Spring/Summer 2014
Number 26

Why Al-Qaeda Just Won’t Die

By
Sebastian Gorka

These days, zombies are all the rage. Viewing figures for the season finale of the hit show The Walking Dead are to be envied. Blockbuster movies featuring Brad Pitt proclaim the genre, as do popular books reconceiving Jane Austen among the living dead.

Perhaps this is no coincidence. The fascination with zombies may be fed subconsciously by a real-world global foe which bears more than a passing resemblance to George Romero’s iconic monsters. Al-Qaeda, even if not actually peopled by animated corpses, is a cult of death. Ayman al-Zawahiri said exactly that when he declared that he and his cohorts love death more than we love life. On top of that, it seems that—despite declarations to the contrary from the White House and more than thirteen years of U.S. counterterrorism operations—al-Qaeda is far from deceased.

In fact, in at least one respect, al-Qaeda may be even worse than the menace of the walking dead. In the latter’s case, they at least have the decency to die when you strike them hard enough in the head. Not so with al-Qaeda. We killed Osama bin Laden, its founder and head, more than two years ago, yet the body of jihadi terrorism fights on. So much so that in his recent open testimony before Congress, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated that al Qaeda now has operational centers in in twelve nations around the world, from Mali to Syria.(1) By way of comparison, in 2001, when we started the war against al-Qaeda, it had operations centers in just one country: Afghanistan. Indeed, as the graph below, based upon open-source unclassified databases illustrates, al-Qaeda is on the rise.

So why is it proving so hard to kill al-Qaeda? Because as a nation we have broken the fundamental rules of strategy: we have failed to execute an objective analysis of why the threat exists and what it wants. Worse, in the last four years we have distorted reality even further by allowing preconceived notions and politically driven strictures to influence and limit our understanding of the enemy.

Know thine enemy

I spend my days teaching strategy to the military, federal law enforcement and their intelligence community colleagues. Whoever the audience, we always start in the same place: if you have an enemy that you want to defeat, you have to know who they are, where they came from and what their strategy is. The military calls this an Estimate of the Situation, or more operationally, Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield. In the decade-plus war with al-Qaeda, we have been erratic and counterfactual in our EoS and IPB.

After 9/11, the President declared a global war on “terror.” The term was an odd one, for terror is the tool of several types of actor, especially dictators who use it systematically against their own people and dissidents abroad. Yet our GWOT was not targeted against recognized practitioners of terror, such as the Kim dynasty in North Korea or the mullahs in Iran. Nor did our global campaign target all terrorist groups. We did not deploy Delta Force against Basque separatists in Spain, or the eco-terrorist ELF (Earth Liberation Front), but against a very specific foe: those that were responsible for the attacks of 9/11. Those “practitioners of terror” justified their murder of unarmed civilians with a religious narrative that saw the West—Dar al Harb, or the House of War—as having declared war on Islam, and had as their strategic objective the re-establishment of the theocratic empire of Islam known as the Caliphate.

Yet from the very start, the President and his team assiduously disassociated al-Qaeda from Islam, representing bin Laden and his followers as renegade extremists whose actions were un-Islamic. This, despite the fact that their fatwas leveraged the words of Allah and Mohammed, those Koranic passages and sections of the Haddith (sayings and tales of Mohammed) that explicitly call for the death of the infidel.(2)

To be clear, as a nation America was never at war with Islam. Nor is it now. We are, however, at war with people who have a fundamental understanding of Islam, and whose broader legitimacy is very difficult to theologically undermine due to their reliance on the ancient tenets of an often-violent religion. But what exactly is al-Qaeda, and where did it come from?

Root causes

The story starts with the Caliphate, which—contrary to popular conception—is not some abstract idea invented by a small group of extremists. The theocratic empire of Islam, the polity that integrated faith and politics and which was founded by Mohammed, existed for over a thousand years. True, its center moved over time, from Mecca to Damascus, then to Baghdad and finally to Istanbul, but it was a real living thing which still existed at the beginning of the 20th century. By then, it was under Turkish control and most people called it the Ottoman Empire. Yet this was the Caliphate, and there was even a Caliph, or emperor of Islam.

Unfortunately for the Ottomans, after World War I broke out they decided to side with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany. As a result, by 1918 they were on the losing side of the world’s first global war. In an attempt to salvage the Muslim empire after this defeat, and prevent total dismemberment and disarmament along the lines of what occurred to Germany and Austria-Hungary at Versailles, the Ottomans reinvented themselves under the leadership of a very charismatic and intelligent army officer named Mustafa Kemal. Kemal, who would later change his name to Atatürk—meaning Father of All Turks—would reinvent the nation that would eventually become the Republic of Turkey.

Atatürk’s strategy was to convince the West that his people no longer were a threat and that his nation should be recognized as a member of their community. This required a wholesale reinvention of his country, the key pillars of which were the separation of Islam and politics and the broader secularization of Turkey. To that end, he not only banned traditional Turkic-Islamic dress for officials of the state but replaced the Arabic alphabet with a modified version of our Roman one.(3) Most significantly, in 1924 Atatürk formally decreed the dissolution of the Caliphate.(4) It is no accident, therefore, that less than five years later in the Suez region of Egypt, one Hasan al-Banna established the Ikwan Muslimin, or Muslim Brotherhood, the avowed mission of which was—and still is—to reestablish the Caliphate which had been “unjustly” dissolved.

After World War I, certain Middle Eastern territories that had been part of the Ottoman Empire were put under the mandate of the British government. These lands include what we today call Israel, as well as the Palestinian territories (the West Bank and Gaza Strip). After WWII, as violence escalated between Arabs and Jews and between these groups and British mandate forces, London decided that after six years of fighting the Nazis, the British had no future as the governors of the Middle East and pulled out of Palestine. It was under these circumstances that the new Jewish state of Israel was declared.

From the Muslim perspective, and the view of the Arab states that invaded Israel the day after it declared its statehood, this was the second seismic blow to the psyche of the ummah, the global community of Islam. From the perspective of the true believer, this territory is sacred Muslim soil. So much so, that before the Qibla—the Islamic direction of prayer—became Mecca, all Muslims had to face Jerusalem five times a day as they prayed to their creator, Jerusalem being the third holiest site in Islam and the place from which Mohammed was said to have risen into heaven.

However, the most important year of all for anyone who wishes to understand why 9/11 happened and what al-Qaeda stands for, is 1979. In the Muslim world, which follows a shorter lunar calendar initiated when Mohammed journeyed from Mecca to Medina (Yathrib), 1979 represented a turn of the century, the shift from 1399 into the year 1400. And just as with other cultures, there were many in the Muslim world who had great expectations for the new century, that significant events would occur. And so they did.

First came the Iranian Revolution. Although a Shi’a event, it had great ramifications for all Muslims. With the removal of the Shah and the complete rejection of the Western model of the secular nation-state, the revolution had at its core the religious imperative that Islam and politics cannot be separated. That is why the real center of power in the Islamic Republic since 1979 has been a man of the cloth and not a politician. This message of the reintegration of faith and politics and the continued success of Iran in rejecting the Western way of politics is an example to all Muslims.

Second was the attack against the holiest site in Islam: the Siege of the Grand Mosque of Mecca. As the Muslim world was collectively entering the year 1400, more than a thousand jihadi terrorists stormed the Grand Mosque and declared a Holy War against “false Muslims.” The terrorists managed to control the most important site in Islam, the epicenter of the annual hajj pilgrimage, for almost two weeks. More importantly, it turned out that the radicals had been encouraged and in fact blessed by members of the Saudi ulema, or clerical class, who agreed that Islam had lost its way and had to be cleansed by force.

The siege was eventually broken by French commandos who had been smuggled into Mecca after being hastily converted to Islam. But the true geostrategic significance of the attack came afterwards, as the King of Saudi Arabia, in an effort to secure the House of Saud, made a pact with the ulema who had endorsed the jihad.(5) The deal was straightforward: in exchange for the support and patronage of the monarchy, the clerics would not propagate the ideology of jihad on the soil of the Kingdom. However, the export and dissemination of jihadi ideology outside of Saudi Arabia into non-Muslim lands was not only permissible but would be supported by the government.

Lastly, that December, came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. With the unprovoked assault against a Muslim country by godless communists, the seeds were sown for the redefinition of jihad as a global brand, a brand that would exploit the Western desire to hurt the Kremlin for its military expansion into Southwest Asia.

One of the non-Afghan mujahedeen that took up the fight was a Palestinian Jordanian named Abdullah Azzam. With a PhD in fiqh—Islamic jurisprudence—from the most important Sunni institution in the world, al-Azhar University in Cairo, this charismatic teacher established the Services Bureau (MAK) to recruit Muslims from around the world to come to Pakistan, learn the rudiments of guerrilla warfare and then be deployed into Afghanistan against the Soviet forces. The same year he would release a fatwa entitled Defense of Muslim Lands, in which he would call all Muslims to Holy War, declaring jihad to be fard ayn, an individual and universal obligation of all believers.(6)

Azzam’s logic was clear, and compelling. Since Atatürk had dissolved the empire in 1924, there was no longer a Caliph or commander-in-chief who could declare a holy war. As a result, it was up to each and every believer to deploy himself. Eventually, according to authoritative estimates, the MAK would churn out between 50,000 and 100,000 fighters, including the man who became Azzam’s deputy, Osama bin Laden.(7) A decade later, after the Soviets had been vanquished in Afghanistan, Azzam would be assassinated in Pakistan and bin Laden would take over control of his organization and rename it The Base for the Propagation of Holy War against Jews and Crusaders, or al-Qaeda, as we call it in the West.

Tenets of faith

The above events are seminal to any understanding of the threat posed today by al-Qaeda and the events now occurring across North Africa and the Middle East. The dissolution of the Caliphate, the loss of Palestine, the Afghan jihad and the Siege of Mecca are building blocks in the narrative of Holy War against the infidel West. This narrative was systematically developed by a handful of key ideologues, such as Azzam, who would become the strategists of jihad. In order to know this enemy, one has to be intimately familiar with the two other Clausewitzes of Salafism.

The first is Sayyid Qutb. A minor government official in the Egyptian Ministry of Education, he would become the most iconic person in the Muslim Brotherhood, second only to its founder Hassan al-Banna. After World War II, Qutb was sent to America for two years to study our nation. Having done so, he came back to Egypt and wrote prolifically on how Islam had lost its way and had to be cleansed by holy war.

His most influential work, Milestones, has become a core text for jihadists the world over, and has been found in the possession of al-Qaeda leaders in all theaters of war.(8) The book is a fascinating fusion of Communist and Fascist totalitarianisms with the additional wrapping of religion. According to Qutb, there is no such thing as a true Muslim state any longer. The world is in a state of jahalliyyah—pagan ignorance of Allah—just as it was in the 7th century, when Mohammed began to spread the word of God. Accordingly, only war can bring the Caliphate back.

Qutb goes on the write that democracy is in fact dictatorship, since under a democracy men make laws over other men, when the only true legislator should be Allah. As a result, he concludes, all democracies must be destroyed. Most interestingly of all, on more than twenty occasions in the book he states that Islam is not a religion but instead a political movement with a revolutionary vanguard of true believers that must take the war to the infidel. Qutb was eventually arrested by Egyptian authorities and executed, thereby becoming a martyr to the cause of re-creating the empire of Islam.

The second jihadi author is less well known, but no less important. At the same time that Azzam was writing his seminal fatwa on the obligation of all believers to partake in jihad, Brigadier General S.K. Malik of the Pakistani Army published the Quranic Concept of War.(9) Like Qutb’s, this work has been found in the possession of jihadist leaders and fighters around the world. It is unlike any modern text published in the West, combining as it does military theory, eschatology and ideological and religious justification of violence.

There are three messages in the Quranic Concept of War. The first is an utter repudiation of the core argument of Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, a text taught in war colleges around the world. Clausewitz famously said that war is the continuation of politics by other means—in other words, that war is a tool a state uses to realize its interests when all other tools of statecraft have failed. Malik explicitly rejects this notion, instead saying that war should only serve the realization of Allah’s sovereignty on Earth. Malik’s second argument is that there is only one target in war: the soul of the enemy. You must convert or kill the infidel. Lastly, Malik concludes that, since the soul is the only target in war that matters, the most effective mode of warfare is terror. The best way to fight for the sovereignty of Allah on this earth is to execute terrorist attacks against the kufir.

Together, Azzam, Qutb and Malik laid the foundation for the ideology behind all jihadi violence around the globe today, from Fort Hood to Mali, from the World Trade Center to Syria.(10)

Misdiagnosing the adversary

Bin Laden is no more. Thanks to the bravery of U.S. Special Operations forces, al-Qaeda has been decapitated. Yet the threat continues to grow. Today, the Sinai is full of foreign fighters attacking civilians and members of the Egyptian government in an attempt to sow chaos and punish those that removed from power the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi in Cairo. Syria is aflame as foreign fighters flood in to reinforce the al-Qaeda affiliates hell-bent on overthrowing the Assad regime. And, as of this writing, America marks the first anniversary of the Boston marathon attacks, attacks that could have been prevented if the warnings of liaison intelligence services regarding the religious zealotry of the perpetrators and their potential ties to Islamic extremism in Chechnya had been heeded.

The American reaction to this trendline has been muddled at best. To begin with, there is the reality of an administration that is typified by its post-modernity and rampant secularism. Whilst this may simply be a reflection of the age and a result of the characteristics of the voting base that brought President Obama two election victories, it does have a tangible effect on U.S. national security. If your national elite sees religion as passé, then it will likely have zero ability to comprehend how an adversary who views suicide attacks as metrics of victory actually thinks. Simply put, if you don’t believe in God you cannot understand an enemy that believes he will go to heaven if he dies trying to kill you.

This disconnect has been exacerbated by a sophisticated information and influence operation by those who do not want us to honestly and openly discuss the religious nature of the ideology that fuels al Qaeda. In what amounts to an unprecedented capitulation by the White House, a group of organizations that pre-sent themselves as representative Muslim interest groups have managed to force the Obama administration to review all counterterrorism training materials used by the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice. The yardstick for censorship: any mention of Islam, to include even the use of the word jihad.(11) This is all the more egregious because several of the groups that have successfully compelled this behavior are among the unindicted co-conspirators in the largest federal terrorism financing trial in U.S. history—groups listed by the Muslim Brotherhood as its own front organizations, or those of its allies.(12)

At the same time, strategic analysis at the highest levels of government has been distorted to fit preconceived theories about radicalization. Notably prevalent is the argument that three distinct types of Islamists exist: 1) purists who believe in using solely da’wa, or preaching and education, to achieve their theocratic goal; 2) those who assert the true believer must additionally engage in politics and exploit democracy for their own ends (the Brotherhood falls in this camp); and 3) those—such as al-Qaeda—that say education and politics is insufficient, and one must take up arms to fight the infidel. The logical corollary is that the U.S. can only be saved from another 9/11 if we negotiate with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood, because only they can protect us from al-Qaeda and its ilk. (This worldview goes a long way toward explaining why the Obama administration’s Egypt policy has been consistently pro-Muslim Brotherhood.)

Of course, the truth is that these Islamist communities are not separated from one another, and both interact and cooperate. Indeed, every al-Qaeda leader of significance began life as simply a believer, then moved into the Brotherhood before finally joining al-Qaeda. As experts have noted, the Brotherhood serves as a “gateway” of sorts into the al-Qaeda network.(13)

The Muslim Brotherhood and al- Qaeda feed from the same wellspring of theocratic totalitarianism, and share the strategic objective of reestablishing the Caliphate. Bin Laden himself admitted this in an internal al-Qaeda document, one of only a handful declassified from the thousands that were captured during the May 2011 Abbottabad raid. He wrote:

[C]urrent conditions have brought on unprecedented opportunities and the coming of Islamic governments that follow the Salafi doctrine is a benefit to Islam.

[T]here is a sizable direction within the Ikwan (Muslim Brotherhood) that holds the Salafi (fundamentalist) doctrine, so the return of the Ikwan and those like them to the true Islam is a matter of time.(14)

Clearly, for bin Laden the so-called Arab Spring did not ring the death knell for the theocratic ideology of religious extremism. To the contrary, regional events in North Africa and the Middle East over the past several years have ushered in Brotherhood governments that share the same fundamental (Salafist) understanding of Islam that the members of al-Qaeda do. It is only a matter of time until the two converge. The Brotherhood and al-Qaeda are bound not only in the key authors and leaders to whom they pledge fealty, from al-Banna, to Qutb and Malik, they also are united in the strategy goal they share: the re-establishment of a theocratic empire of Islam.

Back to basics

Al-Qaeda, then, is alive and well. Worse than a zombie, it appears to be more like a hydra, reborn and reinvigorated when one of its heads is removed. Syria is now the new front in the global jihad, followed closely by the Sinai and then parts of Africa.

We are still engaged in the longest war in America’s history. Perhaps it is time to return to first principles. During the Cold War, George Kennan penned a seminal “Long Telegram” explaining why the Soviet Union behaved the way it did and what it truly wanted. Today, we must write a similar strategic guidance for al-Qaeda—an analysis of where the ideology and strategy of global jihad comes from, which does not shy away from the religious context of the enemy’s threat doctrine.(15) Only when this is done, and done without political distortion, can we prepare an effective plan to defeat our enemy, akin to the superlative NSC-68 strategy written by Paul Nitze on the basis of the “Long Telegram,” which informed our response to the threat of the Soviet Union for more than thirty years, and which eventually led to our victory over communist totalitarianism.(16)

Dr. Sebastian Gorka is Associate Dean and Associate Professor of War and Conflict Studies at National Defense University in Washington and a regular instructor and advisor for SOCOM, US Army Special Operations Command, and the FBI. Dr Gorka is also the National Security Editor for Breitbart.com.


1.    “Transcript: Senate Intelligence Hearing on National Security Threats,” Washington Post, January 29, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/transcript-senate-....

2.    For example, sura 9 verse 4 of the Koran: And when the sacred months have passed, then kill those that combine gods with God wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakat [tithe], let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.

3.    The importance of this step should not be underestimated. Note that according to Islam the Koran is only a true Koran if it is written in Arabic. Why? Because Islam is clear that Arabic is the first language, for it is the language of Allah. Therefore the replacement of Arabic script with the alphabet of the kafir, or infidel, was an historic, and for fundamentalists, a most provocative step.

4.    It is hard to exaggerate the enormity of Atatürk’s decision. This is analogous, for Catholics, to the President of Italy dissolving the Vatican, or perhaps this is not enough of a parallel since the Vatican has long ceased being a politico-military theocracy.

5.    For a detailed account, see Yaroslav Trofimov, The Siege of Mecca—The Forgotten Uprising (Doubleday, 2007).

6.    Note that with his PhD in Islamic jurisprudence, Azzam had the credentials to issue a real fatwa, or religious decree, unlike bin Laden or al-Qaeda’s current head, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The text of the fatwa is available online at http://www.religioscope.com/info/doc/jihad/azzam_defence_1_table.htm .

7.    See, for example, Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale University Press, 2000).

8.    Qutb’s seminal work has been reproduced many times in various formats, including—most recently—as Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (Islamic Book Service, 2006).

9.    Like that of Qutb, Malik’s work has been reproduced repeatedly, including as S.K. Malik, The Quranic Concept of War (Adam Publishers & Distributors, 1992).

10.  For a more detailed analysis of the key strategists of global jihad, see the author’s “Inside al-Qaeda,” Armchair General, May 2012.

11.  For details on the purge of U.S. government counterterrorism training and the effect on national security see Katharine Gorka, “White House Review Threatens Counter-Terrorism Operations,” Westminster Institute, n.d., http://www.westminster-institute.org/articles/white-house-review-threate..., and Patrick Poole, “A Detailed Look at ‘the Purge’ of U.S. Counter-Terrorism Training by the Obama Administration,” The Blaze TV, March 26, 2014, http://www.theblaze.com/blog/2014/03/26/a-detailed-look-at-the-purge-of-.... For an excellent broader analysis of the reason for the purge and the domestic threat of subversion, see the documentary The Project at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcPIaEVrS8U.

12.  United States of America v. Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development et al. North American Islamic Trust, U.S. 5 Circuit, No. 09-10875, October 20, 2010, http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-5th-circuit/1541982.html.

13.  See, for example, Bill Roggio, “Jordanian Al-Qaeda Operative Killed in US Airstrike in Pakistan,” Long War Journal, January 12, 2010, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2010/01/jordanian_al_qaeda_o.php.

14.  SOCOM-2012-0000010-HT, 26 APR 2011, Combating Terrorism Center, U.S. Army Military Academy, West Point, New York.

15.  The text of Kennan’s “long telegram” can be found at http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/coldwar/documents/episode-1/kennan.htm. For a collective discussion of the Enemy Threat Doctrine of al-Qaeda and how to respond, see Katharine Gorka and Patrick Sookhdeo, eds. Fighting the Ideological War—Winning Strategies from Communism to Islamism (Isaac Publishing, 2012).

16.  NSC-68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security, April 14, 1950, https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/nsc-68/nsc68-1.htm.