3rd May 2011: Al Qaeda’s Strategic Culture

1. Initial Explanations

Al Qaeda-related literature focuses on several explanations for the terrorist organisation’s survival, growth and influence. A subset focuses on Osama Bin Laden as a charismatic leader and the Bin Laden family (Bergen 2006; Coll 2007). AQ evolved from Bin Laden’s financing of Abdullah Azzam’s Maktab al-Khidamat during the 1979-1989 Soviet-Afghanistan war and involvement in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan and Afghanistan (Scheuer 2002; Coll 2004; Wright 2004; Bergen 2011). Other explanations advance theories about AQ’s entrepreneurship (Reeves 1999); its perceived similarity to earlier terrorist groups (Gunaratna 2001); the possibility of broader movements in the Middle East (Burke 2003); the Hamburg cell responsible for the September 11 attacks (McDermott 2006); the influence of regional intelligence agencies (Bodansky 2001) and an unsuccessful Balkans jihad (Kohlmann 2004). Scheuer (2002) made historical analogies with the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution whilst Johnson (2000) suggested September 11 was ‘blowback’ from the Afghanistan mujahideen.

2. Strategic Culture Explanations

Alastair Johnston’s ‘three generations’ (1995, 1998) provide one framework to examine if and how AQ has a strategic culture. The post-September 11 portrayal of AQ as an existential threat echoes ‘first generation’ work on US-Soviet rivalry in nuclear weapons proliferation (Gray 1979, 1984; Snyder 1977). The numerous Bin Laden biographies and those of Ayman Al-Zawahiri (Al-Zayyat 2004) and Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri (Lia 2008) highlight a tradition of political profiling of terrorist group leaders (Post 2005; Post 2008; Hudson 2001). These histories suggest pivot points such as Bin Laden’s feud with the House of Saud during the 1990-91 Gulf War about the presence of US military forces. Scheuer’s (2002) analogical study of AQ and Patrick Porter’s Reciprocity of War thesis (2007, 2009) are different responses to the concerns that Ken Booth (1979, 2007) raised in ‘second generation’ literature about ethnocentric profiling. Coll (2004), Wright (2004) and Bergen’s (2011) reportage maps the doctrinal, ideational and organisational factors that other ‘second generation’ analysts like Elizabeth Kier (1992), Bradley Klein (1994), and Michael Desch (1998) have raised in their scholarship. As yet there is no empirical, falsifiable theory for AQ as Johnston (1995, 1998) posits, although Long (2006) contends that ‘fourth generation’ analysts focus on AQ’s covert development of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. Strategic culture insights can also be applied to Bin Laden’s communiqués and public statements (Bin Laden and Lawrence 2005; Kepel and Milelli 2010), and to his interviews with journalists (Fisk 1996; Miller 1997; Arnett 1997; Fisk 1997; Ummat 2001).

3. Other Explanations

The ‘self-images’ of Al Qaeda appear to have evolved in proximity to the September 11 attacks and to the role of idea entrepreneurs (Mueller 2009; Mueller 2010). They may also reflect the potential biases of analysts from different intelligence agencies (Tversky and Kahneman 1979; Scheuer 2002; Treverton 2009; Jervis 2010) evaluating AQ as a complex, ambiguous problem. Snyder (1977) also noted this about Soviet elites’ possible use of nuclear weapons during the late Cold War.