Al-Qaeda Doctrine: The Eventual Need for Semi-Conventional Forces

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 20

Earlier in 2006, Terrorism Focus published three articles on al-Qaeda’s doctrine for what the United States government has taken to calling the “Long War.” In recent weeks, Western media reporting on developments in the Iraq and Afghan insurgencies seems to make a fourth article relevant. Media reports from both Iraq and Afghanistan have suggested the appearance of a slow evolution of the Islamist insurgents’ tactics in the direction of the battlefield deployment of larger mujahideen units that attack “harder” facilities. These attacks are not replacing small unit attacks, ambushes, kidnappings, assassinations and suicide bombings in either country, but rather seem to be initial and tentative forays toward another stage of fighting. In the past month, reports have suggested Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his Iraqi resistance allies are trying to train semi-conventional units, and last week’s large-unit action by the Taliban at the town of Musa Qala in southern Afghanistan may be straws in the wind in this regard.

As was explained in the earlier Terrorism Focus articles, al-Qaeda believes that it and its allies can only defeat the United States in a “long war,” one that allows the Islamists to capitalize on their extraordinary patience, as well as on their enemies’ lack thereof. Before his death in a firefight with Saudi security forces, the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Abu Hajar Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin, wrote extensively about how al-Qaeda believed the military fight against the United States and its allies would unfold. He envisioned a point at which the mujahideen would have to develop semi-conventional forces. He identified this period as the “Decisive Stage” [1].

Al-Muqrin told his insurgent readers that the power of the United States precluded any expectation of a quick victory. He wrote that the war would progress slowly through such phases as initial manpower mobilization, political work among the populace to establish trust and support, the accumulation of weaponry and other supplies, the establishment of bases around the country and especially in the mountains, the initiation of attacks on individuals and then a gradual intensification of the latter until a countrywide insurgency was underway. Each of these steps was essential and none could be skipped, al-Muqrin maintained; the steps would prolong the war, thereby allowing the mujahideen to grow in numbers, experience and combat power. “We should warn against rushing from one stage to the next,” he wrote. “Rather, we should be patient and take all factors into consideration. The fraternal brothers in Algeria, for instance, hastily moved from one stage to the other…The outcome was the movement’s retreat…from 1995-1997.”

As these steps were traversed by the mujahideen, al-Muqrin argued that the resources, political will, morale and manpower of the insurgents’ enemies would be eroded, and that their forces would assume more static positions in order to limit the attrition they suffered. In this stage of the insurgency, al-Muqrin predicted that the United States and its allies would conduct far fewer large-scale combat operations in the countryside and would turn toward conducting smaller raids on specific targets, while simultaneously hardening their bases and protecting their supply routes and lines of communication. At this point, al-Muqrin wrote, the mujahideen could begin the final stage of preparation for victory, “which is building a military force across the country that becomes the nucleus of a military army.”

With the end of the constant pressure and danger generated by major enemy sweep operations, al-Muqrin wrote that the mujahideen should begin “taking advantage of the areas where the regime has little or reduced presence” to train semi-conventional military units. In these areas, “the mujahideen will set up administrative centers and bases…They will build camps, hospitals, Sharia courts and radio transmission stations at these areas, which will serve as a staging area for their military and political operations.” Currently, al-Anbar province in Iraq; Nuristan, the Kunar Valley, Kandahar and Paktika provinces in Afghanistan; and swathes of Pakistan’s border provinces would seem to meet the requirements laid down by al-Muqrin.

It should be clearly noted that al-Muqrin neither envisioned nor called for mujahideen units that could evenly square-off with the units of their foes. Although the formation of such insurgent units would mark “the era of victory and conquests for the mujahideen,” al-Muqrin wrote, the development of “semi-regular forces that gradually become regular forces with modern formations” will not yield forces equivalent to those of the enemy. “By modern,” al-Muqrin wrote, “I mean the need for these troops to be knowledgeable about regular warfare, the army formations [and] their function in urban areas. I do not mean following the suit of the regimes…” The purpose of these forces? “Through these regular forces,” al-Muqrin explained, “the mujahideen will begin to attack small cities and publicize the conquest and victories in the media to lift the morale of the mujahideen and the people in general and break the morale of the enemy.” Al-Muqrin continued, stating, “The reason the mujahideen should target the small cities is that when the enemies’ soldiers see these [small] cities falling into the hands of the mujahideen it will destroy their morale and they will realize that they are no match for the mujahideen.”

Interestingly, al-Muqrin uses for his example the activities of the Afghan mujahideen from 1988-1992. In Afghanistan, this period encompassed the era after the Soviet military terminated its large-scale, hammer-and-anvil sweep operations—leaving most of the country’s non-urban areas to the mujahideen—and after the Soviet withdrawal when the Afghan communists were hunkered down in a few urban bastions. In these years, Ahmed Shah Masood and Jalaluddin Haqqani began to train small, semi-conventional units to use in attempts to take small cities of the kind to which al-Muqrin refers. Both Afghan commanders successfully used these units; Masood took several small cities in northern Afghanistan—including Takhar—and Haqqani took Khost, then the capital of Paktia province. These relatively small victories produced a substantial morale boost among the Afghan mujahideen and their supporters and produced equal dismay among their enemies. In a similar but more recent example of this phenomenon, the Iraqi insurgency’s morale received a boost—and the U.S.-led coalition was embarrassed—when al-Zarqawi’s forces took and temporarily held the small city of al-Qaim near the Syrian border in September 2005 [2].

In closing, it is again important to note that al-Qaeda’s doctrine as explained by al-Muqrin does not call for semi-conventional units to replace guerrilla forces; the latter will remain a main force of the insurgency, as well as its safety net. At this stage, al-Muqrin wrote, “we should keep the guerrillas because the mujahideen may need them in some cases.” Al-Muqrin argued that it was always possible that the enemy would revert to large-scale aggressive offensive operations and force the insurgents back into an earlier stage of the war. He also noted that the enemy’s airpower would always afford it great mobility. “It should be noted here that the main bases on the mountains must maintain a strong garrison and that the conquests [taking small cities] should not tempt the mujahideen to abandon their fortified bases,” al-Muqrin warned. “This is [done] so not to give the enemy an opportunity to conduct a rear-landing operation, taking advantage of the absence of the mujahideen in these bases. This is why we mentioned earlier that the mujahideen must keep the guerrillas constantly prepared.”

The larger-size insurgent units that have been sporadically operating in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last year may signal the initial, limited success of al-Muqrin’s call for the building of semi-conventional mujahideen units. The data to make a definitive judgment, however, is currently not available. It will suffice to say that what is known about al-Qaeda doctrine for the “Long War” calls for the eventual creation of such units, and that Ayman al-Zawahiri’s instructions to al-Zarqawi—in al-Zawahiri’s letter of July 9, 2005—clearly infers that the mujahideen will need semi-conventional forces to control Iraq after the withdrawal of the U.S.-led coalition [3].


1. Abu-Hajar Abd-al-Aziz al-Muqrin, “The Second Stage: The Relative Strategic Balance,” Mu’askar al-Battar, February 2, 2004.

2. Ellen Knickmeyer, “Zarqawi militants seize key town in western Iraq,” Washington Post, September 6, 2005.

3. Zawahiri to Zarqawi, July 9, 2005, Director of National Intelligence,