Al-Qaeda’s Tactical Doctrine for the Long War

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 10

While the February 28 issue of Terrorism Focus outlined al-Qaeda’s strategic doctrine for insurgency, it is worth examining how al-Qaeda believes its doctrine should be applied at the tactical level. As was the case for strategic doctrine, the best place to find a discussion of al-Qaeda’s tactical doctrine is in its own electronic publications. The following analysis is based on essays published by al-Qaeda writers in March 2003 and August 2004 (, March 5, 2003; Sawt al-Jihad, August 17, 2004; Muaskar al-Battar, February 2, 2004). Since the essays were published prior to the intensification of the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, they allow the reader to compare this outline of tactical doctrine to the events on the ground in both countries since summer 2004.

Building on Experience: The building-block on which al-Qaeda and many of its allies define and refine tactical doctrine is the experience of the mujahideen who fought and defeated the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89). Al-Qaeda’s fundamental tactical doctrine emerged from that conflict and has been refined in each of the following jihads—Tajikistan, Chechnya, Bosnia and Kashmir. Indeed, al-Qaeda writers constantly stress the importance of learning from every battle—the need to incorporate what they call “event-related experience” into their doctrine. “Hardships make men,” the doctrine holds. “All noble qualities come with time and battles.”

Small Groups, Small Arms: According to al-Qaeda military chief Sayf al-Adil, turning a large insurgent force “into small groups with good administrative capabilities will spare us big losses.” Al-Qaeda, therefore, emphasizes that insurgent units be limited to between six and ten fighters. A team of this size is mobile, can be kept well-supplied, and has enough manpower to take on many different tasks: reconnaissance, ambushes, raids on small bases, surveillance, kidnappings and other urban operations. Beyond this “flexibility of the organization,” a six- to ten-man unit presents a relatively small physical signature, which limits the ability of enemy airpower to fix the position of a group and eliminate it.

Al-Qaeda’s tactical doctrine stresses the need to use weapons that are easily available, reliable, and relatively cheap. While the doctrine instructs fighters that “you must prepare weapons of all kinds” to fight the enemy, it concludes that the most important is “the Kalashnikov [AK-47] and ammunition, and there must be large quantities of this because it is the substance of war.” Also to be acquired are grenades, medium-caliber mortars and recoilless rifles, 107mm rocket launchers, rocket-propelled-grenade launchers (RPGs) for “anti-armor use,” and SAM-7’s and 12.7 and 14.5mm machine guns, which are “effective against helicopters.” (Interestingly, al-Adil clearly admits that al-Qaeda does not have an effective anti-aircraft weapon. The SAM-7’s, he says, are “not useful at all” against jets, and recommends that enemy fixed-wing aircraft not be fired at because the planes can locate and destroy the source of the fire.) Overall, al-Qaeda favors weapons made by Russia and its former communist allies because they are dependable and readily available at “low prices” on the black market; in August 2004, for example, insurgents were urged to quickly purchase as many RPGs as possible “due to its falling price.”

In the area of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), al-Qaeda’s doctrine instructs the mujahideen to depend on the supplies of explosives that are available in the country in which they are fighting. Most of these countries are awash in explosives; time and money should not be wasted trying to bring explosives in from outside. The insurgents also are told to focus on acquiring stocks of “anti-tank mines” not only for their use against armored vehicles, but because they are a “multi-use weapon” containing components that can be used for building bombs of several sorts. In terms of bomb-making expertise, al-Qaeda doctrine acknowledges “that the production of different types of bombs and explosives must be mastered,” but adds this is not difficult because “the ways to do this are available and explained in many places.” In addition, “people with experience…[are] many in number in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.”

Logistics: “There is no jihad without power,” al-Qaeda’s doctrine holds, “and there is no war without resources that ensure the flow and continuation of power. Men without weapons will be useless unless God wishes otherwise.” Not surprisingly, there is no specific discussion in the group’s electronic journals about the international networks that acquire arms for the mujahideen. Yet, inside a country in which insurgents are engaged, al-Qaeda encourages its fighters to acquire as much ordnance as possible from abandoned or captured regime stockpiles, battlefield recovery, and from deserters and captives. Ordnance acquired internally and from abroad is to be hoarded in “scattered” depots that are in or near the mujahideen’s areas of operations. In establishing ordnance depots, the insurgents are instructed to make sure they do not use old and well-known military positions. Al-Qaeda’s military chief, Sayf al-Adil, stressed that this was a lesson learned in Afghanistan, where the Taliban had used decades-old positions that were identified to the U.S. military by the Pakistani and Russian intelligence services. Depots should be relatively small so that an enemy success against one depot does not paralyze operations in a given area. The combat team in a particular area, in fact, should be supported by “several logistics cells…in order to ensure the continuity of [military] action within the group” they support. In addition, the logistics cells should not be known to each other in order to prevent communication between them from being discovered by the enemy.

Al-Adil also suggests that the insurgents’ logisticians use “fast and light Corolla vehicles” to move men and supplies whenever possible, claiming that, against the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, the vehicles could carry four men and all their equipment and “proved their efficiency, maneuverability, and deceptive qualities.” Al-Adil claims that the vehicles were so good that the Japanese company should acquire video of their use in the Afghan war for its advertisements. He also adds that logisticians should look for opportunities to use motorcycles, horses, and camels because the mujahideen in Afghanistan found that coalition soldiers would often let these conveyances pass without inspection.

Combat: Al-Qaeda’s tactical doctrine teaches that the key to insurgent success in warfare is patience. An insurgency is by definition a long war, and “there is no harm in delaying action if there is a real interest in doing so.” For instance, Sayf al-Adil explained in March 2003, “We want to say to those [Muslims] who want a quick victory that this type of war waged by the mujahideen employs a strategy of the long-breathe and the attrition and terrorization of the enemy and not holding on to territory.”

Al-Qaeda’s doctrine identifies U.S. airpower as the overwhelming problem facing the mujahideen in combat situations. Al-Qaeda writers are universally dismissive of the quality of U.S. and coalition ground forces, believing that those forces cannot win battles unless they are supported by airpower. U.S. tactical operations are described as very predictable: bombing, troop advance, troop retreat if casualties are suffered, more bombing, and repeat until ground troops can advance with minimal casualties. “The enemy lost the ground battle, which was the norm with us in Afghanistan,” Sayf al-Adil has written. “The situation has not changed and will not change, God willing, in the Iraq battle.” Almost wistfully, al-Adil also noted that any group could defeat U.S. ground forces if it had a “good, long-range air-defense missile system.”

In the face of U.S. airpower, al-Qaeda recommends that insurgents focus on ambushes, mining, and stand-off attacks using crew-served weapons on enemy bases, airfields, and convoys. These attacks should be prepared after extensive surveillance of enemy behavior patterns and a thorough reconnaissance to choose attack sites that can be camouflaged and are at least somewhat shielded by topography from enemy aerial observation. In addition, attack sites should be chosen with an acute concern for maintaining several possible escape routes. If an attack goes poorly, mujahideen forces should immediately break off the fight and flee. Finally, attack sites always should be chosen to minimize the negative impact of a fight on the local population. The mujahideen benefit from active and passive support from local non-combatants, and the best way for the insurgents to maintain both is “to pay attention to the affairs of the public and the people” and to avoid operations that significantly disrupt people who “are busy with life and are pursuing their livelihood.”

Al-Adil recommends ambushes as the least costly and most lucrative form of attack on U.S. ground forces. Ambushes, he argues, allow the mujahideen to close with the enemy and thereby deprive him of support from fixed-wing aircraft. In this situation, the insurgents will find that “an American soldier is qualified to fulfill movie roles only”; in ambushes “the enemy will suffer its biggest human losses” because his aerial advantage is largely negated. Al-Qaeda’s tacticians have little concern about helicopters coming to the rescue of ambushed U.S. forces because the attacking insurgent unit will have veteran gunners experienced in using SAM-7s, RPGs, and 14.5mm machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks.

Outlook: Al-Qaeda’s tactical doctrine for insurgency, like its strategic doctrine, is the product of more than a quarter-century of adapting U.S. and British doctrine—mostly from each country’s Marines and Special Forces—to Muslim culture, and a dedication to learning-from-fighting in guerrilla wars across the Islamic world. Both doctrines have been reduced to texts written in several languages, and have been distributed in hard-copy manuals and electronic formats across the Islamic world. For now, al-Qaeda’s doctrine is not only its own guiding light, but the doctrine of choice among numerous like-minded Islamic insurgent groups.