The al-Qaeda training manual is sobering and provocative in terms of what it says, but it is equally enlightening and relevant for what it does not say.
The contents of the manual, as well as its omissions, give us a firsthand perspective of the type that has proven so elusive with regard to this particular enemy; the authors of this manual clearly did not intend for it to fall into Western hands, and the manual must be used by the West to revisit and reconsider its counterterrorism strategies, especially as they pertain to the motivations and the tactical capabilities of the enemy.
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While the majority of the manual focuses on the tactical minutiae of employing political violence, its first pages address the motivations of the authors, articulating their perceived grievances against the West.
While the dominant Western paradigm of rational and deterable political actors have led most to focus on specific aspects of Western, and especially American, policies in the Muslim world to hypothesize about the motivations of the enemy, the training manual points more to social forces than to military or economic ones as the foundation of the Islamists’ anger.
Al-Qaeda’s authors write in a disconcertingly eloquent way of “the sister believer whose clothes the criminals have stripped off”. This is clearly a somewhat overblown metaphor for the secularization of Muslims countries since the time of Ataturk.
This point cannot be stressed enough; the word Palestine, that cause célèbre for disaffected Muslims, does not appear in this manual. Rather they authors see themselves as being at war with the forces of secularization in the Muslim world.
This leads us to the second fundamental point of al-Qaeda’s grievances: the focus on the “near enemy”. The “near enemy” is, for al-Qaeda, every government in the Muslim world, save perhaps one or two. These governments, in eyes of Islamists, have sold out the faith in the interest of aping the west.
This betrayal has extended from banning traditional Muslim dress to forging military and economic alliances with the United States. The West, in turn, and the United States in particular, is the “far enemy”. Al-Qaeda’s paradigm holds that the corrupt and illegitimate rulers of the Arab and Muslim world cling to power only due to the sponsorship of the United States.
This claim is not entirely without merit, and is a common claim heard in the Arab world particularly. To illustrate the depths of the contempt for secular Muslim governments, the manual describes them as being worse than European imperialists, a scathing indictment from such a xenophobic movement.
Al-Qaeda initially focused on the near enemy, but after a strategic rift within the group, which was won by Osama bin Laden, the far enemy came into the crosshairs. The idea was that a catastrophic attack would be easier to organize and execute in an open society and that an attack in the continental United States would bring attention to their cause that they would not gain by bombing all the embassies in Africa.
The 9/11 attack was al-Qaeda’s announcement of the shift from targeting the near enemy to targeting the far enemy. When assessing the tactical details of this manual, we must keep in mind that they are clearly crafted to be implemented in a police state of the type that the near enemy has no shortage of. We can only conclude that terrorists able to operate in closed societies will be much more capable of operating in an open society.
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