Small Wars Journal

A Man, A Plan, So What? The Influence of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, Reconsidered

Tue, 07/09/2019 - 1:36am

A Man, A Plan, So What? The Influence of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, Reconsidered

Phillip William Etches


Abu Mus’ab al-Suri—also known as Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, and the author of The Call of Islamic Global Resistance—is a notable figure within the jihadi movement.[1] This is partly because al-Suri is a prominent “jihadi strategic thinker”—someone who, as Hegghammer puts it, writes “about the best way—from a functional point of view—to fight the enemy,” focusing less upon “the theological aspects of the struggle.”[2] This prominence is reflected in the relevant literature, which emphasises the substance and presumed impact of al-Suri’s thinking. Stout characterises al-Suri as “perhaps the leading Salafi jihadist strategic thinker,”[3] asserting that “no other member of the jihadist intellectual elite has made an argument as comprehensive” as that in al-Suri’s work.[4] Lia describes al-Suri as “one of the most outspoken voices in the jihadi current,” whose writings “provoked strong responses and debates.”[5] Zackie describes al-Suri as “al-Qaida’s leading theoretician and strategic thinker…its post 9/11 principal architect,”[6] and his writings as a “masterwork.”[7] Adamsky argues that al-Suri “introduced a methodology and established a precedent of systematic theory-making in jihadi military affairs…[and] introduced the notion of operational art into jihadi military theory and demonstrated its practical applications.”[8] Al-Suri’s acclaim is not universal—Berger, for example, downplays al-Suri’s proposed strategy,[9] and despite al-Suri’s limited popularity among virtual jihadi communities,[10] Watts notes that “jihadis like their solutions to be quick” while al-Suri’s principal work is more than 1,500 pages.[11] These reservations aside, however, al-Suri and his ideas mostly enjoy elevated stature among jihadi strategic thinkers.

Despite al-Suri’s reputation, however, questions exist about the relevance of his work, and jihadi strategic thought as a whole. Broadly, the relevance of jihadi strategic thought is unclear. Some note its potential to enable clearer understandings of jihadi behaviour. Brachman & McCants hint at “strategic and tactical insights that can be gleaned” from works of jihadi strategic thought like al-Suri’s,[12] while Zabel infers a “military strategy of global jihad” from writings by al-Suri and others,[13] and Drinkwine cites al-Suri’s work to reinforce other claims about al-Qa’ida.[14] Others authors argue jihadi strategic thought’s irrelevance—Fishman asserts that “most al-Qaeda strategic plans go nowhere,” for example.[15] Neither side of this debate is based upon a substantial analysis, though, calling into question the actual influence and relevance of jihadi strategic thought. Given al-Suri’s prominence among jihadi strategic thinkers, his ideas fit within this broader and largely unsubstantiated debate.

A narrower set of questions concern the influence of al-Suri’s thinking upon the insurgency of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI),[16] which began after the Ba’athist regime’s fall in 2003 and arguably ended when instability worsened in Syria and United States forces largely withdrew from Iraq in 2011. These questions arise because of the assumption or intimation of al-Suri’s influence upon AQI by some authors. Whiteside states that AQI’s former leader, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, received an education “mostly from Abu Musab al-Suri’s work on the failed Syrian rebellion and Suri’s advocacy of revolutionary warfare.”[17] Smith & Jones write that al-Suri’s thinking “influences the transnational online strategy of the Islamic State,”[18] which grew from AQI. Similarly, Cruickshank & Ali suggest that al-Suri’s teachings influenced “the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.”[19] These claims are not entirely groundless—Islamic State-affiliated authors claim that former leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi knew of al-Suri’s thinking, albeit without embracing it,[20] while McCants observes that jihadis are familiar with al-Suri’s writings,[21] and al-Qa’ida notable Ayman al-Zawahiri commends al-Suri’s work.[22] However, the claims described above are not supported by an analysis which demonstrates that al-Suri’s thinking was reflected in the organisation, operations, or development of AQI. This creates a gap in which to fit the specific question of this paper—has al-Suri’s thinking really influenced AQI in any outwardly-observable fashion?

That gap is relevant to academics and counterinsurgency practitioners alike. Jihadi insurgent organisations are presently among the most visible security threats, and as Levy puts it, "a comprehensive doctrine of jihadist operations…[can enable] sounder policy prescriptions and prosecute more effective anti-IS [Islamic State] operations.”[23] But at the same time, reliable unclassified data about jihadi strategic and operational preferences are not readily available. This necessitates a consideration of if and how materials produced by persons like al-Suri should be exploited, and what the limits of those materials’ usefulness are. While analyses within classified settings may address this issue, those analyses are unhelpful to academics who operate in the unclassified setting and play a role in supporting practitioners via education or consultation—it takes a village, after all. As a first step in considering the relevance of “jihadi strategic thought,” then, it is worth considering whether al-Suri’s ideas have really influenced AQI, as some authors suggest.

Claims, Methods, and Sources

In response to that question, this paper makes the claim that authors should be wary of overestimating the influence and relevance of al-Suri to AQI, as although it has been repeatedly assumed or intimated, that influence has mostly not been evident—AQI’s behaviour was mostly at variance with al-Suri’s expressed thinking. While AQI organised itself in a way mostly accordant with al-Suri’s thinking, it operated and developed in a manner largely divergent from al-Suri’s dicta.

To support that claim, the remainder of this paper adopts a comparative-historical methodology, using publicly available data. The methodology involves a structured comparison of al-Suri’s strategic thought to the actual organisational, operational, and developmental phenomena exhibited by AQI. It compares al-Suri’s thinking—as articulated in the The Call of Global Islamic Resistance—to AQI, according to a framework of categories of significant observable phenomena and uses said comparison to determine whether that thinking was actually reflected in AQI’s behaviour.

That framework focuses the analyses of al-Suri’s thinking and AQI into categories of observable organisational, operational, and developmental phenomena, which are developed from the theoretical and practitioners’ literature on insurgency and counterinsurgency.[24]

Four categories of organisational phenomena are used to assess the intended and actual structure, development, and internal relations of the insurgency. The first is the influence of pre-conflict social networks upon the insurgency’s structure and behaviour. These networks influence the insurgency by shaping its organisational structure and preferences.[25] The second is the strength of horizontal ties which ensure coordination between decisionmakers across organisational and geospatial distances.[26] The third is whether the organisation grows purposefully, allowing it to escape the early-stage insecurity common to nascent insurgencies,[27] and gain freedom of action.[28] The fourth is related to the presence of auxiliaries which enable insurgencies to safely conduct activities other than war,[29] and increase organisational survivability.[30] Those categories do not facilitate an exhaustive analysis—other relevant organisational phenomena exist but cannot be readily observed in publicly-available data, including arrangements by which insurgents appear to obtain supplies,[31] and relationships of dependency between insurgents and supportive third parties.[32] But they do facilitate the best feasible analysis of the extent to which AQI and IS’s structure, development, and internal relations accorded with al-Suri’s guidance.

Alongside the categories of organisational phenomena, five categories of significant operational phenomena relate to insurgencies’ activities. The first relates to whether insurgents’ relations with the population are coercive or co-optive. While an insurgency seeks popular support for material and political purposes,[33] whether support is achieved through a relationship which is coercive rather than cooperative is a way in which an insurgency can distinguish itself.[34] The second category relates to whether the insurgency seeks to provoke a government or popular backlash—a behaviour of some past insurgencies to which the literature calls attention.[35] The third concerns whether the insurgency seeks to disrupt or usurp normal governmental functions, as some past insurgencies have.[36] The fourth category relates to whether an insurgency seeks to penetrate or co-opt the government or security forces—a threat against which the practitioners’ literature warns.[37] Finally, the fifth addresses whether an insurgency exhibits a willingness to seize territory as past insurgencies have,[38] and hold that seized territory at significant cost. As with the organisational phenomena, some relevant operational phenomena are excluded from the framework—these include the role of nonviolent activism,[39] which complements military operations;[40] and whether the insurgency clearly favours urban terrorism or rural guerrilla warfare.[41] But also like the categories of organisational phenomena, the included categories of operational phenomena facilitate the best feasible analysis of whether the operations of AQI reflected the strategic thought of al-Suri.

Alongside the organisational and operational phenomena, a separate indicator relates to the insurgency’s development, measured via its lifecycle stages. This indicator focuses upon specific identifiable stages of the insurgency’s lifecycle, whether those stages resembled those envisioned by al-Suri,[42] and whether those lifecycles reflected the broader strategic trajectory envisioned by al-Suri. It is included because insurgencies develop over time,[43] and behavioural changes can chart that development.[44] While other indicators concern organisational and operational issues, this indicator relates to whether an insurgency developed in line with al-Suri’s envisioned lifecycle.

The comparison which the framework facilitates is feasible with publicly-available information. Al-Suri’s own preferences are drawn from The Call of Global Islamic Resistance, which is available online and most clearly articulates his views. For information about AQI, media, academic, and institutional sources concerning AQI and events in Iraq more broadly, as well as incident data from the University of Chicago’s Suicide Attack Database and the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD), are used. It is by exploiting those sources within the structure of the framework that the comparison of this paper is undertaken.


As stated previously, comparing al-Suri’s thought with AQI’s behaviour shows that despite organising in ways mostly resembling al-Suri’s thinking, AQI’s operations and development mostly varied from that thinking. That comparison occurs along the lines of the framework described above.

AQI appeared to organise mostly in accordance with al-Suri’s thinking. There are three categories of organisational phenomena wherein this accordance was evident—the relative non-influence of pre-conflict social networks, AQI’s purposeful organisational growth, and the formation of auxiliaries. However, there was also one area of variance—the strength of AQI’s internal horizontal ties.

The relative non-influence of pre-conflict social networks upon AQI’s structure and behaviour was in line with al-Suri’s thinking. In al-Suri’s view, such networks’ influence was best limited, with ideological and political preferences being determined by insurgent elites.[45] AQI arguably reflected this preference. Desiring relative unity, AQI leaders integrated Iraqis into senior positions and exploited pre-existing social links to recruit them.[46] The resulting cohesion inured AQI to other networks’ preferences, including those within the broader transnational al-Qa’ida movement.[47] External indications reflected this. For one, AQI’s preferences persisted amidst leadership changes—despite reductions in attacks following the death of former leader, al-Zarqawi,[48] repeated re-brandings, further leadership changes,[49] and pressure from third parties, the frequency and character of AQI’s attacks did not significantly change,[50] nor did its unwillingness to engage with the political process. AQI’s alienation of more-moderate networks was also consistent with an unwillingness to accommodate pre-conflict networks’ preferences: in 2005, tribal fighters from Albu Mahal attacked AQI;[51] while in 2007, Ansar al-Sunnah, the 1920 Brigades, and Iraqi Hamas formed a separate partnership.[52] These external indications, alongside reports of AQI own affairs, show that pre-conflict social networks’ influence upon AQI was weak, as al-Suri advocated.

Organisational accordance was also evident in AQI’s purposeful growth. Al-Suri prioritised cautious, purposeful growth.[53] This was reflected in AQI. The insurgency’s growth began before the conflict, with former leader al-Zarqawi building a network in Iraq before US entry in 2003.[54] In worsening circumstances following 2003, AQI continued integrating new members locally, and via foreign fighter flows.[55] AQI’s early behaviour reflected the resultant growth. The organisation operated in various locales across Iraq, and AQI’s attacks initially reflected its expansion—AQI’s operational tempo hastened in its early years, while human capital-intensive suicide bombings increased in greater proportion to other attack modalities.[56] Admittedly, growth eventually lessened as security forces’ capability increased,[57] and AQI never outgrew other insurgent actors in Iraq.[58] But ultimately, AQI matched al-Suri’s thinking by growing purposefully when able.

A third area of organisational accordance was in AQI’s formation of auxiliaries. Al-Suri recommended forming auxiliaries for information operations, separate from normal military activities.[59] AQI itself formed auxiliaries for non-military functions, containing persons who supported operations by facilitating transfers of equipment and non-Iraqi personnel.[60] Also present were personnel responsible for information operations,[61] assassinations, managing hostages,[62] or criminality to fund the insurgency.[63] Together with pre-conflict social networks’ limited influence and purposeful growth, those auxiliaries’ presence indicated that AQI’s organisation mostly reflected al-Suri’s thinking.

This is not to say that AQI’s organisation wholly reflected al-Suri’s views. Organisational variance was evident in the strength of AQI’s horizontal ties. Al-Suri agitated against those linkages—leaders’ horizontal ties should be limited,[64] unity should result from ideological commonalities, and intergroup communications should be limited among operational personnel.[65] In contrast, AQI desired strong horizontal ties. The organisation was clearly structured, and commanders could engage with colleagues, with roles established for information, intelligence, financial, and other officers. Operational and tactical decision-making was delegated to local commanders, facilitating decisions informed by local situational awareness, and pre-existing relationships were leveraged when recruiting to ensure mutual trust.[66] AQI’s behaviour reflected this. AQI commanders gathered to consult and plan coordinated activities;[67] while in 2006, as external pressure increased, AQI reduced its operational footprint in certain areas.[68] Rather than limiting them as al-Suri recommended, AQI developed strong horizontal linkages. Leaving aside this area of variance, though, AQI’s organisation mostly reflected the strategic thought articulated by al-Suri.

While AQI’s organisation was mostly in line al-Suri’s thinking, though, its operations and development were mostly not. In four of five categories of operational phenomena, variance appeared—AQI’s relations with the population, the use of provocations, the penetration or co-optation of the government or security forces, and the willingness to seize territorial control. That said, AQI’s disruption and attempted usurpation of the functions of government was arguably in keeping with al-Suri’s stated preferences.

AQI’s toxic relations with the population in Iraq were a point of departure from al-Suri. In al-Suri’s view, support was best attained by leveraging pre-existing grievances “sufficient to carry them [the people] to jihad.”[69] In contrast, AQI maintained coercive relationships with local populations, particularly tribes in Iraq’s west.[70] The insurgency encroached upon all major areas of life. AQI sought political control by undermining local leaders’ autonomy, denouncing traditional tribal society as un-Islamic, encouraging younger members to attack AQI’s opponents,[71] and assassinating dissenting leaders.[72] AQI also attempted to dominate social affairs, restricting alcohol, mixed-gender interactions, and other matters, while violently enforcing those restrictions.[73] Further, AQI sought to replace customary laws with a religiously-based order, enforcing judgments severely. Finally, AQI forcefully entered economic life, expropriating business revenues,[74] while preventing tribal leaders from accessing US-backed investment.[75] Local actors’ backlashes against AQI attested to this coercive relationship. In 2005, tribes from the Dulaimi confederation struck AQI, provoking AQI recriminations; in 2006, the Mahal and Albu Nimr, as well as several tribal networks within Anbar Salvation Council, rose against AQI;[76] and in 2007, anti-AQI mobilisation coalesced as “Sahwa” (Awakening) militias, eliciting reactions from AQI leaders.[77] Similarly, persons living under AQI rule cooperated with security forces—the Anbar People’s Council began supporting police in 2005,[78] while the rate of civilian tips for insurgent weapons caches increased significantly in 2006-7.[79] Like the direct indications, this popular backlash illustrated that AQI’s relations with local populations, contrary to al-Suri’s guidance, were coercive.

The second area of operational variance related to AQI’s use of provocations. In al-Suri’s thinking, provocations are inadvisable in early campaign stages as they may provoke overwhelming security responses,[80] but for inspiring popular support,[81] or—later—provoking winnable confrontations with security forces.[82] In contrast, AQI intended and acted to provoke reactions from the government and public from its campaign’s early stages. This is based partly upon AQI’s known intent—in 2004, former leader al-Zarqawi expressed a desire for sectarian conflict in Iraq.[83] AQI’s actions reflected that intent. For much of its insurgency, AQI perpetrated strikes likely to provoke government and public responses. These included the 2003 Jordanian embassy bombing,[84] the 2003 killing of a prominent Shi’i figure,[85] the 2006 bombing of a notable mosque in Samarra,[86] and a tendency in the late 2000s to target religious minorities and institutions.[87] More broadly, GTD data indicate a pattern of attacks against security force, government, and diplomatic targets between 2003 and 2005, which continued—aside from a decline in attacks against diplomatic targets—into the late 2000s.[88] For much of its insurgency, AQI sought to provoke a response, in contradiction of al-Suri’s advice.

A third area of variance was in AQI’s failure to substantially co-opt or penetrate Iraq’s security forces. Al-Suri encouraged such behaviour when possible, including by avoiding engagements with security forces in order to encourage defections,[89] but AQI did not clearly reflect this recommendation. Media reporting is not wholly consistent with collaboration between security forces and AQI, and establishing collaboration resultant from infiltration or co-optation is difficult. Some reports indicate security personnel collaboration with Sunni insurgents, among whom may have been AQI. In 2004, one report indicated an Iraqi military officer aiding insurgents near Kirkuk.[90] In 2007, Iraqi authorities dismissed a mayor and 1,500 police officers for alleged collaboration with Sunni insurgents.[91] In 2011, an Iraqi soldier was convicted of killing two US personnel, and was allegedly an AQI member.[92] Further, data show that while the tempo of attacks against security forces varied, AQI never ceased attacking security forces in a manner which might encourage defections as al-Suri suggested.[93] As such, clear proof of AQI’s infiltration or co-optation of the government or security forces—in keeping with al-Suri’s thinking on the matter—was absent.

The fourth area of operational variance related to AQI’s willingness to maintain territorial control. Al-Suri had counselled against this, recommending that insurgencies avoid consolidating and defending territorial control before later stages of their development.[94] In contrast, AQI sought to establish and maintain territorial control early on, although its resolve to do so gradually declined. Initially, AQI resisted efforts to expel it from territory. In 2004, several insurgent organisations—including AQI—turned Fallujah into an environment wherein they could operate relatively freely,[95] while AQI attempted to assert leadership in that city.[96] Forcing AQI from Fallujah required two offensives by security forces,[97] which—given the insurgents’ resistance—substantially damaged the city.[98] AQI’s willingness to fight for territorial control declined after Fallujah, however. The insurgency was more cautious in Ramadi in 2006 after losing Fallujah,[99] focusing more on specific areas of the city before eventually being expelled by security forces,[100] while in 2007 and 2008, in Anbar, it faced growing pressure from security forces,[101] and responded by consolidating its presence in Ninewa rather than attempting to defend its presence in Anbar.[102] By 2009, AQI had consolidated itself in Diyala and Ninewa, with networks around Baghdad and in eastern Anbar,[103] allowing itself to be forced underground.[104]  This change illustrated the broader point: while its resolve to do so declined, AQI wished to maintain some territorial control. It was in this, and its coercive relations with the population, provocative behaviour, and failure to infiltrate or co-opt the security forces, that AQI’s operations varied from al-Suri’s thinking.

This is not to say that AQI’s exhibited operational phenomena were wholly divergent from al-Suri’s thinking. In one area—the disruption or usurpation of government functions, accordance was at least partly evident. Disruption and usurpation was endorsed by al-Suri,[105] and a feature of AQI. After the 2003 fall of the Ba’ath government, AQI targeted infrastructure, security forces,[106] and critical professionals, while threatening those who facilitated or encouraged political engagement,[107] or were central to tribal politics.[108] This continued into AQI’s later years, as the insurgency continued targeting government and local security forces, services, and infrastructure.[109] Simultaneously, AQI made token attempts to usurp government functions through its efforts to assert social, political, and economic control; and seized control over healthcare, education, and petroleum production facilities.[110] AQI was not successful in its attempts to disrupt the functions of government and made no meaningful efforts to usurp them, though. While it disrupted essential services by targeting infrastructure and professionals, AQI did not itself provide those services.[111] Further, attempts at political obstruction failed, with at least seventy percent of AQI’s preferred constituency— Sunni Arabs—registering to vote,[112] and the 2005 and 2010 elections proceeding with majority participation.[113] Alongside other evidence, this reinforced AQI’s intent—but ultimate failure—to disrupt government functions as al-Suri encouraged, and its unwillingness to meaningfully usurp them. Amidst the areas of operational variance, however, this limited accordance did not change the fact that AQI’s exhibited operational phenomena mostly diverged from al-Suri’s thinking.

The variance between AQI and al-Suri’s thinking was also reflected in the overall development of AQI’s insurgency—for the most part, its overall lifecycle differed from the sort of campaign al-Suri had envisioned in The Call of Global Islamic Resistance. Al-Suri advocated an insurgency with a lifecycle spanning three stages. The first sees a balance between progress and organisational survival. Operating in small groups, the insurgency operates at limited scale and risk, undertaking assassinations, small guerrilla operations, ambushes, and bombings to induce security force exhaustion, and political and economic failure. The second stage sees the insurgency become more ambitious and tolerant of risk. Insurgents undertake larger operations, compelling security forces into confrontations of insurgents’ choosing and seizing territory opportunistically. The third stage is an offensive, resolving the conflict. Insurgents shift to semi-regular attacks and regular military operations, consolidate territorial control, and use terrorism to complement conventional engagements.[114] Together, those three stages would constitute a lifecycle whereby the insurgency gradually escalates, becoming more aggressive and ambitious in its efforts to hold territory and operate increasingly freely. Like the organisational and operational phenomena described above, it is reasonable to expect that insurgencies which accorded with al-Suri’s strategic thought would develop similarly.

AQI’s development did not, ultimately, resemble that lifecycle described by al-Suri. Variance appeared in the AQI lifecycle’s individual stages, and its aggregate. In the individual stages, resemblance to al-Suri’s proposed lifecycle was inconsistent. Similarities were initially apparent: between 2003 and 2004, AQI established itself within the post-Ba’athist landscape and attacking a wide range of targets.[115] While developing relationships with other militant actors in this period,[116] AQI operated discreetly—its involvement in the 2003 Jordanian embassy bombing,[117] for example, was not initially apparent.[118] This reflected al-Suri’s cautious first stage. AQI’s insurgency also resembled al-Suri’s second stage between 2004 and 2006, as it became more aggressive. It declared an association with al-Qa’ida,[119] perpetrating more attacks against more targets,[120] and sought an overt role for itself by entrenching itself in significant locales, including Fallujah and Ramadi.[121] In sum, AQI’s lifecycle initially resembled that proposed by al-Suri.

Later stages of AQI’s lifecycle differed from al-Suri’s vision, though, as did the overall lifecycle. Between 2006 and 2009, the insurgency’s defensive behaviour did not resemble any stage al-Suri described. To prevent attacks by other actors in a time of relative vulnerability, AQI rebranded as the Islamic State of Iraq,[122] increasingly targeting private citizens instead of security forces.[123] Responding to pressure from US, Iraqi, and local tribal forces,[124] it reduced its overt presence in Anbar and dispersed elsewhere, including Diyala and Ninewa.[125] Similarly, the counteroffensive from 2009 to 2011, as Iraqi forces’ role grew,[126] only vaguely resembled al-Suri’s first proposed stage. Rather than bringing increasing pressure to bear against the government, AQI became an underground organisation again,[127] maintaining a presence in Diyala and Ninewa, and discreet networks around Baghdad and eastern Anbar.[128] It also avoided major confrontations with security forces,[129] which became more hazardous as more essential AQI personnel were killed in confrontations.[130] Instead, AQI increasingly perpetrated firearm and bombing attacks against police, government, and military targets; and shifted its attention from the civilians it had targeted in the preceding stage of its campaign—contrary to al-Suri’s call to induce “exhaustion.”[131]

AQI’s lifecycle still varied from al-Suri’s vision when considered in the aggregate. This was evident in the campaign’s overall direction: while al-Suri advocated ongoing escalation and increasingly ambitious efforts to expand the organisation and its territory, AQI became less ambitious and increasingly prioritised survival as its campaign progressed. AQI’s insurgency also did not “mature,” with AQI never operating in a manner resembling al-Suri’s final lifecycle stage—with terror and guerrilla tactics complementing conventional operations amidst territorial seizures. In both the divisible stages and totality of its lifecycle, AQI’s development varied from al-Suri’s thinking, just as its operations did.


The results of the above comparison indicate discrepancies between al-Suri’s strategic thought and the actual practice of AQI. While AQI organised in a way mostly resembling al-Suri’s dicta, its operations and development mostly varied from al-Suri’s thinking. Those results support the paper’s principal claim: authors should be wary of overestimating the influence and relevance of al-Suri to AQI, as although it has been repeatedly assumed or intimated, that influence was mostly not reflected in AQI.

The results, and the claim they support, precipitate several observations. First, as noted previously, assuming al-Suri’s influence on jihadi insurgent behaviour is not entirely illogical, but the results of this paper show that such an assumption is not actually reflected in the actual practice of AQI. This has bearing beyond the case of AQI and al-Suri—it begs the question of whether other well-received works of jihadi strategic thought will ultimately be of real relevance for other jihadi insurgencies. Second, the test which led to the paper’s results demonstrates that a basic structured comparison between strategic thought and insurgent practice may be a good starting point for academics or practitioners seeking to determine the influence or relevance of jihadi strategic thinkers to the jihadi insurgencies to which they could plausibly be linked. Third, not every analysis which considers al-Suri’s ideas, jihadi strategic thought, or jihadi insurgency needs to be disregarded, but authors should be cognizant of the fact that at least in the case of al-Suri and AQI, strategic thought was mostly not reflected in insurgent practice. This is of particular relevance for scholars and practitioners acting on suggestions like those made by Brachman & McCants—that works of jihadi strategic thought are a potential source of “strategic and tactical insights.”[132]

Obviously, the paper’s findings are not the end of any inquiry into al-Suri, AQI, jihadi strategic thought, or jihadi insurgency. Rather, limitations to the paper’s claims, sources, methods, and results open the way for further research. For one, there are jihadi strategic thinkers besides al-Suri, whose place in the academic literature and actual relevance may be worth examining—Abu Bakr Naji and ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Muqrin, for example. They could plausibly have influence were al-Suri does not, while there are also insurgencies besides AQI which are associated with the jihadi movement. Second, a more complex test, undertaken using a larger analytical framework and enabled with data gathered in cooperation with government and non-government sources, may enable a better analysis. Third, there is the question of why strategy-praxis variance occurred, which bears upon the relevance of al-Suri’s thinking, and of jihadi strategic thought more broadly. Most interestingly, there is a final question of whether accordance between strategic thought and actual insurgent practice would mark jihadi strategic thinkers as influential, or as persons who accurately observe the substance and character of certain types of conflict. This is a feasible path of inquiry—Rich addresses it when talking about Che Guevara’s focismo strategy,[133] for example—and it is worth considering whether some works of jihadi strategic thought really contain strategic prescriptions, or accurate descriptions of how the types of conflict pursued by jihadis occur.

End Notes

[1] Mustafa bin Abdulqadir Setmariam A.K.A. "Abu Musab al-Suri" Nasar, The Call of Global Islamic Resistance (Online: Made Available by, 2004).

[2] Thomas Hegghammer, "Global Jihadism After the Iraq War," The Middle East Journal 60, no. 1 (2006): 16.

[3] Mark Stout, "In Search of Salafi Jihadist Strategic Thought: Mining the Words of the Terrorists," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 32, no. 10 (2009): 879.

[4] Ibid., 886.

[5] Brynjar Lia, "Jihadis Divided Between Strategists and Doctrinarians," in Fault Lines in Global Jihad: Organizational, Strategic, and Ideological Fissures, ed. Assaf Moghadam and Brian Fishman (Wiltshire: Routledge, 2011), 71.

[6] M. W. Zackie, "An Analysis of Abu Mus'ab al-Suri's "Call to Global Islamic Resistance"," Journal of Strategic Security 6, no. 1 (2013): 1.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Dima Adamsky, "Jihadi Operational Art: The Coming Wave of Jihadi Strategic Studies," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 33, no. 1 (2009): 8.

[9] J.M. Berger, "Can "Lone Wolves" Travel in Packs,"  Intelwire (2011),

[10] Richard Shultz, Strategic Culture And Strategic Studies: An Alternative Framework For Assessing al-Qaeda And The Global Jihad Movement (Macdill Air Force Base: Joint Special Operations University, 2012), 32.

[11] Clint Watts, "Do al Qaeda Affiliates Actually Have a Plan?,"  Geopoliticus (2013),

[12] Jarret M. Brachman and William F. McCants, "Stealing Al Qaeda's Playbook," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 29, no. 4 (2006): 317-18.

[13] Sarah Zabel, The Military Strategy of Global Jihad, (Online: Strategic Studies Institute, 2007),  1.

[14] Brian Drinkwine, The Serpent in Out Garden: Al-Qa'ida and The Long War, (Published Online: Strategic Studies Institute, 2009),  20.

[15] Brian Fishman, The Master Plan: ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 37.

[16] AQI has also operated under other names, including “The Organisation for Monotheism and Jihad,” and “Islamic State of Iraq.”

[17] Craig Whiteside, "The Islamic State and the Return of Revolutionary Warfare," Small Wars & Insurgencies 27, no. 5 (2016): 748.

[18] M.L.R. Smith and David Martin Jones, "The Strategy of Savagery: Explaining the Islamic State,"  War on The Rocks (2015),

[19] Paul Cruickshank and Mohannad Hage Ali, "Abu Musab Al Suri: Architect of the New Al Qaeda," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 30, no. 1 (2007): 9-10.

[20] Abu 'Abdir-Rahman al-Banghali, "The Revival of Jihad in Bengal," Dabiq 12 (2015): 39.

[21] Will Mccants, "Abu Mus'ab Suri: Architect of Global Jihad Neglected?,"  Jihadica (2008),; "Managing Savagery in Saudi Arabia,"  Jihadica (2008),

[22] Ayman Al-Zawahiri, التبرئة/The Exoneration, (Online: as-Sahab Media, 2008),  54.

[23] Ido Levy, "Toward Understanding the Actions of the Islamic State and Other Jihadist Groups as Military Doctrine,"  Small Wars Journal (2019),

[24] The basis for the components of the analytical framework is also provided in greater depth in Appendix #2.

[25] Paul Staniland, Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse, Illustrated, Reprint ed. (New York: Cornell University Press, 2014), 9, 24.

Daniel Byman, Understanding Proto-Insurgencies, RAND Counterinsurgency Study (Santa Monica: RAND, 2007), 23.

[26] Staniland, Networks of Rebellion, 21-22.

[27] Australian Department of Defence Defence, LWD 3-0-1: Counterinsurgency (Canberra, Australia: Commonwealth of Australia, 2009), 2.09-2.10.

[28] Andrew Molnar, Jerry Tinker, and John LeNoir, DA 550-104: Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies (Washington D.C.: Special Operations Research Office, 1966), 18-19.

[29] Office of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff JCS, JP 3-25: Countering Threat Networks, Joint Publications (Online: US DoD, 2016), F5, III.3.

[30] Molnar, Tinker, and LeNoir, DA 550-104, 19, 23.

[31] Central Intelligence Agency CIA, Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency, (Online: CIA, 2012),  11; Defence, Counterinsurgency, 2.3, 2.8.

[32] CIA, Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency. 15; Defence, Counterinsurgency, 2.6; Molnar, Tinker, and LeNoir, DA 550-104, 30-31.

[33] Defence, Counterinsurgency, 1.3.

[34] CIA, Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency. 23.

[35] Defence, Counterinsurgency, 4D.1; CIA, Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency. 2.

[36] Byman, Understanding Proto-Insurgencies, 15.

[37] CIA, Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency. 14; Defence, Counterinsurgency, 5.17; Molnar, Tinker, and LeNoir, DA 550-104, 2.

[38] Defence, Counterinsurgency, 2.10; United Kingdom Ministry of Defence MoD, British Army Field Manual: Countering Insurgency, vol. 1 (London, UK2009), 1, 1.5; Molnar, Tinker, and LeNoir, DA 550-104, 2.

[39] C. C. Harmon, "Five Strategies of Terrorism," Small Wars & Insurgencies 12, no. 3 (2001): 46.

[40] United States Department of Defense DoD, JP 3-24: Counterinsurgency (Washington D.C.: US DoD, 2009), 2.16.

[41] Ibid., 2.14-2.15.

[42] Nasar, The Call of Global Islamic Resistance, 1421-22.
Abu Bakr Naji, The Management of Savagery: The Most Dangerous Stage Through Which The Ummah Will Pass (McCants's Translation Used for Translation Reference), trans. Will McCants, 2006 ed. (Online: Original Distributed by Aaron Zelin, Translation by the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, 2004), 15.

[43] CIA, Guide to the Analysis of Insurgency. 5; DoD, JP 3-24, xi.

[44] Defence, Counterinsurgency, 2.8.

[45] Nasar, The Call of Global Islamic Resistance, 54, 1403-07.

[46] Chad C. Serena, It Takes More Than a Network: The Iraqi Insurgency and Organizational Adaptation (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2014), 44; Michael Ware, "Papers Give Peek Inside al Qaeda in iraq,"  CNN (2008),

[47] Ayman Al-Zawahiri, "Letter From Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, Dated 09/06/2005," (2005), 6; Al-Qa'ida AQ and Anonymous Author, "AQ-POAK-D-001-504: A Letter to the Leadership of the Islamic State of Iraq," (Washington D.C.: CRRS, 2007).

[48] Associated Press, "Al-Qaida in Iraq's al-Zarqawi 'Terminated',"  NBC News (2006),

[49] Ahmed Hashim, "The Islamic State: From Al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate," Middle East Policy 21, no. 4 (2014): 72-73.

[50] UMD-START, "Data from GTD, Al-Qa'ida in Iraq, Tawhid & Jihad, and Islamic State of Iraq Attacks, 2001 and 2011,"; M. J. Kirdar, Al Qaeda in Iraq, (Online: CSIS, 2011),  5.

[51] Gary Montgomery and Timothy McWilliams, eds., Iraqi Perspectives: From Insurgency to Counterinsurgency in Iraq, 2004-2009 (Quantico: MCUP, 2009), 12-13.

[52] Seumas Milne, "Insurgents Form Political Front to Plan for US Pullout,"  The Guardian (2007),

[53] Nasar, The Call of Global Islamic Resistance, 1399-403.

[54] Kirdar, Al Qaeda in Iraq. 3; Joby Warrick, Black Flags (Toronto, Canada: Doubleday, 2015), 69-71; Fishman, The Master Plan, 22-24.

[55] Brian Fishman and Joseph Felter, Al-Qa'ida's Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records, (West Point: CTC, 2007),  4-5; Myriam Bernard, "Assessing AQI's Resilience After April's Leadership Decapitation," CTC Sentinel 3, no. 6 (2010): 6-7; John Rollins and Liana Sun Wyler, Terrorism and Transnational Crime: Foreign Policy Issues for Congress, (Washington D.C.: CRS, 2013),  15.

[56] Edward Kaplan et al., "What Happened to Suicide Bombings in Israel? Insights From a Terror Stock Model," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 28, no. 3 (2005): 228-32; UMD-START, "Data from GTD, Al-Qa'ida in Iraq, Tawhid & Jihad, and Islamic State of Iraq Attacks, 2001 and 2011".

[57] Brian Fishman, Dysfunction and Decline, (West Point: CTC, 2009),  Executive Summary; Spencer Ackerman, "How Special Ops Copied Al-Qaida to Kill It,"  WIRED (2011),; Michael Flynn, Rich Juergens, and Thomas Cantrell, "Employing ISR SOF Best Practices," Joint Force Quarterly 50, no. 3 (2008).

[58] Anthony Cordesman, Iraq's Sunni Insurgents: Looking Beyond Al Qa'ida, (Washington D.C.: CSIS, 2007),  3-5; Bruce Pirnie and Edward O'Connell, Counterinsurgency in Iraq (2003-2006) (Santa Monica: RAND, 2008), 25-30.

[59] Nasar, The Call of Global Islamic Resistance, 1409, 12.

[60] Cordesman, Iraq's Sunni Insurgents: Looking Beyond Al Qa'ida. 2; Iraq's Insurgency and Civil Violence, (Washington D.C.: CSIS, 2007),  19.

[61] Bill Roggio, "Letters From al Qaeda Leaders Show Iraqi Effort is in Dissarray,"  Long War Journal (2008),

[62] International Crisis Group ICG, In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency, (Online: ICG, 2006),  8.

[63] Rollins and Wyler, Terrorism and Transnational Crime: Foreign Policy Issues for Congress. 31; Phil Williams, Criminals, Militias, and Insurgents: Organized Crime in Iraq, (Online: Strategic Studies Institute, 2009),

[64] Nasar, The Call of Global Islamic Resistance, 54, 1403-07.

[65] Ibid., 1379, 406-407.

[66] Serena, It Takes More Than a Network, 44; Patrick Johnston et al., Foundations of the Islamic State: Management, Money, and Terror in Iraq, 2005–2010 (Santa Monica: RAND, 2016), 71-82.

[67] Ware, "Papers Give Peek Inside al Qaeda in iraq".

[68] Benjamin Bahney et al., An Economic Analysis of the Financial Records of al-Qa'ida in Iraq (Santa Monica: RAND, 2010), 44.

[69] Nasar, The Call of Global Islamic Resistance, 1370.

[70] Bahney et al., An Economic Analysis of the Financial Records of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, 30.

[71] Norman Cigar, Al-Qaida, the Tribes, and the Government: Lessons and Prospects for Iraq's Unstable Triangle, Middle East Studies Occasional Papers (Quantico: MCUP, 2011), 8-10; Jesmeen Khan, "The Iraqi Tribal Structure: Background and Influence on Counter-Terrorism," Perspectives on Terrorism 1, no. 1 (2007): 4-5.

[72] Joel Wing, "Anbar Before and After the Awakening Pt. IX: Sheikh Sabah Aziz of the Albu Mahal,"  Musings on Iraq (2014),

[73] Kenneth Katzman, Al Qaeda in Iraq: Assessment and Outside Links, (Washington D.C.: CRS, 2008),  10-11.

[74] Stephen Biddle, Jeffrey Friedman, and Jacob Shapiro, "Testing the Surge: Why Did Violence Decline in Iraq in 2007?," International Security 37, no. 1 (2012): 20.

[75] Cigar, Al-Qaida, the Tribes, and the Government, 13-16.

[76] Austin Long, "The Anbar Awakening," Survival 50, no. 2 (2008): 79-80.

[77] CNN, "Iraq: Al-Qa'ida Calls for the Sacrifice of Members of the Council of The Awakening/العراق: القاعدة تدعو إلى التضحية بأعضاء مجالس الصحوة," (2007),

[78] Biddle, Friedman, and Shapiro, "Testing the Surge: Why Did Violence Decline in Iraq in 2007?," 20.

[79] Cordesman, Iraq's Insurgency and Civil Violence. 30.

[80] Nasar, The Call of Global Islamic Resistance, 54.

[81] Ibid., 1380.

[82] Ibid., 1422.

[83] US Department of State, "Text of a Letter From Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, Obtained by United States Government in Iraq,"

[84] Askold Krushelnycky, "Iraq: At Least 11 Dead In Jordanian Embassy Bombing In Baghdad,"  Radio Free Europe (2003),

[85] Neil Macfarquhar and Richard Oppel, "After the War: Attack at Shrine; Car Bomb in Iraq Kills 95 at Shiite Mosque,"  New York Times (2003),

[86] Biddle, Friedman, and Shapiro, "Testing the Surge: Why Did Violence Decline in Iraq in 2007?," 15.

[87] US Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2009, (Online: US Department of State, 2010),  121.

[88] UMD-START, "Data from GTD, Al-Qa'ida in Iraq, Tawhid & Jihad, and Islamic State of Iraq Attacks, 2001 and 2011".

[89] Nasar, The Call of Global Islamic Resistance, 54.

[90] Borzou Daragahi, "Massacre Feared a Setup / Infiltrators Plague Iraqi Security Forces,"  SFGate (2004),

[91] Stephen Farrell and Hassan al-Jarrah, "Raids Foil Plot to Kill Shia Pilgrims," The Times, 29/01/2007 2007.

[93] UMD-START, "Data from GTD, Al-Qa'ida in Iraq, Tawhid & Jihad, and Islamic State of Iraq Attacks, 2001 and 2011".

[94] Nasar, The Call of Global Islamic Resistance, 1422.

[95] The Economist, "The Battle for Fallujah Now--and For Hearts and Minds Later," The Economist 373, no. 8401 (2004); Kirdar, Al Qaeda in Iraq. 4.

[96] Bahney et al., An Economic Analysis of the Financial Records of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, 19.

[97] Albert Palazzo, "Perspective From the Coalface: the Battle for Fallujah," Australian Army Journal 4, no. 2 (2007): 167-68.

[98] Pirnie and O'Connell, Counterinsurgency in Iraq, 11-12.

[99] Johnston et al., Foundations of the Islamic State, 15-16.

[100] Niel Smith and Sean Macfarland, "Anbar Awakens: The Tipping Point," Military Review 88, no. 2 (2008): 49-50; David Ucko, "Militias, tribes and insurgents: The challenge of political reintegration in Iraq," Conflict, Security & Development 8, no. 3 (2008): 359.

[101] Andrew Phillips, "How al Qaeda Lost Iraq," Australian Journal of International Affairs 63, no. 1 (2009): 65.

[102] Johnston et al., Foundations of the Islamic State, 23-25; State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2009. 119-20.

[103] Country Reports on Terrorism 2009. 119-20.

[104] Johnston et al., Foundations of the Islamic State, 2-3.

[105] Nasar, The Call of Global Islamic Resistance, 1385-86.

[106] UMD-START, "Data from GTD, Al-Qa'ida in Iraq, Tawhid & Jihad, and Islamic State of Iraq Attacks, 2001 and 2011".

[107] ICG, In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency. 17-18.

[108] Iraq After the Surge I: The New Sunni Landscape, (Online: ICG, 2008),  6-7.

[109] State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2009. 120.

[110] Montgomery and McWilliams, Iraqi Perspectives: From Insurgency to Counterinsurgency in Iraq, 2004-2009, 21, 46.

[111] Johnston et al., Foundations of the Islamic State, 101-02.

[112] Kenneth Katzman, Iraq: Politics, Elections, and Benchmarks, (Washington D.C.: CRS, 2009),  2.

[113] Kanan Makiya, "The Iraqi Elections of 2010 - and 2005," Middle East Brief 42, no. June (2010): 2.

[114] Nasar, The Call of Global Islamic Resistance, 1422-23.

[115] UMD-START, "Data from GTD, Al-Qa'ida in Iraq, Tawhid & Jihad, and Islamic State of Iraq Attacks, 2001 and 2011".

[116] Fishman, The Master Plan, 40.

[117] Krushelnycky, "Iraq: At Least 11 Dead In Jordanian Embassy Bombing In Baghdad".

[118] Warrick, Black Flags, 106-08.

[119] Al Jazeera, "الزرقاوي يعلن ولاءه لبن لادن ويحيطه بالوضع في العراق/Zarqawi Announces His Loyalty to Bin Laden and His Involvement in the Situation in Iraq,"  Al Jazeera (2004),

[120] UMD-START, "Data from GTD, Al-Qa'ida in Iraq, Tawhid & Jihad, and Islamic State of Iraq Attacks, 2001 and 2011".

[121] Bahney et al., An Economic Analysis of the Financial Records of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, 19; Ellen Knickmeyer, "Ramadi Insurgents Flaunt Threat,"  Washington Post (2005),

[122] Christopher Blanchard, Al Qaeda: Statements and Evolving Ideology, (Washington D.C.: CRS, 2007),  8.

[123] UMD-START, "Data from GTD, Al-Qa'ida in Iraq, Tawhid & Jihad, and Islamic State of Iraq Attacks, 2001 and 2011".

[124] Fishman, Dysfunction and Decline. 6, 9-10.

[125] Johnston et al., Foundations of the Islamic State, 23-25; Eric Hamilton, "Expanding Security in Diyala,"  Iraq Report (2007),

[126] International Crisis Group ICG, Loose Ends: Iraq's Security Forces Between U.S. Drawdown and Withdrawal, (Online: ICG, 2010),  4.

[127] Johnston et al., Foundations of the Islamic State, 2.

[128] State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2009. 119-20.

[129] Fishman, Dysfunction and Decline. 19.

[130] Hashim, "The Islamic State: From Al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate," 73.

[131] UMD-START, "Data from GTD, Al-Qa'ida in Iraq, Tawhid & Jihad, and Islamic State of Iraq Attacks, 2001 and 2011"; Nasar, The Call of Global Islamic Resistance, 1422.

[132] Brachman and McCants, "Stealing Al Qaeda's Playbook," 317-18.a

[133] Paul B. Rich, "People’s War Antithesis: Che Guevara and the mythology of Focismo," Small Wars & Insurgencies 28, no. 3 (2017): 480.


About the Author(s)

Phillip William Etches is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University’s Strategic & Defence Studies Centre. He can be found on Twitter @CN_Hack.