The strategic schema of Al-Qaeda – and by extension, its insubordinate and rival offshoot, the Islamic State – is a culmination of multiple processes of evolution of Modern Islamism, Islamic Revivalism, and Offensive Militant Jihad. These processes have been coupled with pragmatic political maneuverings, rational social actions, and real-world combat experiences. To these coupled processes, national and sub-national events have influenced and shaped the development of Al-Qaeda’s pertinacious struggle for the actualization (or realization) of its (definitive) end goal – the establishment of a Supranational Caliphate that would subordinate Muslims under a Salafist-interpreted Sharia constitution.
Al-Qaeda arose during a series of events that impregnated Afghanistan and the Middle East with the zygote of Salafi-jihadism. Its (Al-Qaeda) long gestation period ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and its post-natal infancy was characterized by a series of terror attacks across Asia, North America, Europe, and Africa, including the most notable twin bombings of the US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar-el-Salaam in 1998. Its precocious puberty was hastened when Al-Qaeda in Iraq (which had malformed into the Islamic State in Iraq) overran expansive swathes of territories in both Syria and Iraq; and in that way, established the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in mid-2014.
Presently, Al-Qaeda is operationally mature, ready to destabilize the global order and foment unmanageable chaos. Its maturity is qualified by the fact that it has dragged the US into chronic conflicts in multiple theaters of war, and in some instances (e.g Afghanistan) defeated the US in the War.
Al-Qaeda has a history that has been interjected by critical events that have determined its evolution. For instance, the dethronement of al-Qaeda as the premier armed Islamist group in Iraq and Syria in 2014 has resulted in Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia – Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM), popularly known (simply) as al-Shabaab or the Shabaab – being the most powerful and successful al-Qaeda branch in the world. For this reason, al-Qaeda is focused on expansion across Africa where it contends with corrupt and inefficient governments and poor-quality national militaries. Regarding al-Shabaab, it has survived multiple offensives by AMISOM (now the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia, ATMIS) and even defeated it in several engagements thus allowing it to expand territories under its control, usually at the expense of the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) which has suffered 2 spectacular defeats at el Adde in 2016 and Kulbiyow in 2017.
These events and stages of the evolution of al-Qaeda are discussed hereafter alongside their strategic outcomes.
Founding of the Islamic Republic and Execution of Taraki
In 1979, the Islamic Revolution overturned the Established Order in Iran and the Shah was overthrown. The revolution brought to power a Shiite Clerical Regime that worked to establish a Shiite Theocracy over the nation. The success of the revolution and the Founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran upheaved the Middle East and Central Asia as the Oppressed Muslim populace in these regions sought to depose repressive regimes using the Islamic Revolution as their model template.
In the Soviet Union, the Communist Government was alarmed by the success of the Islamic Revolution which it viewed – albeit correctly – as an ideological threat to the Integrity of its Republic. This alarm was justified by the fact that Islamist creeds had begun to make inroads into the Soviet Republics in Central Asia where an indisposed Muslim populace was residing. To its south, the Soviet Communist satellite nation of Afghanistan functioned as a vital buffer between the Islamic Republic and the Soviet Muslim Nationalities. Basically, the existence of Afghanistan as a communist state was expected to inhibit the permeation of the creeds of the Islamic Revolution into its Southern Soviet Republics. Nonetheless, Islamism was able to permeate into these Soviet Republics through Afghanistan, and in some places, it arose insidiously among the religiously-inclined Tatars, Turks, and Chechens .
The rise of Islamic sentiment in these republics (referred to as Nationalism by the Soviet Politburo) coupled with political uncertainty in Afghanistan finally compelled the Politburo, along with the Soviet High Command, to invade Afghanistan in an attempt to stabilize the regime of the deeply unpopular Communist Government of Nur Mohammad Taraki. The Soviet 40th Army invaded Afghanistan on 24th December 1979, and they quickly captured Kabul where they executed Taraki and replaced him with Babrak Kamal .
Internationally Legitimized Jihad and Maktab al-Khidamat
The Soviet Invasion was condemned by the United Nations General Assembly; and in January 1980, the Islamic Conference demanded the unconditional withdrawal of the Soviet Forces from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, an insurrectionary campaign was launched by the Afghan Mujahideen (who were later joined by Arab Jihadis) who received military aid from the United States (the primary sponsor), Pakistan, China, and Saudi Arabia among other Gulf Arab Nations. Israel is also known to have aided the Mujahideen in an attempt to reconfigure the political environment within Soviet Russia.
Saudi Arabia used the Maktab al-Khidamat (Services Office) to channel an estimated $600 Million to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Maktab al-Khidamat was founded by Osama bin Laden, and the Palestinian Muslim Scholar and Muslim Brotherhood ideologue, Abdullah Yusuf Azzam. Abdullah Yusuf Azzam – who taught and mentored Osama bin Laden – is still widely considered to be the father of International Jihad. Together, Azzam and bin Laden used Maktab al-Khidamat to establish a network of guest houses in Peshawar, Pakistan, to provide temporary residence for the would-be Arab mujahideen on their way to Afghanistan.
The Chinese supported the Afghan Mujahideen in retaliation for the Afghan government’s support of Vietnam during the 4-week Sino-Vietnam War (that China lost), as well as to counter Soviet advances towards Xinjiang Province in China’s Mainland. The People’s Liberation Army of China trained the Mujahideen initially in Pakistan before relocating the training camps to Chinese territory where they armed the Jihadis with Chinese-made machine guns, anti-aircraft missiles, and rocket launchers.
In its entirety, the transnational support given to the Mujahideen by a multitude of powerful nations (including the Soviet Client State of Czechoslovakia) and non-state actors (including the corruption-infested Soviet army that sold its weapons to the mujahideen) enabled the insurgents and the Arab volunteers to drag the Soviet Union into a protracted and costly long war that would exact an unforgiving toll on the Soviet Union.
The Mujahideen launched an intense and sustained guerrilla war against a combined force of 115,000 Soviet Soldiers backed by 55,000 Afghan Government troops. This form of asymmetric warfare enabled the Mujahideen to make an estimated four-fifths of Afghanistan ungovernable.
Sensing an opportunity to insidiously destroy the Soviet Union, the US National Security Adviser – Zbigniew Brzezinski – conceived an ingenious strategy dubbed the “Bear Trap” which could cause the Soviets to lose the war in Afghanistan, and at its most optimal strategic sense, trigger a chain of events that would lead to the implosion of the Soviet Union.
The Bear Trap
The bear trap was a two-pronged strategy conceived to cripple the Soviet Union financially, as well as erode its internal cohesiveness, with the expectation that in so doing, the resultant cascade of precipitous events could severely destabilize the Union thus ensuring its eventual downfall.
The first prong encompassed the use of sanctions and direct reactions to exact an insufferable international price from the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan. The second prong involved a joint American-British scheme to collaborate with the Pakistani, Israeli, Chinese, Egyptian, and Saudi governments to train and equip the Mujahideen for a long war against the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Military Intelligence Section 6 (MI6) began a covert operation to seed the Muslim-dominated Soviet Republics with Salafist literature that beseeched religious Muslims to overthrow the Atheist Soviet System.
The author has assessed that the utility of the bear trap was grounded on its capabilities to exponentially increase the cost of war for the Soviet Union while simultaneously sabotaging the Soviet Economy by ensuring that international sanctions obstructed it from accessing International Funds. These served to entrap the Soviet Union within an economic bubble that forced it to consume its own limited economic resources without recourse to adequate replenishment. The projected outcome was that a stagnated economy, which is additionally weighed down by a costly indecisive war, will eventually plunge the Soviet Union into an economic turmoil that would ultimately lead to its dissolution. With this understanding in mind, one can notice the same strategy and tactics being used currently against Russia following its launch of the special military operation in Ukraine. However, it is highly unlikely that the newly repurposed bear trap strategy would cripple the Russian Republic or force its breakup as proposed by Leonid Bershidsky and Dan Negrea.
Still, how did the bear trap work against the Soviet Union?
Operation Cyclone was a costly covert campaign that was aimed at funding and training Islamic Fundamentalists in coordination with the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). USG financed the operation to the tune of $3 Billion, while ISI sourced the fighters and allocated the resources to them. As such, ISI acted as the intermediary between the West and the Mujahideen; and this gave it inordinate leverage that allowed it to work in concert with the Pakistani Government – then led by the Islamist General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq – to formulate an operative geo-strategy that would counter the southward expansion of the Soviet Union; as well as plan to destabilize Northwestern India using the Mujahideen.
Lieutenant-General Akhtar AbdurRahman, the then Director-General of ISI, conceived of a plan to disproportionately arm the Foreign Contingent of Islamic Extremists (popularly known as the Muhajiroun) who could later be used to fight India. This foreign contingent was predominantly populated by Arab Volunteers, and among them was a young wealthy Saudi national named Osama bin Laden. These ideologically-devout Arab volunteers who were trained and armed with military-grade weapons, were to form the nexus of the Base (or as it’s known by its Arabic name, Al-Qaeda).
Establishment of the Base
After a grueling long war in Afghanistan, the Afghan Mujahideen ultimately defeated the Soviet Union and compelled it to effect a withdrawal of its forces from the country thus ushering in a period that was characterized by the ascendancy of Islamists, albeit cloaked as politico-military outfits – chief among them being, the Taliban . Central to the War against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and later on against the Government of Mohammed Najibullah, was a group designated as the Afghan Arabs – a motley band of Arab Jihadists who fought to defend Islam against a godless nemesis that strove to spread State-sponsored, Communist-inclined Organized Atheism across Muslim lands (Dar-al-Islam).
The Bear Trap succeeded in ensuring that the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan, but it also left behind ideologically-committed fighting groups searching for new theaters of jihad where they could participate in Kinetic Wars. However, these disparate fighting groups lacked a cohesive strategy toward non-Muslim regimes and secular regimes in their Muslim-majority home nations. This was due to a lack of a unified military doctrine and an absence of a well-structured system of leadership. This problem was solved when Abu Ubaidah – working alongside Osama bin Laden – established a Military Base where the mujahideen could be trained and amalgamated into fighting cells subordinated to a clear and established hierarchy. This base served as the central training center for the Arab Mujahideen, and it is from here that the organization got its name, Al-Qaeda or The Base. Most importantly, the Mujahideen emerging from the Base had clear objectives and cohesive military strategies, and were subordinated to an established hierarchy of leadership. With this feat accomplished, the first phase of Global Jihad was accomplished.
The next phase required the Mujahideen to reorient and adapt themselves to transformative changes happening across the world. This was the phase of Global Strategic Repositioning.
Global Strategic Repositioning
The collapse and the disintegration of the Soviet Union effectively ended the Cold War and left the USA as the sole Super-Power in the World. According to the author, the immediate Post-Cold War period was characterized by the ascendancy of the US to a true Hyper-Power until 2012 when China started its meteoric rise into a challenger of American global hegemony.
Within Al-Qaeda, its astute and well-educated strategists accurately predicted a change in the Global Order, and they formulated strategies that would ensure the survival of Al-Qaeda through the indeterminate period of the formation of a New World Order. The New World Order was quickly established with the Occident securing its pre-eminence in Global Geopolitics and Geo-economics .
During the 1990s, the Global Debate was whether the New World Order should be Unipolar – with the US as the sole Hyper-Power that imposes its Will on other nation-states – or, Multipolar, where the logic of consensus amongst Normal nation-states would secure the interests of the majority (sometimes to the detriment of the minority).
Geopolitics Press asserts that the New World Order was bound to be inclined towards the Unipolar Setting due to the ensuing development of events across the world as is elaborated hereafter.
- The “Arc of Crisis” was expanding as volatility manifested itself in the Balkans and among the newly-independent Soviet Republics, especially with regards to Nagorno-Karabakh (an Armenian-populated area administered by Azerbaijan) which was being contested by both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Yugoslavia disintegrated amid violent infighting which led to intense and brutal wars that characterized the Balkanization process. The Middle East was now no longer the sole locus of instability and geostrategic tension.
- The US was faced with the challenge of controlling destructive chaos within the ever-expanding “arc of crisis”, and this compelled it to undertake unilateral actions to stabilize critical regions of the World; but when numerous conflicts cropped up in different places, the US was inclined to undertake multilateral engagements in attempts to pacify vital regions such as South-Eastern Europe.
- China actively refused to project itself as a Superpower, and instead chose to ally itself with the US while still retaining its unique form of Communism (which has been transforming gradually into National Socialism). Instead of being pugnacious towards the US, the Chinese chose to trade with the US, and in the process, a deluge of cheap, affordable but low-quality Chinese products flooded the US market. Using US Consumerism to its advantage, China was able to amass enormous wealth, and is presently one of the primary US financiers.
- Still cognizant of the inherent fragility of supranational entities, the European nations favored greater economic integration apace with limited political unification. The European Union would immediately rival the US, but due to shared cultural and unifying democratic-religious bonds, such cold rivalry is normally complemented with healthy cooperation.
- Israel’s strategic maneuvers against the Soviet Union paid off as after the Soviet Disintegration, the Arab nations were stripped of an alternative Superpower ally thus leaving them dependent on the US. This in effect greatly leveraged Israel’s geopolitical clout across the Middle East – mainly through its inordinate influence on US Foreign Policy towards the Middle East.
- With the ascendance of the United States to the status of the Sole Hyper-Power, it spontaneously formed the core engine of the global economy. Any economic meltdown in the US would have severe global repercussions.
The Brilliant Strategists and their Strategies: Setting the Stage for Global Jihad
Abu al-Fadl (Al-Qaeda’s foremost International Affairs expert) and Abu Musab al-Suri (the genius Military Strategist who authored the seminal Da’wat al-muqawamah al-islamiyyah al-‘alamiyyah [The Global Islamic Resistance Call]) would prepare a written policy that would serve as the prototype for posturing Al-Qaeda within the New World Order. (More on them and their strategies will be discussed in later serial posts).
Abu al-Fadl was the first to promulgate the utility of soft power in spreading Al-Qaeda’s worldview across the Muslim lands. Al-Fadl reasoned that if Al-Qaeda packaged and exported its ideology under the context of alleviating Institutionalized Repression, overthrowing Tyrannical regimes, defending Islam, and promoting Religious-Cultural enlightenment; then the Ummah (Muslim public) would accept Al-Qaeda as the heirs to the Ottoman Caliphate.
Abu al-Fadl and Abu Musab al-Suri were both level-headed, highly intelligent scholars who were well versed in World History, International Affairs, Military Science, Logic, and Islam. Al-Fadl was especially well versed with the works of the pre-eminent scholar of Neo-Realism, Professor Stephen Walt , and was known to have studied extensively his work Musclebound: The Limits of US Power. After careful study of this masterpiece, Al-Fadl conceived the strategy of “innumerable small wars”. Al-Fadl rationally reasoned that the US as the sole Hyper-Power would quickly and definitely eliminate any large-scale localized direct threat; and he, therefore, conceived the strategy that offensive jihad should be waged in multiple locations (in multiple nations) simultaneously so as to thin out and overwhelm (potential) US response, as well as increase the odds of jihad succeeding in some theaters of War.
Abu Musab al-Suri would later draw a Master Military Strategy that was implemented by Al-Qaeda a decade later, and its present effects testify to the brilliance and mental acuity of its creator. But in the late 1980s, he was engrossed in deep studies and research into how and why the Hama Uprising ended in total failure. In 1990, he created a template for a phased Jihad (which will be discussed in later posts).
The Defeat of the Soviet Union and the Relative Success of the Islamic Revolution left Al-Qaeda emboldened that it could challenge the US on the Global Battlefield, and strive to attain victory through a relentless War of Attrition coupled with intensified Asymmetric Wars across Multiple Theaters of Offensive Jihad. Nonetheless, Al-Qaeda strategists erroneously concluded that the Dissolution of the Soviet Union was precipitated solely by the Mujahideen. Incautiously, these strategists have ossified this notable error into a petrified stratagem (of Phased Jihad) that Al-Qaeda is presently using to upset the prevailing Global Order in the belief that Islamist Networks offer a better alternative.
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