Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 6

In light of this issue’s report on the Idarat al-Tawahhush and its view on the secondary importance of Afghanistan in al-Qaeda’s global struggle, a further window into al-Qaeda’s strategic thinking is provided by a Jordanian analyst Bassam al-Baddarin. Writing on March 11 for the Arabic language daily al-Quds al-Arabi, his article ‘Al-Qaeda has drawn up working strategy lasting until 2020,’ puts together from the assorted writings of al-Qaeda’s ‘strategic brain’ Muhammad Makkawi, what appears to be a coherent long-term strategy. It seeks to explain the series of events since September 11 2001, the events in Afghanistan and Iraq, and potentially beyond.

The subject of al-Baddarin’s study, Muhammad Ibrahim Makkawi, is better known as Sayf al-Adel. He was a colonel in Egyptian Special Forces before joining with the mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet invasion. At the 1998 foundation of World Islamic Front against Crusaders and Jews (the full, official title for al-Qaeda), Sayf al-Adel was granted a pivotal role in military training, and subsequently headed the military wing, succeeding Abu Hafs al-Masri to become number three in al-Qaeda after Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. In 2003, Iran at one point offered to extradite Sayf al-Adel, whom it claimed to have under arrest, in exchange for Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization leaders, but Washington rejected the offer.

The theory:

Al-Baddarin identifies from Sayf al-Adel’s writings a core thesis explaining events — a regional war against the Americans. It aims at opening the jihadist triangle of terror, beginning with Afghanistan, passing though Iran and southern Iraq, and ending with southern Turkey, southern Lebanon and Syria. The first, achieved, step in this strategy was to regionalize the struggle with the United States. In this, the events of September 11 constituted the first step: dragging the United States into the Arab region in preparation for an extended war of attrition. Al-Qaeda knew in advance that the quick and inevitable response would be a comprehensive attack from the super-power against Afghanistan, but that this would play into their hands by provoking another giant — the Islamic Nation — and forcing it to wake up from its slumbers. In what appears a parallel with Abu Bakr Naji’s theory in “The Management of Barbarism,” al-Baddarin sees in al-Qaeda’s writings on the web a fore-knowledge of the course of events, that in a pre-prepared program “it sacrificed the Taleban Movement and transferred a large number of its fighting strength outside Afghanistan, to Iran and Iraq.” This was to keep pace with the shift by Washington of the theatre to an even more comprehensive confrontation in Iraq. “Indeed al-Qaeda had seen this in advance … Therefore, Al-Zarqawi and his comrades left for Iraq and remained quiet in the north” until coming to fruition “through the well-known declaration of allegiance between al-Zarqawi in Iraq and bin Laden in Afghanistan.” In this manner, al-Baddarin concludes, “it can be said that al-Qaeda’s strategy until the year 2000 (sic for 2020) turned its second page.” All that remains are “the Syrian and Lebanese dossiers, and finally the Iranian dossier.” This last is an inevitable strategic and tactical target for US military presence in the region. As to Washington’s strategic preparation for this, al-Baddarin states, “al-Qaeda leaders say that the U.S. Administration has defined five objectives: ending the Palestinian intifada; controlling Lebanon’s Hizbullah; effecting the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon; promoting the success of the Iraqi election process; and securing the oil fields in the Arabian Gulf region and maritime crossing points.” The upshot of this costly, dispersed U.S. strategy is the draining of the superpower’s military resources.

The immediate question on the above is how much of these strategic theses of al-Qaeda actually predate events, or whether they constitute a ‘moving target’ that takes as much from the unfolding of events as it purports to steer them. The one concession to the unpredictability of human events is al-Zarqawi’s narrow escape from being traded by Saddam Hussein in return for averting the invasion — interpreted by Sayf al-Adel as God’s intervention to save the group. The role of Iran in this program is also insufficiently clarified, as al-Baddarin himself states, and would imply “a certain [long distance] patient deal, still unknown … convincing Iran of the benefit in the end would be on two tracks: getting rid of Saddam and controlling Iraq, and then moving on to confronting the Americans.” Even so, the article is thought-provoking as a serious and intelligent attempt at weaving together the strands of information floating on the web into a coherent whole. As such it is eagerly being consumed on the jihadi forums.