Al-Qaeda Doctrine for International Political Warfare

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 42

Do Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and their al-Qaeda organization and its allies conduct diplomacy in the traditional sense of that activity? Given that al-Qaeda and its affiliated factions are not nation-states, have no capital cities and neither send nor receive representatives who can be accurately termed ambassadors, the answer would have to be “no.” Yet there is a definite sense in which they conduct a foreign policy that is meant to advance the Islamist movement toward victory. Bin Laden has tied this quasi-foreign policy closely to Islamist military activities and has laid it out as a doctrine to be followed by al-Qaeda and its associates. This foreign policy—or political warfare strategy—is to be delivered over the heads of U.S. and Western leaders to voters in non-Muslim countries and is meant to do two things: change the policies of countries allied with the United States by eroding popular support for assisting the United States in fighting the war on terrorism, and, second, slowly strip allies away from the United States and leave it increasingly isolated.

Bin Laden laid out this political warfare doctrine after the September 11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. In November 2002, bin Laden spoke to the populations of Washington’s European allies in a speech explaining that the United States was attacked because it “is killing our sons in Iraq [through UN economic sanctions], and [because of] what America’s ally Israel is doing, using American airplanes to bomb houses in Palestine with old men, women and children in them…” These are U.S. “crimes,” bin Laden said, adding that al-Qaeda thought such actions would cause “the sane leaders among you to distance themselves from this criminal gang [the Bush administration]” [1]. Since no distancing occurred, bin Laden said the status quo between the Islamist movement and countries allied to the United States was not sustainable.

Bin Laden then explained that the cost of supporting the United States would be attacks by al-Qaeda and its allies on countries providing such support. Citing the 2002 attacks on German tourists in Tunisia and Australians and Britons in Bali as examples of al-Qaeda’s determination to apply reciprocal violence, bin Laden warned the Europeans: “Just as you kill, so you shall be killed” [2]. Bin Laden suggested that the peoples of states allied to the United States should ask themselves the following questions:

1. “Why are your governments allying themselves against the Muslims with the criminal gang in the White House? Don’t they know that this gang is the biggest murderer of our age?”

2. “Why are your governments, especially those of Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Germany and Australia, allying themselves with the Americans in its attacks on us in Afghanistan?”

3. “How long will fear, killing, destruction, displacement, orphaning and widowing be our [the Muslims] sole destiny, while security stability and happiness are yours…The road to safety begins with the cessation of hostilities, and reciprocal treatment is part of justice” [3].

In subsequent speeches, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri reiterated this message, and over time designated 23 countries by name as allies of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, or both, and pledged that all would be attacked. As of now, all 23 have been attacked, either domestically or in the theaters where their forces are deployed for the war on terrorism. Of course, not all of these attacks can be linked to fighters directly under bin Laden’s command-and-control, but it cannot be a coincidence that al-Qaeda and its allies have exhausted the list. In determining whether these attacks can be accurately described as complements to al-Qaeda’s political-warfare strategy, it is worth noting that the attacks were carefully modulated in their destructiveness. In their aftermath, European populations, in particular, tended to blame their political leaders for stimulating the attacks by maintaining pro-U.S. policies in Iraq or Afghanistan. After the July 2005 metro attacks in London, for example, much of the media commentary immediately tied the attacks directly to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s commitment to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Thus, the attacks were sufficiently painful to incite anger among portions of the European publics toward their leaders, but they were not damaging enough to inspire widespread fear and panic and thereby drive the Europeans into closer counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States.

In April 2004, bin Laden again spoke to the populations of Washington’s allies, warning that the previous month’s attack on the Atocha train station in Madrid was another example of what was in store for them. He went on to claim that the European peoples and those of other U.S. allies were being lethally exploited by their leaders and multinational corporations, and suggested a possible peaceful resolution of the situation.

“If one looks at the murders that are still going on in our countries and yours, an important truth becomes clear, which is that we are both suffering at the hands of your leaders, who send your sons to our countries, despite their objections, to kill and be killed,” bin Laden said. “So it is in the interests of both sides to stop those who shed their own peoples’ blood, both on behalf of narrow personal interests and on behalf of the White House gang…It is all too clear, then, who benefits most from stirring up this war and bloodshed: the merchants of war, the blood suckers who direct world policy from behind the scenes.”

He continued: “So I present to them [Europe’s peoples] this peace proposal, which essentially is a commitment to cease [al-Qaeda] operations against any state that pledges not to attack Muslims or intervene in their affairs, including the American conspiracy against the great Islamic world. The peace can be renewed at the end of a government’s term and the beginning of a new one, with the consent of both sides. It will come into effect on the departure of its last soldier from our lands, and is available for a period of three months from the day this statement is broadcast” [4].

Bin Laden closed his speech offering a truce by reminding the Europeans that al-Qaeda and its allies only attack non-Muslims if Islamic lands are attacked, and that therefore “the solution to this equation…lies in your own hands.” The governments of Europe rejected bin Laden’s truce offer, and al-Qaeda made its chief’s words good by attacking the London transportation system on July 7, 2005.

Since 2002, bin Laden has carefully delineated a doctrine of international political warfare that combines the promise of reciprocal violence—if you attack us, we will attack you—and a pledge not to attack if assistance from U.S. allies for Washington’s war on terrorism is curtailed or halted. Declaring such a doctrine is well and good, but the question is, has it worked? Has al-Qaeda’s policy resulted in any decrease in the will of U.S. allies to support U.S. military operations against the group and its allies? The following suggests that the answer to both may be: Yes, it is beginning to have some impact.

– The conservative, pro-U.S. government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar was defeated in an election soon after the March 2003 Madrid attack. The victorious socialist regime of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is less pro-American and has withdrawn Spanish troops from Iraq.

– In the summer of 2006, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative, pro-U.S. government was defeated by a narrow margin, much of which appears to have consisted of those voters opposed to Rome’s support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The new Italian government is planning to reduce the number of Italian troops in Iraq.

– After facing a near revolt this summer in his Labor Party, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was compelled to appease the dissenters by announcing that he would step down from the premiership before he had intended to do so. The Labor Party’s anger—backed by many public opinion polls—stemmed from Blair’s hardy support for Washington’s war on terrorism.

– In October 2006, a group of Thai military officers staged a coup that removed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office. Allegations of corruption have since been made against Thaksin, but the generals appear to have acted in large part to stop Thaksin’s harsh military and law-enforcement operations against Islamist separatists in the country’s three Muslim-dominated southern provinces. The coup leaders named a Muslim Thai general as the new prime minister, and he immediately announced his willingness to slow military operations and consider increased autonomy for the southern provinces—actions that Thaksin had refused to do.

– In mid-October 2006, sources “close to the [French] military” leaked information showing that President Jacques Chirac’s government—in the face of rising violence in Afghanistan and public condemnation of the Iraq war—was formulating plans to withdraw its Special Forces from Afghanistan in 2007.

– In the fall of 2006, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Afghan President Hamid Karzai repeatedly tried to distance themselves from “excessive” military operations conducted by the United States in their countries.

None of the foregoing events fall within the traditional definition of “diplomatic” successes, and obviously none is, in and of itself, a war-winner for al-Qaeda and its allies. Still, each of them clearly advances the goals of the doctrine for international political warfare that bin Laden established for al-Qaeda: the erosion of popular support for the war on terrorism among the populations of U.S. allies, and the gradual isolation of the United States. Al-Qaeda’s leaders and those of the groups allied to or inspired by it will see this doctrine as making an effective contribution to their war effort. That view will be augmented if the party controlling both houses of the U.S. Congress changes because of the results of the mid-term elections on November 7, 2006 [5].


1. Osama bin Laden, “Speech to America’s allies,” November 12, 2002. Also see, The Guardian, November 13, 2002.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Osama bin Laden, “Speech to the Peoples of Europe,” October 15, 2004.

5. It should be noted that bin Laden has consistently pursued the same sort of doctrine vis-à-vis the U.S. electorate, stressing that Americans will be killed by al-Qaeda and its allies as long as Republican and Democratic leaders pursue the same foreign policy in the Islamic world.