bullets.
    I almost never read a discussion in the press, treating an issue as a “Second Order” problem.
    The muslim problem is a second or third order problem. Fixing it will take a generation, at least.

  • Jason says:

    Soldier’s dad, I like your analogy.
    If a virus infects your system, until you get to the root of it, you can reboot again and again and your system will continue to crash.
    In this instance, the virus is petrodollars. Petrodollars are the lifesblood of Al Qaeda, but it is also the power behind the ongoing war cycle.
    The petrodollar is no Second Order problem. It is a problem of the highest order.
    Take Iran for example. They sabre-rattle, and the resulting uncertainty keeps the cost of oil high. They are REWARDED, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars a year, for raising tensions. In turn, American oil companies are rewarded with higher profits. Which means higher campaign contributions for the GOP. The American military-industrial complex is rewarded with a budget that increases by double digits per year, while many other essential American programs are cut.
    Yes, it will take at least a generation to fix this problem. But there’s no reason to believe it will get fixed. Eisenhower spoke of this problem in 1961. Carter addressed it again in 1979. And here, a generation later, nothing has changed.
    The 18 year old U.S. soldier’s actions in Iraq right now will have absolutely no bearing on the solution. Like the 18 year old Iraqis they struggle against, they are only players in a much larger game.

  • GK says:

    Average Democrats just don’t think. They take the path of least intellectual resistance, which is to watch the MSM for 10 minutes a day and parrot back what they heard.
    The fifth-column left is very different. This comprises 8-10% of the US population. They pretend to care about America’s well-being, but their actions are quite the opposite. They oppose the Iraq War, but also oppose any domestic measures to stop terror, such as profiling or the Patriot Act. They oppose everything, and have no alternative ideas.
    Because they secretly want America to lose.
    They know this cause is evil, which is why they are ashamed to admit their true desires, rather than be open about it (the way Al-Qaeda is).
    Until Patriotic Americans wake up and admit that there is a genuine fifth column in America, amounting to 8-10% of the population, we won’t win the WoT.
    Read here for more on the fifth column :

  • Jason says:

    These strategy recommendations are fine in theory but often have disastrous results.
    Take number seven for example. “Humiliating the jihadi rank and file.” When we encourage our forces to humiliate the enemy we invite incidents like the one that happened in Northern Iraq in July 2003.
    That was when American forces captured what they thought were Iraqi insurgents and forced them to march through town with bags on their heads.
    The problem was that these insurgents turned out to be Turkish special forces officers.
    When word of this incident, now known as the “bag incident,” reached Turkey, it created a wildfire of anger and feelings of betrayal. Current polls in Turkey call this the most humiliating moment in the country’s history. And this in a country that was in our coalition of the willing.
    When you set out to humiliate your enemy, sometimes you end up simply dishonoring yourself. And you certainly don’t set any kind of example for the world. One would hope that America can be successful without resorting to such tactics.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Try following the link and actually reading the suggestions. It suggests no such thing.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Just in case you don’t want to click through, here is what it says:
    7. Confuse, humiliate, demoralize and embarrass the jihadi rank-in-file.
    Taken in context with our theoretical model, the Harmony documents suggest government policies would find success facilitating intra-movement rivalries and competition within al-Qa’ida. As one of the Harmony documents details, Tajik mujahideen had been demoralized by the intimidation and bullying from other jihadi forces. Subsequently, “the majority of the young men snuck away and went back looking for work with their old area commanders.”

  • Justin B says:

    Ultimately, in looking at the problems that need systematic resolution don’t begin with Oil money as Jason suggests. They don’t begin with Capitalism and the purchasing of oil from these nations. These nations have every right to sell their goods or services and we have every right to buy them as well as the companies have every right to profit from oil.
    The problem lies in the leadership and the very nature of the Muslim world. These are top down societies and are structured primarily as dictatorships where small groups of people control the flow of information and wealth and where the leadership has been allowed to deflect all criticism of their actions by systematically changing the focus of Muslims from their own pathetic and impoverished state towards the Jews and the United States. These governments allowed the Islamic hatred and terrorism to fester in an attempt to use it on Isreal and further enrich themselves.
    So how do you fix it? When an entire country is powerless to oust their dictator who is brutally controlling their country and systematically siphoning off the assets while funding terror against Isreal to keep himself in power with the other Arab nations? Or when a clan of folks terrorize the common citizens with their form of Shari’ah Law? Shari’ah Law suppresses individuality and is all about submission to Islam and to your rulers.
    You change the structure of the governments and empower the people. You institute democracy. Oil money is not the problem. The problem is not that these dictatorships have oil money to spend, it is that these countries with oil are run by dictators. You change it by removing guys like Saddam or the Taliban. You shut down terror training camps in Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other nations. You build intelligence gathering capabilities to counter the terror networks.
    What was your solution again? Shut down the oil industry because Corporations are the problem?

  • Soldier's Dad says:

    “The petrodollar is no Second Order problem”
    Actually, it is, the world can do without Iranian Oil for two years. The US doesn’t buy any oil from Iran. The European, Japanese and and US strategic oil reserves are enough to carry the world for two years. The Russians would be more than happy to increase production.
    The last two years have proven that the Wests economies just plain absorb the price of energy. (It’s even good for the environment..alternative energy becomes cost effective)
    India will be served by a pipeline thru Afghanistan.
    Sorry, it is not about oil, it is about getting to the Sudan.
    Democracies rubbing up against tyrannies, is like a High and Low pressure weather system. There is gonna be severe weather.
    Every other country…to the Sudan..and southward.
    World Peace…in my lifetime.

  • Mike E says:

    Regarding the “bag incident” I do not have too much sympathy for the Turks. They were in Iraq illegally (Turkey is not part of the coalition) and their lack of proper uniforms and ID suggests they were up to no good, probably trying to cause problems for the Kurds. They fact that they got caught and “humiliated” seems like a mild punishment.

  • David D says:

    The real problem in my view is the way large populations of people around the world have been taught to think for generations now.

    The problem was ignored in the past to a great extent as a choice of the lessor of evils in any given country for economic, political, strategic & other rationale.

    Radicalism/terrorism has manifested over decades now into a scale & scope yet to reveal itself, both internal and external to the US.

    Ignoring the problem, lying to ourselves, over/understating the problem, or blaming others will not help.

    If the world is going to be successful and survive, not only use of force, stopping funding, intelligence gathering, etc., will do, it will need to address the way people are taught to think, both around the world and in the US.

    This problem demands the full attention of the world for the unforeseeable future, with all resources being brought to bare as necessary.


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