Small Wars Journal

A Review: Ten Years Later: Insights on al-Qaida’s Past and Future through Captured Records

Fri, 07/06/2012 - 5:28am

Ten Years Later: Insights on al-Qaida’s Past and Future through Captured Records.  Conference Proceedings conducted by the National Defense University and published through the John Hopkins University Center for Advanced Governmental Studies, Washington D.C.  2011, 213 pages.   

Ten years into the attacks of September 11, the United States has developed capabilities that have enabled a constant and consistent assault on al-Qaida, leading the organization to evolve in response to America’s counter-terrorism capabilities.  Among the advantages is the analysis of captured al-Qaida documents that provide insights not only to the thinking of the organization’s leadership, but immerses us in the mind and language of the adversary.  Throughout my military career, I have been an advocate of teaching and exposing America’s military leaders to Arabic works of military significance, this can be found in my writing, the two books I have published so far, and in the classroom where I teach part-time at both the National Defense University and National Intelligence University.  Among the organizations that have made a significant contribution to understanding al-Qaida and Associated Movements are the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, which recently released about 175 pages from a massive amount of documents seized in the Usama Bin Ladin raid.  Another organization that should also receive wide attention is the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) at the National Defense University which contains not only captured and declassified al-Qaida documents but those of the former regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

This review will focus on a conference hosted by CRRC and John Hopkins University on the tenth anniversary of September 11.  It brings together a serious discussion on ideas from scholars, policymakers, and counter-terrorism analysts to answer key questions such as what have we learned about al-Qaida Associated Movements since 9-11 and what should the focus of AQAM Studies be in the future? The conference attendees and their views were published in a very timely booklet published by the John Hopkins University Center for Advanced Governmental Studies.  It is edited by Dr. Lorry Fenner, Director of the Conflict Records Research Center, Dr. Mark Stout of John Hopkins University, and Ms. Jessica Goldings, a Research Analyst at the National Defense University’s CRRC.  It will be of interest to anyone who is serious about understanding al-Qaida, its future and how it reacts to changes imposed by external as well as internal forces.

The first chapter opens with the keynote address by Congressman “Mac” Thornberry, and his most incisive comment is the role of Congress not just in financing but in the holding of quality hearings to aid us in understanding the threats to the United States and the recalibration of ways to respond to those threats.  Dr. Mark Stout of John Hopkins University, discusses the evolution of intelligence assessments of al-Qaida to 2011, and perhaps the most insightful aspects of his remarks are is the identification of hysteria that detracts from the real business of counter-terrorism, which is the blaming of Islam itself and 1.5 billion adherents, thereby allowing al-Qaida to hide within Islam, and not recognize that al-Qaida ideology and actions have been harmful to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.   Stout identifies retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Boykin in this genre, which assesses the threat from a Christian evangelical bipolar perspective.  Also identified by Stout is Major Stephen Lambert’s National Intelligence University thesis “The Sources of Islamic Revolutionary Conduct,” which seeks to blame the religion as a whole or Major Stephen Coughlin that seems to project a single form of belief on 1.5 billion people, when this defies the human condition and allows al-Qaida to attain moral equivalence with any and all forms of diverse Islamic narratives and beliefs.  While Islam is relevant in threat analysis, Stout discusses how intelligence analysts fought back these ideas needing a more refined and realistic definition of the threat in a real world in which Muslims play an integral part in assisting in countering al-Qaida.  In addition, these bipolar views leaves the United States with limited strategic options, as no policies can be realistically deduced by labeling an entire religion as the problem.  The book identifies how al-Qaida is not only marginal within Islam, but also marginal within the Salafi movement, using original documents analysts find a weak link between Salafism and al-Qaida ideology that enables the de-legitimization of the al-Qaida narrative.  When one sees the world this way you can understand why the Saudis have used Wahhabism to deconstruct al-Qaida ideology starting around 2006, or how various Salafis views al-Qaida actions as spoiling their ability to proselytize. 

Ms. Jessica Huckabey of the Institute for Defense Analysis, discusses her findings from al-Qaida documents that focuses on what she calls, “jihad in decline,” and fascinating look into the ebbs and flows of violent Islamist movements in Algeria, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, but she eloquently warns that captured documents are a time capsule and should be contrasted with current events, more importantly Huckabey reminds us that AQ evolves based on failures and pressures.  One of the pressures involves the cacophony of religious attacks by various Islamic commentators, clerics, and media personalities on the religious justifications for al-Qaida actions, a theme explored by Dr. David Cook of Rice University.  Some of these attacks have come from former AQ ideologues like Dr. Fadl and represent a deep insecurity for the likes of AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.  The book continues with former Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Mike Vickers, author Peter Bergin, and much more.  You will find yourself engaging in discussions with the speakers through this slim volume, which is an excellent read.  You can download all or parts of this book for free here.   

About the Author(s)

CDR Aboul-Enein teaches part-time at the National Intelligence University and National Defense University.  He is the author of “Militant Islamist Ideology,” and “Iraq in Turmoil,” both published by Naval Institute Press. His first book goes paperback this September and was named among the top 150 most influential titles on terrorism and counter-terrorism by the journal, Perspectives on Terrorism.