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The Ties That Bind: Chairman Mao, Che Guevara, and Al Qaeda
Mao Tse-tung borrowed the revolutionary vanguard from Vladimir Lenin, Ernesto “Che” Guevara liked Mao’s ideas about sanctuaries, and Al Qaeda valued Guevara’s focoist approach to global insurgency. At first glance, the revolutionary strategies of Mao, Guevara, and the intellectuals who devised Al Qaeda’s doctrine for jihad have much in common. They integrated violence into the greater political struggle, viewed the support of the people as essential to the revolution, and stressed the importance of an intellectual vanguard to lead the revolt and ensure military ways and means aligned with political ends. A closer look, however, reveals differences in how Mao, Guevara, and Al Qaeda tailored their approaches to suit the unique needs of the rebellions they led and the strategic environments in which they fought. A deeper assessment also develops a fuller understanding of revolutions and insurgencies, and inform an approach to fighting the Islamic State, or Daesh.
Mao, Guevara, and Al Qaeda revealed their beliefs about revolutionary warfare in their writings. Mao outlined his thoughts in two seminal documents, On Guerrilla Warfare and On Protracted War, both of which detailed his strategy to unite China and defeat Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. Guevara wrote Guerrilla Warfare: A Method to guide his post-Cuba revolutionary efforts in Bolivia and the Congo in the 1960s. Three authors – Abu ‘Ubeid Al-Qurashi, Abu Mu’sab al-Suri, and Abu Bakr Naji – provided the backbone to Al Qaeda’s approach to global jihad in essays published in the early to mid-2000s.
Mao, Guevara, and Al Qaeda agreed that violence should support the revolutionary struggle, but they disagreed about whether it should be the most important factor fueling the rebellion. In the initial stage of the revolt, Mao viewed political agitation as being the main effort, with military action in a supporting role.[i] The movement needed to first build the infrastructure by organizing, consolidating, and securing base areas before guerrillas could launch attacks against regime forces as part of a counteroffensive.[ii] Coherent political action needed to be a precondition for the armed struggle, according to Mao. “Without a political goal, guerrilla warfare must fail, as it must if its political objectives do not coincide with the aspirations of the people and their sympathy, cooperation, and assistance cannot be gained,” he wrote.[iii] Mao argued that a revolutionary war could not be constrained into military action alone – the rebellion also required complementary economic, social, and psychological elements that allowed the revolutionaries to establish a new state structure.[iv]
Like Mao, Guevara and Al Qaeda viewed violence as essential to the revolution. Unlike Mao, they saw violence as the primary effort in the early part of the revolt, setting the conditions to provoke a wider rebellion.[v] Guevara used military action as a form of “armed propaganda,” in the words of Regis Debray, that triggered a reaction from the regime, with the backlash providing a sharp contrast between the regime’s repressive, abusive power and the guerrillas fighting for the people’s freedom. The foco, the small guerrilla center or base, would spark the revolution.[vi] “Violence is not only for the use of the exploiters; the exploited can use it too, and what is more, ought to use it at the opportune moment,” Guevara wrote.[vii] Similarly, Al Qaeda saw military action as a tool to foment its political movement. In The Management of Savagery, Naji devoted a chapter to the primacy and characteristics of violence in the jihad. “If we are not violent in our jihad and if softness seizes us, that will be a major factor in the loss of the element of strength, which is one of the pillars of the Umma of the Message,” he wrote.[viii] Naji also justified brutal tactics such as burning to death captured enemy forces, apostates, and infidels because the subsequent shock value deterred opponents and attracted new fighters to the cause.[ix] Through the use of small, dispersed bands of focoist guerrillas, Al Qaeda fought a global insurgency that used violence to control territory and radicalize the people.[x] “Every military battle,” Qurashi concluded, “is a speech that aims at increasing revolutionary awareness.”[xi]
Mao, Guevara, and Al Qaeda recognized the importance of popular support, but their differing conceptions of what constitutes a people’s war are notable. Mao and Guevara customized their revolutionary narratives to the agrarian realities of China and Cuba, respectively, reframing a Marxist-Leninist proletariat revolt into a rural uprising to capitalize on the grievances and additional manpower the latter could provide. Guevara even deemphasized the plight of the urban proletariat. “No matter how hard the living conditions of the urban workers are, the rural population lives under even more horrible conditions of oppression and exploitation,” Guevara wrote.[xii] After continuous attacks by rural guerrillas diminished the ranks of regime forces, the working class and urban masses could eventually join the revolution and participate in a decisive battle, according to Guevara. Al Qaeda also subscribed to Mao’s conception of a people’s war, attempting to leverage social, political, and economic grievances to recruit more fighters to the jihad. Qurashi wrote that the mujahidin could not be defeated “because they are part of the people and they hid among the masses. This strategy is enough to end the superiority of advanced weapons, which are primarily designed for use in open areas with well-defined features.” As a result, “stateless nations” have the ability to defeat nation-states, Qurashi concluded.[xiii] Writing about the mujahidin fight against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, Naji stressed the need to revive “dogma and jihad in the hearts of the Muslim masses,” particularly after witnessing “the example and model of these poor, Afghani people – their neighbors – in jihad. They were able to remain steadfast in the face of the strongest military arsenal and the most vicious army (in the world) with respect to the nature of its members at that time.”[xiv]
Guevara and Al Qaeda agreed that people living within the foco do not necessarily need to be on the side of the rebellion at the beginning of the struggle, and that it might be necessary to build the revolution externally, using foreign fighters, to spark the revolution and spur neutral locals to the cause. Guerrilla violence – and the oppressive regime’s response to the violence – could radicalize neutrals living in rebel sanctuaries. “We should not be afraid of violence, the midwife of new societies; only such violence should be unleashed precisely at the moment when the people's leaders find circumstances most favourable,” Guevara wrote.[xv]
Yet both Guevara and Al Qaeda encountered significant problems trying to harness local grievances to their focoist approach. Guevara and his Cuban vanguard failed to inspire a larger revolt in the Congo in 1964 and struggled to gain local support from the local populace in Bolivia in 1965 – the latter campaign ending with Che’s capture and execution at the hands of government forces.[xvi] Similarly, Al Qaeda has had difficulty aligning myriad local grievances into a global jihad.[xvii] “Political, economic, social and geographic conditions differ radically across the Muslim world,” wrote Mark Stout. “Hence, it is difficult to imagine that a generic blueprint for revolution will work in all countries.”[xviii]
Mao, Guevara, and Al Qaeda all stressed the need for an intellectual vanguard to lead the revolution, educate the masses, and ensure military actions aligned with political objectives. Both Mao and Guevara discussed the importance of synchronization of military and political objectives. Without any irony, they prescribed the use of political elites to lead revolts with the ultimate goal of a dictatorship of the proletariat and equality among all people. “The war that we are fighting today for the emancipation of the Chinese is a part of the war for the freedom of all human beings, and the independent, happy, and liberal China that we are fighting to establish fighting today will be a part of that new world order,” Mao wrote. “A conception like this is difficult for the simple-minded militarist to grasp and it must therefore be carefully explained to him.”[xix] Guevara also defined the relationship between the political elites leading the revolution and the rural guerrillas who provide the bulk of the manpower and support from the foco. “The peasantry is a class which, because of the ignorance in which it has been kept and the isolation in which it lives, requires the revolutionary and political leadership of the working class and the revolutionary intellectuals,” Guevara wrote. “Without that it cannot alone launch the struggle and achieve victory.” The vanguard bears a special responsibility to ensure the people are aware of the political objectives for which they are fighting, according to Suri. “It is necessary that an elite bears the costs of reviving the jihad in people’s reality after it has been completely forgotten,” he wrote.[xx] Al Qaeda’s vanguard would design a military campaign that exhausted enemy forces and drained regime coffers, as well as a media strategy that recruited new jihadists and marginalized those who refused to join, according to Naji.[xxi] “The people will be patient with us as long as we are in the vanguard of those who are patient,” he wrote. “But if we begin to complain, lament, and worry from now on, then the people have the right to be worried (about us).”[xxii]
Mao, Guevara, and Al Qaeda each developed a framework for revolution and guerrilla warfare shaped by their respective experiences in China, Cuba, and parts of the world where totalitarian Islamism thrived. Although Mao himself never tried to export revolution beyond Asia, his ideas found receptive audiences among rebellions around the world. Guevara borrowed the chairman’s ideas about political action, violence, popular support, and an intellectual vanguard to fit the conditions of his revolts in Cuba, Latin America, and Africa. Both Mao and Guevara influenced Al Qaeda’s leading thinkers, who stressed the primacy of violence in setting the conditions for the revolution and the value of brutal tactics that shocked opponents into obedience and radicalized new members. Although Mao, Guevara, and many of Al Qaeda’s leaders and thinkers are dead, their ideas have lived on to shape Daesh the next generation of revolutionaries.
Guevara, Ernesto “Che.” “Guerrilla Warfare: A Method.” Cuba Socialista (September 1963).
Mao, Tse-tung. On Guerrilla Warfare, trans. by Samuel B. Griffith. New York, NY: Praeger Publishers (1961).
Mao, Tse-Tung. On The Protracted War (May-June 1938). https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-2/mswv2_09.htm#bm19
Naji, Abu Bakr. The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Phase Through Which the Ummah Will Pass, trans. by William McCants. John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University (May 2006).
Payne, Kenneth. “Building the Base: Al Qaeda's Focoist Strategy.” Conflict & Terrorism 34, no. 2 (2011).
Stout, Mark. “The Makers of Jihadist Strategy.” War on the Rocks book review of Michael W. S. Ryan’s Decoding Al Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America (February 4, 2014). http://warontherocks.com/2014/02/the-makers-of-jihadist-strategy/
[i] Kenneth Payne, “Building the Base: Al Qaeda's Focoist Strategy,” Conflict & Terrorism 34, no. 2 (2011), 125.
[ii] Mao Tse-Tung, On The Protracted War (taken from a series of lectures given by Mao Tse-tung in May-June 1938), paragraphs 36-37. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected- works/volume-2/mswv2_09.htm
[iii] Mao Tse-tung, On Guerrilla Warfare, trans. by Samuel B. Griffith (New York, NY: Praeger Publishers, 1961), 43.
[iv] Mao, On Guerrilla Warfare, 7.
[v] Ernesto “Che” Guevara, “Guerrilla Warfare: A Method,” Cuba Socialista (September 1963), 9-10.
[vi] Payne, “Building the Base: Al Qaeda's Focoist Strategy,” 125.
[vii] Guevara, “Guerrilla Warfare: A Method,” 8.
[viii] Abu Bakr Naji, The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Phase Through Which the Ummah Will Pass, trans. by William McCants (John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University, May 2006), 73
[ix] Naji, The Management of Savagery, 74-75.
[x] Payne, 124.
[xi] Ibid, 130.
[xii] Guevara, 7-8.
[xiii] Payne, 129.
[xiv] Naji, The Management of Savagery, 30.
[xv] Guevara, 9.
[xvi] Payne, 127-128.
[xvii] Ibid, 128.
[xviii] Mark Stout, “The Makers of Jihadist Strategy,” War on the Rocks book review of Michael W. S. Ryan’s Decoding Al Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America, February 4, 2014 (accessed March 20, 2016). http://warontherocks.com/2014/02/the-makers-of-jihadist-strategy/
[xix] Mao, On Guerrilla Warfare, 40.
[xx] Payne, 132.
[xxi] Naji, 50-51.
[xxii] Ibid, 105-106.