Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s Break

American University’s Tricia Bacon and Georgetown University’s Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault have a new article in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism journal on the break between Al Qaeda and Islamic State. The article’s abstract:


Employing counterfactuals to assess individual and systemic explanations for the split between al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), this article concludes that individual leaders factor greatly into terrorist alliance outcomes. Osama bin Laden was instrumental in keeping al Qaeda and ISIS allied as he prioritized unity and handled internal disputes more deftly than his successor, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although a troubled alliance, strategic differences between al Qaeda and ISIS were not sufficient to cause the split. Rather, the capabilities of al Qaeda’s leader determined the group’s ability to prevent alliance ruptures.


The article is an interesting use of the counterfactual method for causal inference of explanations. The authors’ focus on Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri contrasts with other explanations such as Will McCants’ focus on Islamic State’s apocalyptic belief system.

Beyond The Pale?

Washington and Lee University’s Seth Cantey has a new article out in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism on negotiating with Al Qaeda and Islamic State:


This article argues that prospects for negotiations with al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS) have been undertheorized. Drawing on nearly two thousand pages of primary source material – all issues of Inspire and Dabiq magazines published at the time of writing – it examines these groups’ statements about their motivations for violence, their objectives, and their views about the possibility of dialogue with the West. It finds stark differences in all three areas and suggests that assumptions that have prevented theorizing about negotiations with these groups should be revisited.


Strategic culture deals with strategic bargaining situations. Its potential use in negotiating with terrorists remains under-explored. Cantey’s article is a first step to further theorising.

New Books on Al Qaeda’s Strategic Culture

In 2011, my PhD supervisors asked me about a planned case study on Al Qaeda’s strategic culture. Now, there are two books out that address this issue:


  • Michael W.S. Ryan’s Decoding Al Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).
  • Donald Holbrook’s The Al-Qaeda Doctrine: The Framing and Evolution of the Leadership’s Public Discourse (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014).


There are now some case studies and further analysis to answer this initial query.


Alastair Iain Johnston’s third generation of strategic culture focused on organisational studies. A relevant book that may link this third generation to the study of terrorist organisations is Vahid Brown and Don Rassler’s Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).


I’m also looking at Peter Bergen’s reportage on Al Qaeda – so his forthcoming book United States of Jihad: The Untold Story of Al-Qaeda in America (New York: Crown, 2015) may also be relevant.

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.

2nd May 2011: Osama Bin Laden Dead

Obama Announces UBL's Death (Doug Mills/New York Times)

Al Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden was killed Sunday during an attack on Abottabad, Pakistan (NY Times story).

Prior to the White House’s official confirmation, the story leaked onto Twitter (NY Times story).

Bin Laden’s death changes a case study chapter I was beginning to outline about Al Qaeda.

Some resources:

Transcript of Obama’s comments on Osama bin Laden’s death.

New York Times obituary of Osama bin Laden.

• George Packer: Better Late Than Never.

• David Remnick: Obama and Osama.

• Lawrence Wright: Hey, Hey, Goodbye.

• Google Maps display of Bin Laden’s compound.

• PBS Frontline episode Hunting Bin Laden.

• Bin Laden biographers: Peter Bergen, Michael Scheuer, and Lawrence Wright.

• Steve Coll on Young Osama (New Yorker).

• Lawrence Wright on Rebellion Within Al Qaeda (New Yorker).

Calling All Nations

Several weeks ago I noticed new graffiti on street signs in the Melbourne suburb Northcote from an unknown group: the Saracen Soldiers.  A block away from the most prominent graffiti two houses displayed nationalist flags in their front windows.  It could have been coincidence or maybe a signalling game to establish psychological turf.

At the time I thought of the ominous graffiti in Philip K. Dick‘s posthumously published novel Radio Free Albemuth (1985).  The grafiti also reminded me of the wanna-be teenage mercenaries in Leo Berkeley‘s film Holidays on the River Yarra (1990), who are recruited by a racialist organisation to engage in graffiti, brawls and other low-level politically motivated violence.

Two nights ago police fatally shot 15-year-old Tyler Cassidy during a confrontation in Northcote’s All Nations park.  Earlier that evening, Cassidy left home after a family argument then stole two knives from Northcote’s Kmart store.  Four police were called to arrest Cassidy and Victoria Police will now investigate what happened next.  As Rosie X observes, several media outlets speculated about Cassidys membership in the nationalist group Southern Cross Soldiers (SCS) and posed a ‘suicide by cop’ explanation for Cassidy’s death.

There are a couple of interesting things to note about blogosphere and media coverage.

Journalists described Cassidy’s online life as “subterreanean” – a mix of Sherry Turkle‘s theories about online identity fused with cyberterrorist fears – yet did not link to Cassidy’s MySpace page or mention the SCS sites above.  In contrast, Richard Metzger observed to me in 1998 that Disinformation had a different strategy: it would link to white supremacist groups such as Aryan Nations so that readers would understand their ideological worldview.  This got Metzger into trouble with several anti-racialist organisations who confused him with Tom Metzger of White Aryan Resistance.

Anarchist and anti-racialist bloggers knew SCS for months before Cassidy’s death as a white supremacist gang or youth network. The SCS band has copied Rahowa‘s white separatist music as a recruitment strategy.  The social network Bebo has pages for SCS recruitment and the SCS bandJacques Ellul would be proud: SCS (and perhaps Cassidy unwittingly) use a blend of Australian historical imagery for in-group identity and integration propaganda (“Aussie pride”, the Southern Cross flag, conflation of national identity with ethnicity) with agitation propaganda that is aimed at specific out-group enemies (Italians, Lebanese, anyone who does not meet SCS’s criteria for being Australian).

Several questions: How many other pages are there?  Who has been monitoring them?  What if any threat assessments were made?  Will anyone get an opportunity to conduct a sociometry analysis of SCS’s online social network before the pages are pulled (Marc Sageman established a benchmark with his study of Salafist cells that may have had weak ties to Al Qaeda).

Bloggers and journalists alike noted that police might have de-escalated the incident if they were armed with a Taser electroshock weapon.  The incident captures why there is a tactical role under specific circumstances for law enforcement personnel to use non-lethal or less-lethal weapons that could have saved Cassidy’s life.  The four police will likely receive critical incident debriefs and stress counselling.

A few days after Cassidy’s death Northcote remains largely subdued apart from occasional police sirens in the distance.  In contrast. Greece has faced a week of riots after the shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos which may spread to Europe.  As a ‘paired study’ – SCS’s street gang violence, the shootings of Grigoropoulos and Cassidy, and the divergent reactions – illustrate the late sociologist Charles Tilly‘s distinction between individual aggression (Cassidy), brawls (SCS) and scattered attacks (Greece) as different types of collective violence.

Tilly’s urban sociology in the 1960s foresaw how today’s social network sites may be used to coordinate street violence.  Perhaps police intelligence analysts would benefit from a few hours with Tilly’s masterful study The Politics of Collective Violence (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003) to pre-empt any SCS revenge attacks for Cassidy’s death.  SCS might then remain the purveyers of bad hip-hop/rock/metal hybrids (not exactly Australian), poorly designed web sites and street graffiti: the opportunist yet ineffectual extremists that Dick and Berkeley tried to warn us of . . . and that Greece and Europe may face again.