Politics & Policy

Terrorists’ Handbook

In rhetoric and tactics, ISIS sounds a lot like an al-Qaeda manual.

President Obama may not have a strategy for defeating the Islamic State, but the Islamic State has a strategy for the U.S. In fact, that strategy is set out, in part, in an al-Qaeda manual recently translated for the benefit of the U.S. military.

A guerrilla war proceeds in phases, according to Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin’s A Practical Course for Guerrilla War, a strategic and tactical guide to mujahideen intent on establishing “a pure Islamic system free from defects and infidel elements.” It was written after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The first phase is “attrition (strategic defense),” the time for carrying out attacks, “spectacular operations, which will create a positive impact.” The terrorists use the attacks as a recruitment tool and a morale boost for potential jihadis.

Phase two is the time of “relative strategic balance,” when the jihadis build an army to hold territory that has been wrested from the incumbent regime. “There the mujahidin will set up base camps, hospitals, sharia courts, and broadcasting stations, as well as a jumping-off point for military and political actions,” al-Muqrin writes.

The third phase, a time of internal discord and political upheaval for the “collaborationist” regime, is “decisive.” The terrorists use their conventional army to launch dramatic assaults.

“By means of these mujahadin conventional forces, the mujahidin will begin to attack smaller cities and exploit in the media their successes and victories in order to raise the morale of the mujahidin and the people in general and to demoralize the enemy,” al-Muqrin writes in a passage that brings to mind the Islamic State’s rampage across northern Iraq. “The reason for the mujahidin’s treating of smaller cities is that when the enemy’s forces see the fall of cities into the mujahidin’s hands with such ease their morale will collapse and they will become convinced that they are incapable of dealing with the mujahidin.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters that the Islamic State “is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” That’s true insofar as al-Qaeda did not build a conventional army or declare itself a state. He shouldn’t be so surprised, though. The U.S. national-security apparatus has been following this jihadist ambition for years.

The manual, translated in 2008 by a research fellow at the Marine Corps University, shows how the Islamic State’s efforts to build an army and establish a caliphate reflect a longstanding goal. An Islamic caliphate has been al-Qaeda’s dream from the beginning. Using principles and tactics similar to al-Qaeda’s, the Islamic State has come closer to realizing that dream.

Al-Muqrin’s primary concern was to explain how al-Qaeda could wage war against the Saudi Arabian regime, but the text was intended as an education tool for jihadis in other areas as well. Discussing the book during an interview with National Review Online, Mary Habeck of the American Enterprise Institute noted a Reuters report (of July 8) on a notebook found at a former al-Qaeda “leadership camp” in Yemen. It’s almost certain that the al-Qaeda student who took those notes was being taught al-Muqrin’s ideas.

“This notebook has word for word” a paragraph from al-Muqrin’s book, “slightly differently translated by the two Arabic interpreters,” Habeck pointed out. Many of these terrorists, she explains, “have their intellectual and military roots in al-Qaeda, and this is what al-Qaeda is attempting to do.” The translator, Norman Cigar, wrote that al-​Muqrin’s ideas were disseminated to Iraqi insurgents as early as 2005.

The Islamic State “has a long history and an origin dating back to AQI, al-Qaeda in Iraq,” White House deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes reminded reporters. Obviously, Islamic State terrorists are not constantly referring to al-Muqrin’s book for their next move. Regardless, the manual itself warns, “One must be careful that these characteristics not become a rigid template or a ‘school solution,’ but rather, that they remain adaptable to circumstances in the region.”

#page#The book does provide “a blueprint for other regional insurgencies, or at least a package of ideas to consider and to stimulate the thinking of would-be insurgents elsewhere,” Cigar explains. It provides a window into how such terrorists think about themselves, their enemies, their definition of victory, and how they hope to achieve it.

Al-Muqrin repeatedly advises terrorists to carry out attacks that “clarify the nature of the struggle being waged between the mujahidin and the main enemy — the Jews, the Christians, and their agents.” Attacks are designed to send messages to various audiences, one of the chief goals being to “make clear the religious nature of the struggle,” he writes. The terrorists also plan to wage war on “the apostates,” Muslims who do not subscribe to their understanding of Islam.

The terrorists’ most immediate goal is the overthrow of Middle Eastern regimes that do not reflect their religious beliefs. They view it as a religious duty to oppose elected governments such as the one in Iraq, because “parliaments and election committees are all rulers to whom God did not grant power and it is not permissible to join them,” as al-Muqrin remarks, commenting on another radical group’s tactics.

Al-Muqrin’s teaching ranges from the general to the very particular, such as advice on how to carry out assassinations and hostage-taking operations. In one chilling passage, he ranks human targets in order of importance (Jews first, Christians second, and, within each category, a ranking based on their respective countries of origin). Among his eight objectives for attacking human targets are, first, “making clear what the ideological struggle is about”; humiliating the targeted regime (on September 11, 2001, “America’s nose was ground in the dirt,” he writes); boosting the other jihadis’ morale; “obstruct[ing] the infidels’ and apostates’ political plans”; and “retaliation for their killing of Muslims.”

The beheading of James Foley – who, as an American Christian, was a top-tier human target by al-Muqrin’s standards – fulfills nearly all these objectives. 

“As a government, you have been at the forefront of aggression towards the Islamic State,” Foley’s executioner said in the beheading video, per a transcript taken by the SITE Intelligence Group. “Today, your military air force is attacking us daily in Iraq. Your strikes have caused casualties amongst Muslims. You’re no longer fighting an insurgency, we are an Islamic army and a State that has been accepted by a large number of Muslims worldwide, so effectively, any aggression towards the Islamic State is an aggression towards Muslims from all walks of life who have accepted the Islamic Caliphate as their leadership.”

This is, in terms of the manual, an effort to “mak[e] clear the religious nature of the struggle” and “make clear who the main enemy is.” Note that the killer of Foley argued that the support of individual Muslims from other countries is evidence that the Islamic State is the true Islamic caliphate. He has been speculated to be a British national, who, as the Islamic State’s messenger, would be valuable as living proof that the group’s legitimacy was more than regional.

The Islamic State might also hope that the sight of him would motivate its sympathizers in other countries. That possibility points to an explanation for why President Obama declared that the group “speaks for no religion” and that “no just God stands for what they do.” He’s not merely deferring to multiculturalist conventions but trying to rebut Islamic State propaganda. 

Al-Muqrin makes clear that establishing his preferred version of Islam in traditionally Muslim lands is not enough. “If the mujahidin’​s situation stabilizes, they will then pursue the jihad and the liberation [of] all the Islamic countries from oppression and occupation by the Jews and Christians, and will then undertake to revive the neglected religious duty, that of preemptive jihad,” al-Muqrin writes.

And the manual is a guide not just to the doctrine and tactics of the Islamic State — but to why its defeat is so important.

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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