ISIL insurgents wave flags as they cross the border between Syria and Iraq.

ISIL insurgents wave flags as they cross the border between Syria and Iraq. AP Photo/albaraka_news, FIle

4 Rules of War from Al-Qaeda

The terrorist group lays out several lessons of warfare, captured in letters exchanged by two senior al-Aqeda leaders. Here's four of them. By Janine Davidson

The New York Times has published letters exchanged in mid-2012 between two senior Al Qaeda leaders, in which Abu Basir of the Arabian Peninsula tries to impart guidance to Abdelmalek Droukdal, leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Buried in Basir’s letters are a fascinating series of “lessons learned” by the aging terror network. I’ve highlighted four here:

It’s okay to retreat and regroup.

Al Qaeda affiliates should be willing to retreat when their calculus indicates that operating costs are too high or the objective is out of reach.  This should be seen as a chance to refinance (often through kidnapping) and continue recruiting.

As Basir notes, following a year-long period of control, the pushback from indigenous and Western forces became too great. “After four months of fighting, we were forced to withdraw. The offensive was very tough and it could hardly be stopped before achieving all its targets…Our position now is far better. The war was waged against us by all parties, but now they have turned against each other, which gave us a rare opportunity for guerrilla warfare and liquidations.”

The larger battle is about competent governance to win over the population.

Discussing the implementation of Sharia law and the importance of persuading the population, Basir notes, “You have to take a gradual approach with [the occupied populace] when it comes to their religious practices. You can’t beat people for drinking alcohol when they don’t even know the basics of how to pray…When you find someone committing a sign, we have to address the issue by making the right call, and by giving lenient advice first, then by harsh rebuke, and then by force.”

Awareness of global perceptions should also shape these policies. “The world is waiting to see what you’ll do next and how you will manage the affairs of your state,” Basir says. “Your enemies want to see you fail…to prove to people that the mujahedeen are people that are only good for fighting and war, and have nothing to do with running countries, and the affairs of society.”

Never underestimate the power of the media.

Basir acknowledges, “Our most important weapon is the media,” emphasizing how important it is to carefully cultivate Al Qaeda’s media image. He also notes, reflecting on recent defeats, that media is also an important weapon of the states they fight. As he says, “The media campaign [our opponent] waged was no less than the military one, if not stronger.”

Basir also advises that AQIM must take great care in selecting its spokesmen. “You are kindly requested to put in place the right people, who can express themselves and convey our message. They must know the different stages of jihad, so as to be able to illuminate each stage for others. It shouldn’t be that every fighter and commander is allowed to talk to the media. You have to keep the message under control…”

No war—not even Al Qaeda’s—can be fought without money.

Basir sadly reflects, “[W]e have been exhausted in the course of many battles and fronts. Despite their undeniable benefit, they are exhaustive in terms of money, men and weapons. We have seized weapons we thought would be enough for years, but as soon as we withdrew, we found ourselves having to buy arms.”

To this end, Basir strongly endorses the practice of kidnapping and ransoming as a source of revenue. He notes that following a prolonged campaign that cost $20 million, “Thanks to Allah…Almost half the spoils came from hostages. Kidnapping hostages is an easy spoil, which I may describe as a profitable trade and a precious treasure.” Since 2008, Al Qaeda has taken an estimated $125 million in ransom money, with the average ransom increasing from $200,000 per hostage in 2002 to as much as $10 million today.


These letters provide a fascinating window into strategy, lessons, and rationale of an enemy the United States has been at war with for fourteen years. Al Qaeda’s leadership is clearly well versed in “classic” insurgency theory.  The emphasis on hearts and minds (governance) to the use of propoganda, the need to retreat and regroup, and the importance of external support and funding, would all be familiar to Mao or Giap.  Their lessons about using modern media and kidnappings also reveal their ability to adapt these themes to modern times.

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