The Magazine

Know Your Enemy

Al Qaeda’s grand strategy

Jan 20, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 18 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Al Qaeda’s ideologues believed that the status quo before the 2011 Arab uprisings was heretical. They believed that Muslim rulers had abandoned true Islam by neglecting to implement sharia law as defined by al Qaeda. They also believed, and continue to believe, that an imaginary Zionist-Crusader conspiracy has prevented the real believers from achieving success. Therefore, al Qaeda deduced, the conspirators must be confronted.

By striking America, al Qaeda’s most senior leaders believed, they could cause the U.S. government eventually to withdraw its support for various Muslim rulers and Israel. According to bin Laden and other al Qaeda thinkers, American support was the main reason why early jihadist efforts to overthrow Muslim dictatorships ended in bloody fiascos.

Strike America, al Qaeda argued, and it will crumble just as the Soviets did after their embarrassing loss to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. As America’s influence wanes, al Qaeda’s theory of the world continued, the apostate tyrants who rule throughout the Muslim world will become susceptible to the jihadists’ revolution. Al Qaeda and like-minded jihadists can then replace the dictators with pure Islamic states based on sharia law. And these states can then link up to resurrect the Caliphate, a supranational Islamic empire that was dissolved in 1924 and that has taken on a mythical status in al Qaeda’s thinking.  

This is how al Qaeda has long seen the world and why America was struck on September 11, 2001. It is why U.S. interests were attacked well before 9/11 and have continued to be targeted ever since. Al Qaeda’s conspiratorial view of Middle Eastern politics, its deep hatred of the West, and its resentment of Western influence in the Islamic world made such attacks necessary.

Al Qaeda has repeatedly made this strategy clear. In his 2002 letter to the American people, Osama bin Laden emphasized that “our fight against these [Muslim] governments is not separate from our fight against you.” Removing “these governments is an obligation upon us, and a necessary step to free the Ummah [community of believers], to make the Shariah the supreme law and to regain Palestine.”

In private correspondence recovered in bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound nine years later, the terror master repeatedly made the same point. Bin Laden emphasized the necessity of striking American interests as a step towards building a true Islamic state. Bin Laden worried that, however much the United States had been weakened since 9/11, the world’s lone superpower retained the ability to destroy an al Qaeda-style nation should it arise. The “more we can conduct operations against America, the closer we get to uniting our efforts to establish an Islamic State,” bin Laden or one of his top lieutenants wrote in 2010. Still, al Qaeda’s leaders believed that the “time to establish an Islamic state is near, and the jihadist ideology is spreading abroad.”

Al Qaeda adjusted its tactics in the post-9/11 world, especially with American troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bin Laden wrote in another letter that his organization must “concentrate” its “jihad efforts in areas where the conditions are ideal for us to fight.” Bin Laden concluded that “Iraq and Afghanistan are two good examples.”

The centrality of the Iraq war, from al Qaeda’s perspective, was emphasized in a letter from Ayman al Zawahiri, then bin Laden’s top deputy, to the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2005. Zawahiri wrote: “I want to be the first to congratulate you for what God has blessed you with in terms of fighting in the heart of the Islamic world, which was formerly the field for major battles in Islam’s history, and what is now the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era.”

The very fight that Barack Obama has long seen as tangential to al Qaeda’s operations, and even similar to Mafia-style crime, was viewed quite differently by al Qaeda’s leaders. It was the “greatest battle of Islam in this era.”

This was not empty rhetoric. Numerous public and private statements from al Qaeda emphasized the centrality of Iraq and their desire to establish an Islamic state in the heart of the Middle East.

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