After Bin Laden: Al-Qaeda Strategy in Yemen

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 20

Information seized by American forces in Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad has sparked questions about Bin Laden’s involvement in the planning and current strategy behind al-Qaeda operations in places like Yemen.  We have known for some time that Bin Laden has had a strategic relationship with Yemen, but we did not know to what extent his personal involvement continued in recent years (see Terrorism Focus, February 2, 2008). Some have speculated that Bin Laden’s death should not only demoralize al-Qaeda but should also remove a major source of authoritative planning and decision- making. The obvious immediate task for American authorities is to glean whatever information may help deter or disrupt planned terrorist operations.  A longer-term goal must be to understand the extent to which al-Qaeda affiliates continue to follow a common strategy and doctrine even in the absence of the iconic Bin Laden.  Al-Qaeda’s media output continues to be a good indicator of at least the intentions of the affiliates.

In the case of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), we previously have had strong evidence that the local affiliate has been following al-Qaeda’s global plan to exhaust American patience, resources, and political will to maintain a strong military posture in the Middle East in general and the Arabian Peninsula in particular (see Terrorism Monitor, January 28, 2010).  The publication of a book with the title Why Did I Choose Al-Qaeda? gives some indication of how AQAP intends to operate in the post-Bin Laden period. [1]

The leader of AQAP, Abu Basir Nasir al-Wuhayshi, endorsed the publication of Why Did I Choose Al-Qaeda? on March 10, 2010.  The book was published posthumously after the death of its ostensible author Muhammad Amir al-Awlaqi. [2] Al-Wuhayshi claims that the author was “martyred” in an American attack in Shabwah, Yemen. The identity of the author is less significant than the endorsement of his book by AQAP’s leader. [3] A book published by al-Qaeda has a life that goes beyond its immediate readership.  For example, the text of the book is used as a resource for recordings and videos that reach a much larger audience and its existence as an authorized source helps keep the far flung affiliates and small cells united in common goals and principles.  The book is composed of 75 pages of Arabic text and provides 46 reasons why the author chose to join al-Qaeda in 46 brief explanatory chapters.  Most of the chapters contain now familiar themes used to recruit al-Qaeda members; two of these chapters confirm AQAP’s continuing strategic orientation by citing passages from Abu Bakr Naji’s The Administration of Savagery (see Terrorism Monitor, September 10, 2009).

Chapter 29, “Because of Their War Policy,” asserts that jihadists, and especially al-Qaeda, have a war policy that includes goals they have been pursuing throughout the post-9/11 period.  The first of these goals includes reducing fear and respect for the United States and building confidence “in Muslim souls” by “revealing [America’s] deceptive media halo to be a force that does not compel and forcing America to change its war on Islam from a system of war through proxies to prosecuting the war directly.”

The second goal is to replace the losses to the jihadist movement “over the last thirty years” by recruiting young men and by carrying out significant acts of terrorism against the United States by capitalizing on Muslim anger about the presence of American forces in “the Islamic World.” [4]

These themes are by not new to anyone following al-Qaeda’s rhetoric or reading its books on strategy.  For those unfamiliar with al-Qaeda, the author makes a point of referring the reader of his book to Abu Bakr Naji’s book, The Administration of Savagery. [5] Muhammad ‘Amir al-Awlaqi goes on to explain that the war policy of al-Qaeda now is to force the United States to prosecute its war, not by following its own strategy, but by falling into the trap of fighting as al-Qaeda’s strategy dictates.  The author then challenges the reader by stating that whoever is not convinced by what he has written should examine al-Qaeda’s strategy and then consider whether they are following it or not.  In effect, he is saying: if you do not believe me, read Naji’s strategy and see whether AQAP is following it or not.  To emphasize his point, al-Awlaqi then lists the elements of the classic three stage guerrilla strategy in Naji’s idiosyncratic terminology and then poses another challenge to doubters and detractors: “O you who describe the mujahideen as without a plan, have you examined carefully their method and their strategy?”  The author then asserts that al-Qaeda is the vanguard of these unidentified mujahideen.

Another reference to Abu Bakr Naji is contained in a chapter with the title “Because the Method of the Mujahideen is the Promised Guidance,” which would appear to tie al-Qaeda’s jihadist strategy to divine guidance.  To drive this point home, the author cites the Qur’anic verse: “And those who strive in Our cause We shall guide in our ways, and Allah is with the beneficent.” [6] The interpretation of “striving” for al-Qaeda always includes performing jihad in the sense of combat against Christians, Jews, and those considered to be apostate Muslims.  On the other hand, the author goes on to state that it is well known that the concept of jihad is wider than combat because “the mujahideen today do not confine themselves to combat.”  They fight with their tongues, their money, and with their personal dedication.  They follow a path that combines jihad and knowledge.  The guidance they receive from Allah includes their knowledge of the capacity of their enemy and their own capacity as well as their strategy.  AQAP in its endorsement of this kind recruitment message is trying to associate itself with anyone who supports classic jihad involving non-Muslim invasion of traditionally Muslim lands.  

Another quotation from Naji’s book used in Why Did I Choose al-Qaeda? is his saying: “The greatest field for learning, is the field of jihad.” [7] The context of the statement is the need to rebut those who argue that an individual or community is not ready for jihad in the sense of combat because they are not prepared or trained.  In this chapter on divine guidance, the author claims that al-Qaeda should be the vanguard because they know the enemy. Because of their combat experience and devotion to jihad in the wider sense, they have received Allah’s promised guidance.   Furthermore, the organization is international and capable of successfully attacking even America. The argument continues with the rhetorical question: “For if the mujahideen in Afghanistan, Iraq, the [Arabian] Peninsula, Somalia, Palestine, and the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb were not the people of guidance, then who are the people of guidance?” Al-Qaeda is divinely guided because they have knowledge of religion, of the laws of warfare and politics, and have engaged in jihad, both in combat and in the wider sense of supporting other Muslims against the common enemy.  One of the proofs of their status is that they follow their strategy, the strategy of Abu Bakr Naji and al-Qaeda’s leadership.

Finally the author transitions to a long passage from Naji’s book to give his readers an actual example to show them that “contemporary mujahideen are rightly guided.” [8] Naji’s passage presents the fabled story of Sayyid Qutb (the Egyptian ideologue executed in 1966) and Abdullah Azzam (assassinated in Pakistan in 1989) predicting the downfall of the Soviet Union.  According to this story, Qutb predicted the downfall in general terms but Azzam was able to describe the downfall “and almost everything he said happened as in a movie.”

In addition to demonstrating that jihadists can miraculously predict the future, the author uses the passage to remind his readers how jihadists not only defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan but also, as the al-Qaeda myth goes, destroyed the Soviet Union itself.  The quoted passage contains Naji’s assertion that the Soviet Army was the most powerful in the world, much more powerful in numbers equipment, harshness and the ability to take casualties than the United States.  Why Did I Choose Al-Qaeda? was published before Bin Laden’s death, but it is a good bet that AQAP will be using this message to argue that al-Qaeda is still the group that can defeat the United States and local tyrants even after the loss of its founder.  The organization will do everything it can in the short term to take advantage of the security vacuum caused by the current turmoil in Yemen to recruit, train, and act against the interests of the United States and Saudi Arabia to prove al-Qaeda is still a threat and to draw recruits to its ranks.  In the long run, AQAP probably does not have much of a future in Yemen because its message runs counter to the goals of the majority of the population, but in the short run it remains very dangerous.


1. Accessed May 6, 2011 at (in Arabic).
2. The English language magazine Inspire in its 2011Winter and Spring issues has published selected translations of Why Did I Choose al-Qaeda? with the author’s name given as “Shaykh Abu Mus’ab al-Awlaqi.”
3. AQAP’s Melahim Media also produced promotional videos both for the author and his book, for example: which contains footage of the author purportedly one day before his death.
4. Why Did I Choose Al-Qaeda? (in Arabic) p. 51.
5. Naji’s book in Arabic is available at:; in English translation here (the reference is to page 10):
6. Surah Al-‘Ankabut: 69. Fakhry, Majid (trans.) An Interpretation of the Qur’an, 2002, New York University Press, p. 405; “strive” is “jahadu" in Arabic.
7. Why Did I Choose Al-Qaeda?, p. 42.
8. Ibid. p. 55; the example is taken from The Administration of Savagery, p. 8-9.