As al-Qaeda fighters retreated from heavy fighting in Timbuktu they appeared to leave behind an important strategic document titled ‘Instructions concerning the Islamic jihadi project in Azawad.’
The booklet, only partially recovered by the Associated Press, offers a remarkable insight into the thinking of al-Qaeda fighters in West Africa. It was written by the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known as Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud), and issued as strategic advice to his fighters in Mali.
This ICSR Insight summarises key themes, revealing how al-Qaeda is learning from its previous failures, becoming more aware of the need to engage and capture public opinion in the territories it controls, and maturing in tactical awareness.
Al-Qaeda realises its mistakes
One of the most notable features of al-Qaeda’s internal communications which discuss how the movement should best exploit the political turmoil arising from the Arab uprisings is its implicit recognition of past failures.
In what seems like a clear reference to al-Qaeda’s failure in Iraq, the document argues that the greatest errors happen where the group is overstretched, alienates public opinion, and squanders opportunities to establish safe havens.
Droukdel repeatedly stresses the importance of winning public opinion. Addressing the fighters in Mali, he states:
One of the wrong policies that we think you carried out is the extreme speed with which you applied Sharia…Our previous experience showed that applying Shariah this way, without taking the environment into consideration, will lead to people rejecting the religion, and engender hatred toward the Mujahideen, and will consequently lead to the failure of our experiment.
He specifically criticises fighters for desecrating shrines and for being too hasty to implement the Hadd (Islamic penal code). This is a remarkable statement for al-Qaeda fighters to make because the implementation of the Hadd is generally regarded as non-negotiable due to its origins in the Quran. Instead, Droukdel advises al-Qaeda fighters in Mali:
We should be sure to win allies, be flexible in dealing with the realities, and compromise on some rights to achieve greater interests…Not every concession to the enemy is forbidden nor does it mean accepting Kufr (disbelief) and evil.
Power sharing and cooperation with other Islamic forces
To consolidate al-Qaeda’s position in northern Mali, Droukdel advises his fighters to engage other Islamists. This is, again, an important departure from established al-Qaeda strategy which has traditionally been hostile to other groups — viewing them with suspicion. He advises:
We should not be at the forefront. That is not in our interest now. Rather, we should strive to include the main effective powers in the region, such as the Azawad Liberation Movement and the Arab Azawad Movement and others.
To achieve this, he argues al-Qaeda should divide responsibilities with the other groups and even subordinate its leadership to Ansar Dine:
A portion of the Mujahedeen of al-Qaida should be set aside and put under the complete control of the emir of Ansar Dine to participate in bearing the burden of running the affairs of the liberated cities. The other portion would remain completely independent of Ansar Dine and their activity would be limited to jihadi action outside the region.
The endgame of this strategy, he explains, is:
The aim of building these bridges is to make it so that our Mujahideen are no longer isolated in society, and to integrate with the different factions, including the big tribes and the main rebel movement and tribal chiefs.
Tempering the message
Finally, Droukdel is acutely aware of the need to manage perceptions of al-Qaeda’s ambitions among both policy makers in the West, and local Muslims. He advises fighters to adopt a more temperate tone and to avoid making unnecessary statements which inflame public opinion. When engaging with the West he advises:
You must adopt mature and moderate rhetoric that reassures and calms. You must avoid any statements that are provocative to neighbouring countries and avoid repeated threats. It is better for you to be silent and pretend to be a domestic movement that has its own causes and concerns. There is no need for you to show that we have an expansionary, jihadi, or any other sort of project.
With regards to Muslim audiences he similarly advises:
You should avoid issues of takfir [excommunicating other Muslims] and the issue of sects and other issues that the mind of the youth cannot understand. The general motto at this stage should be defending Muslims from those who want to victimize them, and this means that you should limit the circle of confrontation and of your enemies.
What this means
Ongoing political unrest in North Africa and the Levant poses a unique opportunity for al-Qaeda to revive itself following the deaths of key leaders in 2011 including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki. As al-Qaeda seeks to re-engage with the Arab and Muslim world, what is emerging is a smarter and more sophisticated movement that is increasingly aware of the need to carry public opinion. This document offers one insight from a primary source document of just how al-Qaeda is reconsidering its strategic approach.
By Shiraz Maher, Senior Research Fellow
For further analysis and background, see:
- ICSR’s ‘Al-Qaeda at the Crossroads: how the terror group is responding to the loss of its leaders and the Arab Spring’, here;
- Shiraz Maher’s ‘The Jihadist Eruption in Africa’, Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2013, here.