What Al Qaeda learned from Mao
The surprisingly secular guerrilla strategy behind the would-be Islamist revolution
Twelve years after its horrifying attack on the United States and two years after Osama bin Laden’s death, Al Qaeda is still very much alive—dispersed, but with a critical role in the violence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere. Its leaders and locations have changed, but its ideology has proved tenacious and adaptable.
We often misunderstand what that ideology is. Americans generally discuss Al Qaeda chiefly as an Islamist group, one fanatically dedicated to imposing its harsh version of Islamic law on the Middle East and to extinguishing all American presence there.
But there are many active Islamist organizations, and among them Al Qaeda is distinct—unique both in its single-minded focus on the United States and in its approach to violence. To fight its influence requires more than just tracking its personnel or analyzing its tactics: It requires grasping the deeper strategies and long-range thinking that set it apart and help create its mystique.
Al Qaeda’s strategic foundations are laid out in a variety of documents written by its ideologues and trainers. Originally produced secretly for training recruits and as a legacy for future generations of jihadi guerrillas, the documents began to emerge in the early 2000s—published on jihadist forums, stored on commercial websites, or confiscated from terrorist safe houses and training camps by local police or military.
What this body of work reveals might strike even informed readers as surprising. When it comes to strategy, close readings of the documents suggest that Al Qaeda draws its ideas less from classical Islam than from a broad array of sources in 20th-century guerrilla warfare, as well as older European and Chinese military strategists. Its books and articles refer to the ideas of Mao, Che Guevara, Regis Debray, the Vietnamese strategist General Giap, Fidel Castro, and even the somewhat obscure Brazilian urban guerrilla Carlos Marighella. They are secular and analytic, and do not rely on religious arguments as a detailed guide to action.
To study Al Qaeda’s strategic literature is to realize that we should understand it primarily as a new type of revolutionary group—one that is, in fact, less classically “Islamic” than Maoist. It is a modern ideology built on Al Qaeda’s distorted version of Islam, one that is rejected by mainstream Islamic scholars. And this deeper understanding may give us new tools in what is shaping up to be a long fight against Al Qaeda’s influence.
The first unclassified evidence of Al Qaeda’s thinking about guerrilla warfare surfaced in December 2001 after the American journalist Alan Cullison, assigned to cover events in Kabul, had an accident in the wilds of the Hindu Kush that destroyed his laptop. When he bought a used computer in Kabul, he came into possession of a hard drive previously owned by Ayman al-Zawahiri, then bin Laden’s deputy. Cullison bought it from a man who claimed he had stolen it the day before Al Qaeda’s leadership fled Kabul after the collapse of the Taliban government.
This hard drive contained a book written by al-Zawahiri about jihadist insurgencies in Egypt, titled “Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner.” It also included many other professional-grade documents about espionage and security. A section titled “The Future of the Jihadist Movement” outlined some of Al Qaeda’s long-range strategies and would later be the basis for further writings by the leadership’s advisers and lieutenants.
Thousands of pages of documents have emerged since then, laying out Al Qaeda’s ideology, military doctrine, and tactics. In 2004, the Norwegian scholars Brynjar Lia and Thomas Hegghammer coined the term now used to describe this body of writings: “jihadi strategic studies,” the collective efforts of a radical group to adapt the lessons of the past into a modern guide to action. Since 2008, I have been among the growing number of scholars and experts trying to unlock what they tell us about Al Qaeda.
The most influential strategic documents appear to be anything but religious in origin. For example, Al Qaeda strategist and trainer Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri wrote in his voluminous “The Call to Global Islamic Resistance” that one of the most important books on guerrilla warfare has been written by an American. That book, published in 1965, is “War of the Flea,” by Robert Taber, an investigative journalist who covered Castro’s operations in the late 1950s. The title refers to Mao’s often-cited analogy that guerrilla warfare is like the attack of a weak flea against a powerful dog. The flea first agitates the dog with a few bites, and then the dog attacks itself in a frenzy but is unable to kill the flea; as the bites multiply and other fleas join, the dog is weakened and eventually dies.
Taber’s book, a classic popular study of insurgencies, examines how guerrillas end up succeeding or failing in wars against overwhelmingly powerful enemies. The book’s title was translated into Arabic as, approximately, “The War of the Oppressed”; a more literal translation would be “the war of those thought to be weak.” The message is clear: If you feel weak, this book shows you how to be strong.
Except for history and military buffs, few Americans today read Taber’s book in English; similarly, few Al Qaeda terrorists would have read it in Arabic. But its lessons ended up embedded in Al Qaeda’s philosophy and insurgency campaigns. Al-Suri even recorded a lecture course on the book, and both the failed mid-2000s terrorist campaign in Saudi Arabia and the current war in Yemen bear its imprint.
Other Al Qaeda authors have drawn on guerrilla thinkers from very different parts of the globe. Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi (a pseudonym for a bin Laden adviser), in his article “Revolutionary Wars,” translates the Vietnamese General Giap’s characterization of guerrilla warfare in his book “People’s War People’s Army” into Arabic: “a type of war in which the weak side, with poor equipment, takes refuge among the masses to fight a powerful enemy, which possesses superior equipment and technology.” To al-Qurashi, the ultimate American withdrawal from Vietnam offers a lesson in how the psychological costs of guerrilla warfare can break a powerful nation’s will to keep fighting.
Al Qaeda’s fundamental approach, as multiple authors explain in various texts, mirrors classic Maoist three-stage strategy. First, small groups weaken a government’s hold on a remote area; then they establish themselves in villages or communities to consolidate their power and expand. Finally, they join with similar groups until a large area is under their control, as the government withdraws and ultimately falls. Such an effort is underway in North Africa, the Sinai, Syria, Iraq, and South Asia. The goal may be couched in Islamic terms, but the methods are profoundly secular. Violence for Al Qaeda, as in classic guerrilla strategy, always has a political objective.
Al Qaeda’s books and articles on strategy in Arabic and occasionally in translation can now be easily found on the Internet, if one knows where to look. Besides al-Suri’s “The Call to Global Islamic Resistance” and al-Qurashi’s articles “Revolutionary Wars” and “Fourth Generation Warfare,” they include Abu Bakr Naji’s “The Administration of Savagery,” Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin’s “A Practical Course for Guerrilla War,” and many more. All the authors mentioned here were active jihadists and close to Al Qaeda’s leadership; all were killed in insurgency operations or captured by local forces by 2006.
But their work survives. Though Al Qaeda is increasingly fragmented, and some observers see it less as a single organization than a banner for various insurgents to fight under, these strategies and Al Qaeda’s ideology do appear to bind them together. The current leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen, for example, has credited Naji’s book for the group’s strategy today while expounding Al Qaeda’s ideology in his propaganda.
The principles of warfare these writers espouse are by no means mainstream in the countries where they lived. It is evident from their writings that, like Osama bin Laden in his last days, these authors know that ordinary Muslims find their violent tactics to be morally offensive. To this they have no real answer except that they are following the universal laws of war, which are the same to establish a religious state or a secular state. In other words, if you agree with their goal of establishing a strict Islamic state, then the ends justify the means.
In the fight against Al Qaeda thus far, this strategic literature has taken a back seat to tracking its propaganda, tactics, and actual activities. This is understandable: Military and police operations against terrorist cells and groups depend on actionable information, and strategic writings don’t tell us where the group’s terrorists might strike next.
But in the long term, understanding its strategy is crucial. Perhaps Al Qaeda’s greatest strength has been its ability to rise out of the ashes of miserable defeat, recruit more young men, and continue its long war against the established order. Understanding the strategy, ideology, and “heroic” history its strategists write about is key to winning the deeper battle to prevent Al Qaeda from refilling its ranks when our operations decimate them.
This kind of analysis has helped the United States before. During the Cold War, the country invested a great deal of effort in understanding the enemy’s ideology. But that battle of ideas was perhaps simpler. Our communist adversaries had a worldview that we understood and that had its origins in Western thinking; we were confident that our own system offered a more attractive model to the world. In the fight against Al Qaeda, the United States has largely stayed away from the ideological battle because of concerns that any information campaign would involve counterproductive arguments about Islam.
Focusing on the secular origins of Al Qaeda’s violent strategies, however, gives the United States a new kind of leverage—an opening to publicize the worst aspects of Al Qaeda’s ideology, which are just as alien to our Muslim allies and American Muslims as they are to other Americans. Al Qaeda’s military doctrines have resulted in the deaths of many more Muslims than non-Muslims; their call for eternal jihadism is a recipe for endless urban and rural warfare. They have no theory of stable government beyond the clichés in their propaganda.
What is clear, based on the intolerance and dedication to violence enshrined in its strategic literature, is that the communities most immediately at threat are the surrounding Muslim ones. That is not a sentiment likely to show up in the group’s public propaganda. But it’s a fact that the United States has a very good incentive to recognize and to communicate to the passive and sometimes sympathetic public that Al Qaeda depends on for its very existence. Once we have fully absorbed Al Qaeda’s strategic literature, it will give us ample material to use against them, in their own words.
Michael W. S. Ryan is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and a Middle East Institute scholar. He studied Arabic for his PhD at Harvard and at the American University in Cairo, and is author of “Decoding Al Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America,” published last month.
Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the time since the 9/11 attacks. They occurred 12 years ago.