Al-Qaeda Doctrine: Training the Individual Warrior

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 12

While Terrorism Focus previously examined al-Qaeda’s strategic and tactical doctrine (February 28, March 14), this article looks at the type and purpose of the non-military training that is given to the individual al-Qaeda fighter or mujahid. Based on al-Qaeda sources (see notes for complete listing), this training appears to be common to both the organization’s insurgents and their special forces, and is intended to produce fighters who are pious, disciplined and unity-minded, fatalistic, and cognizant of the requirements and attitudes of those they are defending.


When training each mujahid, al-Qaeda’s doctrine declares that the first priority must be “spiritual preparation … because it is necessary to attain victory.” The key to this preparation is two-fold, al-Qaeda’s Ma’adh al-Mansur explained. First, each fighter must completely accept the fact that God has promised victory to the Muslims if they obey His word. Second, the fighter must recognize that victory has not yet come because most Muslims love life and hate death, and thus have strayed from God’s path, most specifically from the path of jihad. As a result, al-Mansur directs that each trainee be taught that “God has set the infidel nations against them [the Muslims] to inflict on them humiliation and lowly status. This is an inevitable and ordained punishment that befalls those who abandon jihad.” For this degraded status, each Muslim man should be deeply ashamed, and should “die of grief if he does not ward off the calamities inflicted on his fellow Muslims and Kinsmen.”

In other words, al-Qaeda doctrine does not argue that the current predicament of Muslims is the fault of what Al-Faruq al-Amiri calls “the campaign and reality of the crusader enemy.” Rather, that predicament flows from the refusal of Muslims to resist the infidels’ attack. The commonly held Western view that al-Qaeda and its followers blame the West for all of Islam’s woes—an understanding most stridently advocated by Bernard Lewis—thus falls by the wayside. Al-Qaeda trainees are taught that the humiliation God has inflicted on Muslims for their failure to obey Him can only be lifted by Muslims accepting God’s word and “returning to jihad.” If they do so, they will win victories like those the Prophet Muhammad and his companions won in the battles of Badr and The Trench in Islam’s first years of existence. “Although the Muslims [with Muhammad] were few and had scanty military means, and the infidels were many and well-equipped,” al-Mansur reminds today’s mujahedin, victory was in the hands of God.”

Discipline and Unity

If an al-Qaeda trainee is not thoroughly inculcated with the discipline of the Shariah, Abu-Hajar Abd-al-Aziz al-Muqrin warned, “[he] will turn into an outlaw.” Abu Jandal, bin Laden’s former bodyguard, noted that each trainee must learn that his “mission in life is to protect the ummah,” and that this is the “cause” all fighters “carried in our hearts wherever we are able to go.” Reflecting on his own training, al-Muqrin recalled that he and his colleagues, “the sons of the Arabian Peninsula,” came to the Afghan training camps with much to learn. We were “not used to military order and discipline,” al-Muqrin wrote, and found “many things full of restrictions and difficult.” After receiving what al-Amiri called intense training for “faith, spirit and heart,” however, al-Muqrin said that he and his comrades became mentally “tough and arduous” and knew that they “must fear no one but God and must be ready to sacrifice everything for upholding God’s word.”

While Shariah instruction develops a disciplined, focused mindset, al-Qaeda doctrine acknowledges that unity of belief does not automatically yield a consistently united organization. Of the other factors impacting unity, al-Qaeda doctrine focuses most on eliminating animosities between trainees, or groups of trainees, that are based on national origins. Abu Jandal, for example, said that in the late 1990s he was often called on by al-Qaeda leaders to travel to camps in Afghanistan to settle disagreements between different nationalities, most commonly Saudis and Egyptians. Al-Qaeda is unique for a number of reasons, but most of all because it is the only Islamist insurgent organization that has been able to remain cohesive and effective despite a heterogeneous membership drawn from several dozen Muslim and non-Muslim states. Abu Jandal has written that bin Laden has long contended that to successfully confront the United States and its allies al-Qaeda fighters “needed to entrench amity among ourselves and eliminate regional rivalries.” Part of the training regimen is to ensure, according to Abu Jandal, that “the issue of nationalism was put out of our minds, and we acquired a wider view than that, namely the issue of the ummah.”


“What does a mujahid seek from jihad?” Shaykh Yusaf al-Alyiri answers his own question: “He seeks one of two happy endings, either victory or martyrdom. He will be victorious when he achieves either of them.” Of all the non-weapons training an al-Qaeda trainee receives, this seems the most simple and straightforward. The mujahid, al-Muqrin concludes, “must be eager to enrage God’s enemies and he must believe that God’s victory is certain, as promised.” He must not worry about the future. “Whatever is going to happen to you,” al-Muqrin instructed would-be insurgents, “will not miss you, and whatever is going to miss you will not happen to you; if it were your fate to be killed, taken prisoner, or wounded , then this would be your fate, and caution will not save you from fate.”

Area Awareness

Al-Qaeda’s training in piety, discipline, unity and fatalism is designed to produce a mujahid who is part of an elite vanguard organization that is deployed in multiple areas of the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda doctrine tells each mujahid that he is “fighting for the whole [Islamic] nation to preserve its religion, sanctities, the blood, honor, and property of the [Muslim] people, and to repulse injustice and aggression.” That said, the doctrine notes that al-Qaeda fighters may not encounter a fully supportive population when they first arrive in the theater of fighting. This is because the mujahedin themselves are outsiders as far as the locals are concerned, and they have not yet proved they can protect the local population. In many instances, therefore, the most the mujahedin can expect is passive assistance. “The mujahedin,” al-Muqrin explained, “must pay attention to the fact that most people are busy with life and pursuing their own livelihood. If the mujahedin keep this in mind they will realize that in many circumstances they will not get great support unless God wishes otherwise.”

Since this situation will be common across the Muslim world, the mujahedin must be disciplined and behave according to the tenets of their training. To turn passive support into active support, al-Muqrin claims, each mujahid must “be known for his nobility of character, ethics, and loyalty to the believers.” He continues:

“The troops must be marked by their good manners and conduct. A mujahid must serve as a beacon to lighten the road for the people and a model for other colleagues to follow. He must be careful not to be like those whom God referred to as: ‘Do ye enjoin right conduct on the people, and forget [to practice it] yourselves?'”


For national militaries and insurgent groups military doctrine is a set of ideals that cannot be perfectly applied during the unpredictable course of a war. Clear, demanding and repetitive doctrinal training probably is the best means of ensuring the fullest possible application of doctrine in war situations. The fact that al-Qaeda has remained a united and disciplined fighting force in a war against the world’s greatest military power, and continues to be welcomed in multiple Muslim countries in which insurgencies are underway or being kindled, suggests the inculcation of its training doctrine for individual fighters has been largely successful.


1. Ma’adh al-Mansur, “The Importance of Military Preparation According to the Shariah,” al-Mu-askar al-Battar, January 3, 2004.

2. Yusaf al-Alyiri, “The Illumination on the Path of Jihad. The Road to Battle,” Sawt al-Jihad, November 1, 2004.

3. Al-Faruq al-Amiri, “What is our duty toward our ummah?” al-Mu-askar al-Battar, August 17, 2004.

Ibid.,”God is your refuge, Al-Fallujah,” al-Mu-askar al-Battar, November 10, 2004.

5. “Interview with Abd-al-Aziz al-Muqrin,” Movement for Islamic Reform, October 13, 2003.

6. Abu Hajar Abd-al-Aziz al-Muqrin, “The Second Stage: The Relative Strategic Balance,” Mu-askar al-Battar, January 15, 2004.

7. “Interview of Bin Ladin’s Former Body Guard, Abu Jandal,” Al-Quds al-Arabi, August 3, 2004 and March 15, 22, 24, and 25, 2005.