Does al-Qaeda have a global strategy?

Does al-Qaeda have a global strategy?


Since it appeared, al-Qaeda has acted like a modern and very agile multinational organization. But does it have a global strategy?


The attacks in Madrid on March 11 of this year are an example of how terrorists, when choosing a place, time and form of action, can help generate reactions which, in turn, have amplified consequences that serve their purposes. A demonstration of this tragic fact is how those who use terror for their political ends have developed an alarming capacity to analyze and predict events. Their understanding of the realities and mechanisms that govern open societies contrasts with the difficulties these societies face when attempting to predict the strategy and methods used by al-Qaedist groups.


The question posed here is not new. Since its appearance as a trademark of global terror, al-Qaeda has acted like a modern and very agile multinational organization. In this sense, al-Qaeda is a globalized network that makes use of the resources that globalization provides. What makes this question much more important now, after the March 11 attacks in Madrid, is the fact that these attacks have contributed to political change through the use of the tools of a democratic system, in this case general elections. The importance of the turnaround resulting from these elections is precisely that a terrorist group originating outside our borders has been able to take advantage of our contradictions, relying on a profound understanding of our social and political realities, to act as a catalyst in a process of domestic political change with international consequences.

Should the above be true, we would be facing a version of international terrorism that is partly new: a qualitative jump at a strategic level, demonstrating an alarmingly sophisticated capacity to predict events. It does not seem to be by pure chance that the terrorists chose to carry out their attacks three days before general elections were held in our country. If the masterminds of the attacks were capable of predicting a social mobilization with consequences affecting the political system, there are reasons to affirm that the al-Qaeda universe is now equipped with a political command in charge of designing a global strategy and predicting the impact of decisions made at the national level on the big decisions that could change the shape of the global playing field.

In recent years, some groups in the orbit of the al-Qaedist movement have carried out attacks in different countries for reasons that respond more to domestic concerns: attacking tourists, threatening the presence of foreign residents, punishing the local Muslim population for straying from the right path, taking revenge on the authorities for harassing their sympathizers, etc. This does not seem to be the case of the Madrid attacks.

Strategic Jihadist Documents
Like any organization with political aims, al-Qaeda also produces strategic documents. Those best known in the West (and Islamic countries) are the communiqués from Bin Laden and his lieutenants. These documents appear in different formats (written documents, sound recordings and audio-visual recordings) and lay out the broad strategic outlines of their terrorist actions. But above all, they contain a great deal of para-religious rhetoric, essential for attracting new recruits and mobilizing existing militants. However, there is another type of documents, prepared by ideologues and strategists, that contain analyses of, and conclusions on, the tactics to be used and the means for obtaining the desired strategic goals. These documents are almost always in written form. It is striking that they are usually on view, sometimes even accessible on Jihadist web pages, though sometimes for only a short period of time.

Two of these documents are especially relevant for drawing lessons from 3-11. Both appeared in December 2003 and can be seen on-line at the website of the Israeli researcher of Islamist movements, Reuven Paz. The first is titled ‘Iraqi Jihad, Hopes and Risks: Analysis of the Reality and Visions for the Future, and Actual Steps in the Path of the Blessed Jihad’. It was prepared by the ‘Centre of Services for the Mujahidin’ of a hitherto unknown ‘Information Institution in Support of the Iraqi People’. This is a 47-page analysis (in Arabic) of the situation in Iraq and the role of the Mujahidin (those who carry out the Jihad, fighting in the name of Islam). It was drafted in September 2003, according to its preamble. It analyzes the international situation, US plans in Iraq and the conditions necessary for its success, as well as the action of the resistance at the military, propaganda and security levels. A special chapter is devoted to a detailed analysis of the political, economic and social realities of some of the countries that have supported the US in the Iraq War: the UK, Spain and Poland, whose leaders at the time are referred to as ‘European appendages of the country of infidelity and aggression [the US]’. The purpose of publishing this document is to ‘understand the forces that govern international reality, in order to take control of them’. It is striking that no direct reference is made to Arab countries that al-Qaeda considers apostate for collaborating with the US. There is a six-page section on Spain.

The second document, written on December 3, 2003 and released five days later, after the murder of several Spanish intelligence agents in Iraq, was prepared by the same Institution that published the first document, but in this case by the External Communications Department. This four-page document is titled ‘Message to the Spanish People’. It makes reference to the suffering of the Iraqi people during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and also under American military occupation. It blames the latter on the countries that supported the US, especially their leaders who ‘lied [to their people] and dragged them into a war in which they had no interest’. The threat to ‘Spanish national security in the future’ was explicit.

The Iraqi Dimension
Since the occupation of Iraq a little over a year ago, there has been a considerable increase in the presence of Islamist groups that want to fight the US and expel its troops from the country. But what has become clearest is their desire and ability to generate violence and increase chaos. Similar to Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, Iraq today has become a magnet that attracts Jihadists, both local and from other countries, especially from the Arab world. Some of them took their fight against the US to Iraq after the fall of the Taliban regime and the loss of their former Afghan sanctuary. Al-Qaeda’s communiqués also reflect changes in the organization’s priorities, with a certain reduction in references to Saudi Arabia, its traditional priority.

Iraq is a more favourable scenario for the presence of Arab Mujahidin than Afghanistan was at the time, among other reasons, because they use the same language, have greater cultural affinity with the Iraqi people than with the Afghan tribes, and have family ties that extend throughout many Arab countries in the region. Also, the Jihadists who operate in Iraq have no lack of sympathizers in other Arab and Islamic societies, and even among some authorities in countries that are not those most opposed to the US. The first of the Jihadist documents mentioned above states that ‘today, the battle of Iraq is, quite simply and clearly, a battle of the entire Islamic umma [nation] […] If it ends in American victory, it will open the gates to corruption and subversion and will be a blow to the Islamic awakening in the entire region, which is the heart of the Muslim world’. To prevent this from happening, a strategy is laid out to defeat the US in Iraq, in order to make it ‘an advance base [qaeda, in Arabic] for the Islamic awakening and the Jihad’.

There is no doubt that Iraq has become the highest priority for the international Jihadist movement and that this movement has allied itself with purely Iraqi Islamist groups that operate in Sunni territories, mainly where there is an Arab majority, and to a lesser extent in areas with a Kurdish majority. As for the areas with a Shiite majority, the strategy laid out in the first of the al-Qaeda documents would consist of ‘creating Jihadist combat cells’ in these areas, achieving ‘at least, Shiite neutrality in the fight, and if possible, getting them to fight against the Americans’. This contrasts with the document intercepted by American troops in Iraq last January 23, attributed to the supposed al-Qaeda leader in the country, Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi. The strategy described by Zarqawi would consist of attacking the Shiites so that they would retaliate against the Sunnis, thus causing a sectarian war that would spread violence throughout the country, the ultimate goal being to ‘wake up the slumbering Sunnis’.

For part of the Iraqi population, the presence of these fighters is instrumental to force the retreat of the occupying troops. But this tacit agreement could break if the violence of the Mujahidin affects a large number of Iraqi citizens or their civilian installations, if there is a perception that they are trying to cause a civil war by taking advantage of ethnic or sectarian differences, or if they try to impose an over-restrictive social order (of the Taliban kind) wherever possible. A possible –and highly alarming– result of Iraq’s predicament is that in the not too distant future a new generation of Mujahidin could appear, like they did in Afghanistan during the war against the Soviet Union, extending their operations to other regions in the world and not only to Arab countries.

References to Spain
Regardless of the doubts as to the authorship of the documents referred to above, the brutal attacks in Madrid on March 11 were the materialization of the threats against Spain contained in them. Of course, these documents did not specify how, when or where Spaniards would be killed ‘in Iraq and outside of Iraq’, as stated in the letter addressed to the Spanish people in early December 2003. They did, however, make reference to the ambushing and killing of seven Spanish intelligence agents in Iraq a few days earlier. The threat is categorical. After declaring that ‘responsibility for the occupation falls to the participating armies and their peoples’, they announce that ‘the battalions of the Iraqi resistance and those who support them outside Iraq are capable of increasing the dose [of suffering]’ (the English translation of the letter can be read at

Based on available information, it cannot be proved that there is a direct relationship between the threats described above and the attacks on the trains in Madrid. However, this remains a working hypothesis that cannot be ruled out.

But these are not the only worrying references to Spain in these two documents. The first of them contains an analysis of the Spanish situation and of the ambitions of the then Spanish prime minister, with the intention of forcing a change in the government’s policy on the presence of Spanish troops in Iraq. It should be noted that the al-Qaeda strategists predicted that this change of position would come about in the end, regardless of which party was governing. Popular pressure generated by successive attacks against Spanish citizens (from the text, we deduce that they would be directed against the troops in Iraq, although this is not certain) would force the Popular Party government to withdraw Spain’s troops from Iraq. If they did not do so in these circumstances, the document predicts that the Socialist Party would come to power and would put in practice its electoral pledge to withdraw the troops.

The al-Qaeda document makes explicit mention of a piece of information that has been a determining factor in Spanish political life: the proximity of the general elections. It says, literally: ‘The greatest possible advantage must be taken of the fact that the general elections are very near, in the third month of next year [March 2004]. We believe the Spanish government will not bear more than two or three strikes, at most, before public pressure forces a withdrawal. If its troops remain after these strikes, the victory of the Socialist Party will be practically guaranteed and the withdrawal of Spanish troops will be on their electoral agenda’. In the section on Poland (a country that has more troops than Spain in Iraq) reference is also made to the parliamentary and presidential elections in that country, but it indicates that no advantage can be taken of them to ‘bring about a change in Polish policy for many reasons […] the first of them being how far off the elections are’. These elections will likely be held in late 2005.

For the creators of this strategy, the possible withdrawal of Spanish, Italian or Polish troops is not an end in itself, but rather a means by which to weaken the position of the British government in Iraq and thus to turn the US presence in the country into hand-to-hand combat with the Jihadist movement. In this regard, the document in question emphasizes that ‘the withdrawal of Spanish or Italian forces from Iraq will put enormous pressure on the British presence, which Tony Blair may not be able to bear’.

One interesting part of the analysis of the Spanish situation is where it says that ‘most Spanish writers support the Palestinian cause and Arab causes in general, except for the Moroccan Sahara issue, since there is practically unanimous support for the Polisario Front against Morocco’. Since the Sahrawi are an Arab people, this exception made in the al-Qaeda document reveals that the author is of Moroccan origin or sympathizes with the Moroccan position in the Western Sahara conflict.

3-11 and the Global Jihadist Strategy: Some Consequences and Lessons
The swift capture of several persons suspected of committing the 3-11 attacks (after the discovery of clues that were not destroyed due to a mechanical failure in one of the bombs) and the subsequent suicide of seven members of the terrorist cell in a flat in Leganés when they found themselves surrounded by security forces, could dissuade some terrorists who are not willing to die in future attacks. However, it could also lead the masterminds of the attacks to require suicide in future actions in order to prevent clues being left or information being given away in interrogations.

As Javier Jordán has affirmed (ARI 40/2004), the Madrid attacks and the resulting change in government could lead al-Qaeda followers to try to emulate these actions in other countries and other circumstances, since these groups have the tendency to simplify the facts to one-dimensional cause-effect relations. Keeping in mind that their great enemy is the US, it is not unlikely that al-Qaeda also wants to make its presence known in the American presidential elections next November by carrying out a major attack inside or outside the US, or a chain of attacks in different places around the world, possibly using non-conventional methods. Al-Qaeda has already announced, in a communiqué apparently from the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades on March 15, that it will make sure that president George Bush is not defeated. We will have to wait for confirmation of this from al-Qaeda’s leaders in which they show their preference for Bush over the Democratic candidate.

Al-Qaeda’s sympathizers are the greatest proponents of the clash of civilizations theory, though they go a step further. They also want a clash to occur within Western and Arab-Islamic civilizations themselves in order to radicalize and polarize them both. In this regard, a major al-Qaeda attack against a European country that has opposed the occupation of Iraq would have devastating effects. For the Jihadists, any excuse to carry out a major attack would be valid. The internal contradictions that such events would create in Western societies would strengthen the positions of the Bush Administration on the war on terrorism undertaken after 9-11, since it would be clear that no country is safe from al-Qaeda. At the same time, it would make more moderate Muslims feel threatened by a Western world more united by the effects of terrorism.

In light of the events, those responsible for our security should pay more attention to documents allegedly produced by al-Qaeda or any of its affiliates, instead of fruitlessly debating whether or not their style is typical of the movement. Events like 3-11 show that Europe and the US have sometimes not given sufficient importance to Jihadist documents until after a tragedy occurs. It should be kept in mind that the communiqué published on March 12 in the London-based newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi, in which the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades took responsibility for the attacks the day before in Madrid, included a direct threat to the US to the effect that very soon operation ‘Winds of Black Death’ would cause thousands of deaths in that country. Although some of the previous messages from these Brigades are not credible, it would not be sensible to dismiss their threats systematically. We could be deceiving ourselves to think that for a communiqué in the name of al-Qaeda to be credible it must have a particular style and specific format. Nor should we presuppose that the authors of these communiqués must have deep knowledge of Islamic doctrine.

The worldwide Jihadist movement is made up of a network of networks, franchises and autonomous leaders who share a common mission, as Jessica Stern indicates in her book, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. It is not surprising that there are different styles within the al-Qaedist world, since it is not a monolithic structure. For the same reason, a network as complex and highly mobile cannot be defeated by wars in the classic sense. A paradoxical situation may exist in which al-Qaeda, whose doctrine is apparently based on dogmatic principles, is demonstrating practical sense and a strategy that varies with the circumstances, while the countries that lead the war against terrorism appear increasingly far from a practical stance in the fight against the agents of Jihadist terror, its roots and its motivations.

The teachings and strategies contained in the documents mentioned above, despite being aimed at al-Qaeda sympathizers, could be of great use to those of us who defend the model of democratic cohabitation, both within and beyond our borders. Above all, this type of document reveals the way the most fanatical sectors of Muslim societies think. This document we mention states literally: ‘the hostility between us and them must not prevent our understanding the virtues of the enemy and their characteristics […] since it is true that they are better protected against the injustices of their leaders […] and this is one of the most outstanding features of the West, in which it is superior to the Islamic world. But after the blessed attacks of September [2001] it has weakened and many defects of democracy have been revealed. This will accelerate, God willing, the destruction of their corrupt materialism’.


Faced with the bloodbath caused by the terrorism of al-Qaeda sympathizers, an understandable reaction is to try to deny the rationality of those who cause such death and destruction. However, we must ask if denial will help prevent further tragedies and greater social and political upheaval on a global scale in the future. It is clear that, attack after attack, to dismiss those who cause these massacres as lunatics whose only plan is to kill does not explain why they exist, nor does it help us understand the strategy of their followers in order to neutralize it and make headway cutting off Jihadist terrorism at its roots.

The fact of not sharing the values and world vision of those who show their hatred through terrorist violence must not prevent us from considering the possibility that the terrorists are acting rationally. Only in this way will we be stronger and able to protect ourselves and our way of life better. This also requires a dose of self-criticism (something not characteristic of ‘born-again Muslims’). Otherwise, the power of terrorism will continue increasing, along with its ability to take advantage of our own contradictions. Democracy feeds on itself. If not, we will begin to look more and more like them.

Haizam Amirah Fernández
Senior Analyst, Mediterranean and Arab World, Elcano Royal Institute