Al-Suri’s Adaptation of Fourth Generation Warfare Doctrine

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 18

Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, also known as Abu Musab al-Suri, traveled through Andalucia.

In a highly influential and sizeable treatise posted in January 2005 and titled “The Global Islamic Resistance Call,” jihadi ideologue Abu Musab al-Suri (aka Mustafa Setmariam Nasar) culminated a life of activity by providing his strategic template for the Global Salafi-Jihad [1]. This work, rare for its self-examining and almost scientific approach, provides details for how the jihad should pursue its campaign henceforth. While not outwardly acknowledging it, al-Suri’s strategic manifesto carries many of the same tenets of fourth generation warfare (4GW) as outlined by military analyst William Lind. Perhaps the reason he did not cite Lind’s writings as motivation is that al-Suri’s work demonstrates a significant step in the development of the 4GW doctrine [2].

The Fourth Generation Warfare Doctrine

Writing in a 1989 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette, William Lind and his co-authors outlined what they perceived to be the next generation of warfare. While many have viewed this article as the seminal piece on the changing face of warfare, others were struck by its applicability to the international phenomenon of terrorism. Lind too saw the linkage between 4GW and terrorism and addressed the issue at length within the article. Individuals like Abu Ubayd al-Qurayshi and most recently the aforementioned Abu Musab al-Suri have picked up on the tenets discussed by Lind and have written extensively on how jihadis should learn from them in their global insurgency.

The authors observed that effective terrorists tend to operate more or less in accordance with the tenets of 4GW. Similar to an ideal 4GW soldier, terrorists live almost completely off the land and off the enemy’s society while operating on broad mission orders. Furthermore, they operate on a highly dispersed battlefield in which maneuverability is paramount. It is upon these primary areas, among others, that al-Qaeda strategists originally focused their efforts and in which al-Suri has developed the 4GW doctrine.

– Nizam, la Tanzim

Through his writings, it becomes evident that al-Suri seeks to revolutionize the Global Salafi-Jihad by further decentralizing the movement and by limiting or eradicating the organizational aspect altogether. Al-Suri’s writings and teachings, stretching back to his days in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, demonstrate the most evolved jihadi adaptation of 4GW. The primary elements of al-Suri’s iteration of 4GW lie within the slogan nizam, la tanzim (system, not organization). This phrase encapsulates a number of 4GW tenets and demonstrates a significant evolution in the employment of commander’s intent, dispersal of the battlefield and the decentralization of logistics.

– Commander’s Intent

Among the primary elements of 4GW that al-Suri has developed, none have evolved to the extent that commander’s intent has. In Lind’s description of 4GW, the notion of commander’s intent is an integral feature in the dispersal of the battlefield. As Lind succinctly states, the dispersion of the battlefield “will require even the lowest level [of strategic leadership] to operate flexibly on the basis of the commander’s intent.” In Lind’s model, individuals operate with only a semblance of a command-and-control apparatus.

Comparatively, in al-Suri’s system of individualized jihad, the onus of command and control falls upon each operative or cell leader. There is, in essence, no organizational hierarchy from which to derive any discernable operational instruction. Therefore, as an inherent element of a dispersed or non-existent organizational structure, individuals function autonomously under the notion of commander’s intent.

In a further evolved aspect, because there is no organizational hierarchy, the traditional notion of a commander is slightly altered. Unlike in a military or conventional terrorist group where there exists at least a modicum of organizational tier structure, in al-Suri’s system this will ideally be eradicated altogether. Instead, what will replace it is an ideological leadership, not directly linked to individual operatives. Commander’s intent and the movement’s strategic planning will be disseminated not through structured channels, but rather through communiqués, web postings and televised statements. Operatives will still reference their ideological leadership. This marks a split in the Global Salafi-Jihad between strategic leadership and operatives. Each has its own vital role in the jihad, although the two are no longer linked by an organization. Al-Suri notes repeatedly that those individuals such as himself, who possess the skills to “think about [jihadi] experiences, draw lessons from them and to foresee the nature of the future confrontations and battles,” should seclude themselves to “fill an important gap in the battle.”

– Dispersion of the Battlefield

In Lind’s original article, he describes fourth generation warfare as “nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts.” In this regard, al-Suri’s system maps almost perfectly to Lind’s model, although in al-Suri’s nizam jihad, the dispersal of the battlefield is emphasized.

Despite his emphasis on liberating Dar al-Islam, al-Suri calls on each jihadi to strike the enemy in every place. He further calls on each and every Muslim, regardless of their location, to awaken from their slumber and to assume the struggle of jihad. By calling on the global masses to initiate jihad, al-Suri has in effect deemed the entire world to be the battlefield. In this way, Lind’s conception of 4GW operatives functioning in an indefinable battlefield has been furthered by al-Suri to include operatives originating from the enemy’s society. As demonstrated in numerous plots over the course of the past two years, jihadis born and raised in the West are assuming an increasingly prominent role in the Global Salafi-Jihad.

– Decentralized Logistics

According to Lind and his co-authors, a prominent aspect of 4GW is the “decreasing dependence on centralized logistics.” As the battlefield disperses and the organizational links are loosened, 4GW operatives will be increasingly responsible for procuring their own logistical requirements. In al-Suri’s iteration, individuals and cells participating in the global jihad must become self-sustaining as a direct function of a non-existent organizational structure as well as an entirely devolved battlefield. Whereas in past generations operatives could rely upon their organization for operational logistics and funding, in al-Suri’s system, the logistical procurement process begins and ends with the individual jihadis. This can place added strain upon inexperienced and ill-trained jihadis operating in a treacherous environment made even more so by increasingly capable security bureaus. In order to compensate for this, al-Suri includes the provision of a corps of roaming international jihadis which will provide seed money and expertise as needed. There is, however, an implicit drawback in this arrangement; should the international jihadi not partake in a martyrdom operation or otherwise minimize his operational footprint, he will constitute a significant weakness in the system. This vulnerability marks an interdiction opportunity for counter-terrorism authorities.

Model for the Future

As the military complex evolves in its adaptation and implementation of Lind’s writings, so too does the Global Salafi-Jihad. While this maturation process continues, one of two scenarios will play out. Either the system of jihad, as outlined by al-Suri, will trigger a recentralization phase, or al-Suri’s writings will come to fruition and there will be a self-sustaining global insurgency.

In the first scenario, global insurgents, operating under the degraded notion of commander’s intent, will deviate from and modify their strategic guidance. As a direct result of al-Suri’s emphasis on individualized jihad, operatives will increasingly mutate their interpretation of accepted ideological norms. The result will be a system of jihadis implementing tactics and strategies far removed from those sanctioned by the leaders of the global jihad and violating long-established ideological and religious tenets. While this process will no doubt require a considerable amount of time, there are indications that it may already be occurring. The most obvious and explicit manifestation of this was seen in July 2005 in an intercepted letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In this letter, al-Zawahiri chastised al-Zarqawi’s macabre video beheadings and pleaded with the now deceased al-Qaeda in Iraq leader to “kill by the bullet.” In response to this, Global Salafi-Jihad leaders will make a concerted effort to re-establish tanzim jihad. This will provide operatives with an organizational accountability while also having the added benefit of improving the “admissions standards” for aspiring jihadis.

The other possibility is that jihadis will follow the writings of al-Suri, operate within the accepted parameters of their predecessors and establish a self-sustaining global insurgency. As already detailed, this will entail the spontaneous creation of jihadi cells around the world bearing no organizational affiliation. They will learn tactics from the internet or from fighters returning from open theaters of jihad such as Iraq and Afghanistan.


Abu Musab al-Suri has developed the most evolved interpretation of the tenets found in the fourth generation warfare doctrine. Al-Suri has further adapted these tenets and his interpretation thereof to be applicable to the Global Salafi-Jihad in a way not previously seen. Although comparable elements of al-Suri’s writings are readily found in third generation warfare, what sets al-Suri apart is his call for the dispersal of the leadership structure and therefore the command-and-control element of the jihad. This decentralization of the decision-making element will have a profound impact on targeting, tactics and strategy. As witnessed in London, Madrid, Toronto, the Netherlands and elsewhere, jihadis are becoming decreasingly reliant upon Osama bin Laden’s organization for operational guidance and for logistical procurement.


1. The Global Islamic Resistance Call and other documents by al-Suri can be acquired at the following URL:

2. This article focuses strictly on the comparisons between al-Suri’s nizam jihad and Lind’s 4GW and does not enter the current discussion on a pending fifth generation of warfare. Although there is a generational gap between the interpretation of 4GW by al-Qurayshi and al-Suri, this in itself does not constitute a dialectically qualitative shift in generational warfare. Although there are some elements of this future fifth generation in al-Suri’s writings, certain other crucial elements are found external to his strategic treatise and should be examined in the future.