Training jihadi recruits in the post-9/11 world is increasingly about finding a safe place where training is possible rather than discussing curricula, facilities, selection of recruits, instructors and related tasks . In his voluminous treatise The Call to Global Islamic Resistance, published on the internet in January 2005, the Syrian-born al-Qaeda veteran Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Setmariam Nasar, better known as Abu Mus’ab al-Suri and Umar Abd al-Hakim, examines five different methods for jihadi training based on past jihadi practices :
1. Secret training in safe houses.
2. Training in small secret camps in the area of operations.
3. Overt training under the auspices of states providing safe havens.
4. Overt training in the camps of the Open Fronts .
5. Semi-overt training in areas of chaos and no [governmental] control.
Secret training in safe houses has been extremely important in terrorist training in all jihadi experiences, according to al-Suri. He considers this method “the very foundation” in preparing jihadi cadres, even though it only allows for live training in the use of light weapons and some lessons in the use of explosives . Al-Suri himself had hands-on experience with this type of training in Jordan from the early 1980s, and he emphasized, in particular, successes in educating cadres “in doctrinal and ideological courses” using this method .
Training in small, secret mobile camps has also been frequently used by jihadi groups during the past decades. This type of training may take place in remote regions such as in mountains, forests and distant rural areas, and the number of persons involved should be in the range of 5-12. Slightly more advanced training, such as setting up ambushes and organizing assassinations, is possible in such camps. Al-Suri suggests that live training in the use of explosives can be practiced inside caves or near places where the sound of explosions would not attract attention, such as in the proximity of stone quarries, fishing areas and related locations.
Although al-Suri acknowledges that jihadi organizations in the past have derived great short-term benefits from establishing overt training camps in states providing safe havens, he finds that the results have ultimately been mostly disastrous: “Experience has proven that this is strategically a mortal trap” . Safe haven states tend to constrain, exploit and may eventually sacrifice the jihadi organizations to further their own interests . Moreover, after 9/11 “it is no longer possible for countries to open safe havens or camps for the Islamists and the jihadis” .
Al-Suri is more positive about overt training in the camps of the “Open Fronts,” based mainly on the Afghan and Bosnian experiences. The comprehensiveness of the training opportunities on these fronts, and the absence of “political and ideological constraints,” makes this a better option . He nevertheless cautions that training on the “Open Fronts” is not always effective, partly because of the presence of many competing jihadi and Islamist groups. The conditions do not allow for the kind of tight ideological indoctrination that is possible in safe houses. Furthermore, the economic costs involved in dispatching volunteers to camps in distant countries are very high. More importantly, crossing several national borders to reach the areas of the “Open Fronts” involves too many security risks .
As for semi-overt training in areas of chaos and where there is no governmental control, al-Suri points out its benefits in the past: in locations such as the tribal areas in Yemen, Somalia, the Horn of Africa, the tribal areas in the border regions of Pakistan and the great Saharan countries in Africa, both local and non-local jihadi groups have been able to set up semi-overt camps. The low cost of weapons, ammunition and space in these regions is an advantage . He finds, however, that the prospect for exploiting these black holes is rapidly declining as a result of the U.S.-led war on terrorism and the new geopolitical situation:
“The areas of chaos are on the verge of coming under American control and being closed…the only [training] methods which remain possible for us now, in the world of American aggression and international coordination to combat terrorism, are the methods of secret training in houses and mobile training camps” .
In other words, only the first two models are viable options in the post-9/11 era. Al-Suri clearly believes that the formation of large-scale overt camps similar to the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan must be postponed until some point in the distant future .
Devising Jihadi Training in a Harsh Security Environment
Al-Suri’s training doctrine is heavily informed by his acute awareness of the military weakness of the jihadi movement. The current situation in which the enemy “is dominating air, ground and sea” imposes very strict security precautions on jihadi training opportunities . From this point of departure, al-Suri offers five building blocks for jihadi training: 1. mental and ideological preparation and developing the desire to fight and moral strength; 2. jihadi guerrilla warfare theory; 3. spreading the ideological, theoretical and military training programs across the Islamic Nation by various means; 4. secret training in houses and in limited, mobile training camps; 5. developing fighting competence through jihadi action and through participation in battle .
Not surprisingly, ideological indoctrination comes first, but no less important is the emphasis on studying guerrilla warfare theory adapted to the jihadi struggle. This has been a topic of intense study by al-Suri. In fact, three of al-Suri’s most well-known audiotaped lecture series deal specifically with this topic. One of them was held in Khost in 1998 and consists of 32 audiotapes in which he reads and comments on War of the Oppressed, an American book on guerrilla warfare that has been translated into Arabic. Al-Suri strived to modify and adapt leftist guerrilla warfare literature to the Islamic context and planned to turn these lectures into a book entitled The Basis for Jihadi Guerrilla Warfare in Light of the Contemporary American Campaigns . Finding very few works in the Arab library on jihadi guerrilla warfare, al-Suri called upon his followers to transcribe his lectures in order to make them available to the broadest possible audience; in September 2006, his request was apparently heeded, as several of these lectures appeared on jihadi websites in Arabic PDF-formatted transcripts .
The widest possible distribution of jihadi training materials is clearly a cornerstone of al-Suri’s training doctrine. One needs the “spread of culture of preparation and training…by all methods, especially the internet” . This recommendation has been followed up by jihadis in recent years. Not only have numerous, comprehensive training manuals and encyclopedias, such as the 700 MB size Encyclopedia of Preparation for Jihad (mawsu’at al-i’dad), been made available online in text and picture formats, but also sleek, professional, video-formatted, instructional materials detailing various explosive manufacturing recipes have begun to circulate widely during the past two years, and at least 22 separate audio-visual jihadi manuals are now in circulation on the web. Furthermore, 29 WMV-formatted files of al-Suri’s videotaped lectures, recorded in August 2000 at his own training camp, called mu’askar al-ghuraba (The Strangers’ Camp), in Karghah near Kabul, have been available to download from multiple sites since January 2005.
The last building block in al-Suri’s training doctrine, namely training through action and fighting, is derived directly from his experience in the Syrian Islamist uprising in 1980-82. Al-Suri did not intend to allow untrained recruits to undertake complicated operations, which would contradict his principle of sequence: “will…preparation…launch.” Rather, he described how a gradual introduction of untrained recruits into an operative role can take place to allow “expertise [to] develop through battle” . Recruits should first participate in action only as bystanders or witnesses. Later, they will serve in a minor auxiliary function without directly intervening. Finally, when deemed qualified, they will operate directly in main operations under the command of senior members .
Although al-Suri does not go deeply into the details of jihadi training, he presents what he terms “a light program which can be implemented by the simplest cells…operating under the most difficult circumstances of security and secrecy” . The program is characterized by training activities that do not involve serious security risks, but are still relevant to a jihadi. The elements of the program range from physical exercise and studies of explosive manuals to practicing explosive manufacturing using dummies, shooting practice with compressed air guns, practicing procedures for secure communication and studies of all kinds of relevant military- and weapons-related handbooks. Only when the time is right should the group proceed to find a proper secret location to undertake live practice shooting and use of explosives.
The danger of al-Suri’s training doctrine lies in its very realistic assumptions about the jihadis’ military weakness. His doctrine seems to be cleanly and pragmatically tailored to the security situation in the Western world of the post-9/11 era. It emphasizes training and fighting at home or in the country of residence (which for many al-Qaeda sympathizers means the Western world), not overseas, using whatever means are available and always maintaining security precautions as the number one priority. This hard-hitting realism differs greatly from the main body of jihadi literature. Although al-Suri stands out as one of the sharpest theoreticians in the jihadi movement, he is rarely quoted in the wider and more religiously oriented Salafi-Jihadi literature . Lacking the stature of a religious scholar, his writings probably have a limited, but important audience among the more intellectually oriented jihadis. Al-Suri is emblematic of the rise of a new generation of jihadi strategic study writers, who are still a tiny minority, but whose writings are informed by pragmatism, presented in a rational-secular style and emphasize a willingness to put political effectiveness before religious dogmas .
1. The author would like to thank Petter Nesser, Anne Stenersen and Thomas Hegghammer at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI) for valuable comments and feedback on this article.
2. When al-Suri discusses the training options, especially the last three models, he appears slightly ambiguous and self-contradictory, although his conclusion is clear. This probably reflects the fact that The Call to Global Islamic Resistance was written over a long period of time. After the U.S. announced the $5 million bounty on his head, the book was hastily released before he had time to double-check and finalize the manuscript. See introduction in The Call to Global Islamic Resistance.
3. For an explanation of the term “Open Fronts,” see Part One of this study.
4. The Call to Global Islamic Resistance, p. 1414 (pdf-version).
5. Ibid., p. 1417 (pdf-version).
6. Ibid., p. 1417 (pdf-version).
7. Ibid., p. 1416 (pdf-version).
8. Ibid., p. 1419 (pdf-version).
9. Ibid., p. 1416 (pdf-version).
10. Ibid., p. 1418 (pdf-version).
11. Ibid., p. 1416 (pdf-version).
12. Ibid., p. 1419 (pdf-version).
13. Ibid., p. 1424 (pdf-version).
14. Ibid., p. 1423 (pdf-version).
15. Cited in Ibid., p. 1423 (pdf-version).
16. Ibid., p. 1424 (pdf-version).
17. These lectures were “The Management and Organisation of Guerrilla Warfare,” Khost, 1998; “Explanation of the Book ‘War of the Oppressed,'” Khost, 1998; and “Lessons in Guerrilla Warfare Theories,” Jalalabad, 1999. See posting on muntadayat al-firdaws al-jihadiyyah, September 21, 2006, at https://www.alfirdaws.org, accessed October 2006.
18. The Call to Global Islamic Resistance, p. 1424 (pdf-version).
19. Ibid., p. 1426 (pdf-version).
20. Ibid., p. 1424 (pdf-version).
21. Ibid., p. 1427 (pdf-version).
22. See William McCants (ed.), The Militant Ideology Atlas (Combating Terrorism Center, West Point, 2006), https://www.ctc.usma.edu.
23. For one such strategic study, see Brynjar Lia and Thomas Hegghammer, “Jihadi Strategic Studies: The Alleged Al Qaida Policy Study Preceding the Madrid Bombings,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 27 (5) (September-October 2004), pp.355-375.