August 1, 2007  

What if there is no terrorist network?

The National Strategy for Combating Terrorism published in February 2003 candidly acknowledged that “our knowledge of the inner workings of some terrorist organizations remains incomplete” and “the shadowy nature of these organizations precludes an easy analysis of their capabilities or intent.”

Several years on, the 2006 version of the National Strategy provides a slightly more useful appraisal titled “Today’s Terrorist Enemy,” which includes a broader contextual framework that was readily apparent years earlier, yet noticeably absent from the previous iteration. Even so, a query of pedestrian traffic within the halls of the Pentagon as to the identity and significance of Sayyid Qutb would no doubt draw blank looks from most of those working in the headquarters vessel of the Defense Department, just as it would in most hallways of government. Although rudimentary familiarity with the theoretical underpinnings of communism in the ideological struggle of the Cold War might have sufficed to provide adequate context for prosecuting that conflict, a superficial or simplistic understanding of the intricately complex global Islamic extremist revolution arguably lies at the heart of our uneven performance thus far in the war on terrorism. Sun Tzu’s warning about knowing one’s enemy rings ominously as we continue to appear grotesquely unfamiliar with the nature of our adversaries and their ongoing metamorphosis while simultaneously demonstrating confusion about our own roles and optimal organizational configuration.

Machinations stemming from the fights in Afghanistan and Iraq, the process of defense transformation, intelligence reform, and broader governmental deck-chair adjustments designed to address the first war of the 21st century have obscured the significance of the emergent generation of jihadist doctrine and the associated implications for a viable counterstrategy.

Sayyid Qutb’s “Mein Kampf” equivalent, “Milestones,” written in 1964, provided a road map for a centralized global jihad. Years after his death, with Ayman al Zawahiri’s influence rooted in Qutb’s work, al-Qaida assumed the role of the vanguard and implemented the road map for a global Islamic revolutionary movement. We were slow to grasp the essence of the threat as it gathered, and our plodding hierarchical bureaucracies have similarly been slow to grip the problem and organize effectively for the task at hand. Understandably, it flows logically that if one is unable to understand the nature of a problem, it remains nearly impossible to arrive at a suitable and efficient solution. Syrian-born jihadi veteran Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, whose real name is Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, published a 1,600-page manifesto in 2004 entitled “The Call for Global Islamic Resistance,” which laid the groundwork for the next-generation Islamic revolutionary operatives. And if the clarity with which we viewed the threat has proven murky thus far, implementation of al-Suri’s doctrine could greatly unhinge the National Strategy’s focus upon networked terrorists and render a great deal of the government’s adaptation over the past several years largely irrelevant to the threat’s future configuration. For every move we agonizingly contemplate, analyze, brief and consider for implementation, our “thinking enemy” continues to stay two moves ahead — in this instance by seeking to further devolve from a loosely affiliated networked structure to highly independent movements lacking any substantive structure beyond a handful of members.

Some skeptical observers dismiss or downplay the significance of Abu Mus’ab al-Suri’s work and its potential impact. In conversation with a military Middle Eastern specialist working on countering radical Islamic ideology, I expressed concern over the implications of al-Suri’s message relative to the prosecution of the war on terrorism. Somewhat dismissively, he responded, “Fortunately, they subscribe to doctrine about as well as we do.” His wishful downplaying of the potential impact of al-Suri’s message failed to assuage my shock after reading several open source extracts on the Internet.

Al-Suri’s pragmatic doctrine, based on his personal experiences as well as his astute observations concerning the post-Sept. 11 operational environment from a jihadist perspective, borrows heavily from the “leaderless resistance” concept initially promulgated by Col. Ulius Amos. Al-Suri’s work, in essence, provides the impetus for a revolution in jihadist affairs by suggesting transition to a highly decentralized autonomous jihad with emphasis on operational security and a de-emphasis on formal structure. Similar to our own doctrine of mission-type orders and mission-type command, which borrows deeply from German auftragstaktik, there is little doubt that individual jihadists are already cognizant of the overarching ideological mission and intent of their global struggle. This universally understood concept forms the framework for strategically complimentary yet operationally unsynchronized offensive terrorist action.

Forward-thinking concepts conceived to understand and thwart networked adversaries — such as the Marine Corps’ distributed operations, “netwar” as articulated by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, and the ubiquitous realm of network-centric fascination — would lose their utility against al-Suri’s model. His thousand points of jihadist light would theoretically operate independently, in an uncoordinated manner, with no linkage or knowledge of other elements. The lack of organizational substance, purposefully designed to preserve the clandestine nature of the terrorist activity and guarantee success, would offer few if any opportunities to attack the networked capacity as articulated in the 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. By design, al-Suri’s doctrine would dispense with any networked dependency to mitigate risk of compromise. Although cells might occasionally falter and inadvertently compromise themselves through incompetence or inadvertent detection of preparatory activity, their discovery would most likely provide little of significance for cascading exploitation to unravel a larger organization, as little would exist.

The good news is that al-Suri’s conclusions and direction potentially indicate our initial efforts designed to reduce the scope and capability of transnational terrorist networks as outlined in the original version of the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism have proven somewhat successful. In accordance with the intent of the strategy, the disruptive efforts undertaken thus far have seemingly rendered the networks “isolated, exposed and vulnerable to defeat” — exactly as the strategy envisioned. The 2003 National Strategy further described the intent to localize the threat and return “terrorism to the ‘criminal domain’” where our actions, in concert with regional partners, would ultimately “secure a world in which our children can live free from fear and where the threat of terrorist attacks does not define our daily lives.” It remains uncertain whether our efforts over the past six years have moved us closer to or further from this goal.

Unfortunately, the advent of al-Suri’s decentralized jihadist doctrine would seek to adapt terrorist methodologies to preclude their defeat in detail by eliminating the structure and linkages that create vulnerability to exploitation. The leaderless resistance model would undermine the National Strategy’s continued premise of networks comprised of “individuals, institutions and other resources” that the terrorists “depend on for support and that facilitate their activities.” Although the common ideology and perceived enemy would continue to provide strategic orientation in a broad sense, the other basis for linkage would prove increasingly less important as jihadists turned to leaderless, insular, home-grown cells. Specifically, al-Suri’s doctrine urges small, amorphous, independent entities that require minimal, if any, interaction for the purposes of “sharing intelligence, personnel, expertise, resources and safe havens” as the original National Strategy suggested.

As al-Qaida’s loose affiliations and global reach became apparent, the 2003 National Strategy described a mutation of “the traditional terrorist threat.” The “operationalizing of the [2003] strategy” anticipated rendering these linked terrorist networks to “unorganized, localized, nonsponsored and rare” elements as the byproduct of the effort “to disrupt, dismantle and destroy their capacity.” However, al-Suri’s doctrine would appear to invalidate the 2003 National Strategy’s assumption that the terrorist organizations would subsequently “attempt to reconsolidate along regional lines to improve their communications and cooperation.” Some might argue that the localization and isolation of terrorist networks into disparate, un-sponsored, autonomous cells would render them less effective by degrading their ability to train and cross-fertilize tactics, techniques and procedures. It would be difficult on today’s information age to imagine, let alone achieve, a complete information embargo that would effectively censor information in a preventive manner to preclude dissemination to and among terrorist entities. Regardless, al-Suri stressed improvisation in terms of acquisition of weapons and munitions, and recent attacks illustrate technological sophistication is not necessarily required to kill victims and coerce audiences.


In large measure, our efforts to disrupt the terrorists’ ability to plan and operate have proven somewhat effective, but the effects are temporary, and in many cases, the methodologies employed have significantly undermined other critical aspects of the long-term campaign strategy. The 2006 National Strategy to Combat Terrorism declared as part of its effort to institutionalize “our strategy for long-term success” the desire to “enhance government architecture and interagency collaboration.” Although the Defense Department increasingly recognizes the majority of the responsibility for the successful prosecution of the campaign against terrorism rests with other entities within the federal government, DoD continues to writhe with frustration because it must compensate for the perceived inadequacies and reluctance of other parts of the government to pursue the national aims with the appropriate level of focus, intensity and vigor to win. However, one might suggest that the preponderance of the Defense Department’s contribution to winning the war against terrorism reached the point of diminishing several years ago.

The understandably emotive launching of the Defense Department, and the energy with which the U.S. armed forces pursued their assigned task, developed a blunt freight train-like momentum that might prove less agile for the more nuanced stages of the struggle ahead. Primarily because of its inherent size and resources, the Defense Department remains the thousand-pound gorilla at the interagency table that will never master ballroom dancing, regardless of the best effort or intentions.

The window on the broad utility of “the application of all instruments of national power and influence to kill or capture terrorists” as articulated in the 2006 Strategy may have closed. Such an approach will prove increasingly infeasible because a decentralized jihadist doctrine would largely dissolve previously networked nodes of leadership, funds, communications, weapons, etc., rendering them immune to targeting. Furthermore, it is very possible that an increasingly diminished target set could precipitate even greater propensity to pull the trigger with a lack of intelligence fidelity, creating a high risk of counterproductive non-combatant collateral damage. The ultimate test of “enhanced government architecture and interagency collaboration” will certainly come when al-Suri’s jihadist doctrine arrives in the U.S. in earnest and the federal government grapples with the employment of the Defense Department, posse comitatus and the Insurrection Act of 1807 as amended in 2006.

Although the efforts to deter, disrupt and disable terrorist networks appear well on their way, the asymmetry of al-Suri’s decentralized resistance model may render three of the remaining four “priorities of action” in the National Strategy increasingly irrelevant, as well. The 2006 National Strategy to Combat Terrorism declares as one of the priorities of action the desire to “deny terrorists the support and sanctuary of rogue states,” which includes the sub-objectives of ending state sponsorship of terrorism and disrupting the flow of resources from these rogue states to terrorists. In a similar vein, the fourth priority of action seeks to “deny terrorists control of any nation they would use as a base and launching pad for terror,” with sub-objectives of eliminating physical, legal, cyber and financial safe havens. Al-Suri’s experience and cataloged lessons learned from jihad efforts from Syria to Afghanistan demonstrated unequivocally the futility of dependence upon fickle third parties for support. As a result, his doctrine specifically emphasizes the lack of utility of the traditional guerrilla warfare mechanisms of sanctuaries, remote bases and external support — pragmatically taking into account the global reach of military and law enforcement and the inherent vulnerability to kinetic targeting and infiltration. As a result, the future challenge of identifying and locating discrete, insular, self-sufficient cells that operate clandestinely among the societies they target will prove exceedingly difficult, particularly if they subscribe to al-Suri’s suggested model of highly disciplined autonomous activity. Furthermore, in the wake of attacks by the independent terrorist entities of this nature, the obvious difficulty would be attribution of the attack to facilitate retribution.

Our successful efforts thus far against the terrorist networks have arguably damaged perceptions of our legitimacy with potentially irreversible adverse consequences upon a number of additional aspects of the current National Strategy to Combat Terrorism. The 2006 version of the strategy describes the importance of establishing and maintaining “international standards of accountability” and “strengthening coalitions and partnerships” as pillars of our strategy for long-term success. Yet there is little doubt the public discourse and international scandal regarding alleged matters of extraordinary renditions, torture, hidden prison networks, perceptions of a pattern of excessive application of force resulting in non-combatant casualties, and isolated misconduct by U.S. military personnel provide cogent examples of where our legitimacy and standing with our partners and the larger international community have suffered immeasurably. Indeed, in some cases we have squandered the foundation of relationships out of shortsighted expediency, narrow-minded perceived tactical gain, arrogant interaction and clumsy public diplomacy.

Similarly, these miscues have provided ample confirmatory evidence that continues to validate jihadist propaganda, enhance perceptions among the Ummah that Islam is under siege, and ultimately reinforce calls to defend Islam. Recent attacks and foiled plots in Europe provide some initial indication of the emergent implementation of an al-Suri-like doctrine. Open source anecdotal evidence indicates autonomous elements with minimal, if any, centralized direction and support from al-Qaida conducted the earlier attacks in the Netherlands, Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom. More recently, the exposure of apparently autonomous amateur terrorist cell plots in New Jersey, New York and the recent botched attacks in the United Kingdom may provide a startling prologue of what lies on the horizon.

Should al-Suri’s doctrine for a decentralized leaderlesslike resistance gain increased momentum with the jihadist movement, we may already be erroneously preparing to fight the last war oriented at al-Qaida and associated networks in a legacy configuration in which they will not be found. Indeed, a concerted transition to al-Suri’s model for the conduct of the jihad would, in large measure, negate the utility of military force and a great deal of the Defense Department apparatus. No longer would the terrorists establish guerrilla base camps for training and education in remote and restricted terrain or seek sanctuary from sympathetic states in lawless ungoverned areas. Instead, they would hide, recruit and train in small autonomous cells among us. Subsequently, the infrequent application of force against terrorists abroad would be restricted to the rare and judicious realm of the unseen use of force, ideally driven by high-fidelity intelligence to minimize both public awareness of the act and collateral damage. Unfortunately, these target sets would increasingly bear little direct relationship to the predominant threat on U.S. shores. The genie of large-scale overt application of force in the war on terrorism must be put back in the bottle. Searching out these more stealthy independent terrorist elements envisioned by al-Suri’s doctrine would revert primarily to domestic law enforcement and intelligence functions rather than that of large-scale offensive military action.

What is most troubling is the possibility that this emergent threat profile would come to fruition employing a full suite of relatively simplistic tactical tools against us at home in the continental U.S. Combined with the inherent difficulty of effectively ferreting out isolated terrorist cells domestically, improvised explosive devices, car bombs and suicide bombers would certainly wreak havoc. The American psyche is not prepared, as the Israelis have become accustomed to doing, for routinely dispatching teams of volunteers to recover small fragments of bone and scraps of body parts at shopping malls and from rooftops in the aftermath of suicide bombings in populated areas. The alarm and disruption in February associated with the placement of nonlethal electronic advertising novelties in Boston to promote a television program provide insight into the potential disruptive impact were IEDs to migrate to U.S. streets. This demonstrates another incongruence between the 2006 National Strategy to Combat Terrorism, which outlines in detail as one of its priorities of action to “deny weapons of mass destruction to rogue states and terrorist allies who seek to use them,” and the emergent doctrine of al-Suri’s Call for Islamic Resistance with its inherent reluctance to depend upon other entities.


Unlike the understandable concern over the shadow cast by the possibility of clandestine delivery of weapons of mass destruction to our shores, IEDs, car bombs, suicide bombs and other tactical means are comparatively simplistic and inexpensive, and don’t require acquisition of exotic precursors. Incidents such as the Virginia Tech and Columbine High School shootings, the D.C. sniper attacks, the attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and criminal episodes of serial killers or rapists all underscore the psychological terror such relatively primitive tactics inflict upon target audiences well beyond the loss of life of the immediate victims. A comment of frustrated anguish on the effectiveness of the car bomb from one of my most capable and experienced Special Forces soldiers, a demolitions expert himself, continues to echo in my mind: “You just can’t defend against that.” The rhetorical question so often proffered, “If it is so easy, why haven’t they already done it?” is an interesting digression, yet the observation is irrelevant to mitigation of the threat. The fact remains, neither the acquisition of the simplistic capability for IEDs, car bombs and suicide bombs, nor the intent to inflict harm upon us, exceeds the realm of the possible with today’s jihadists. On the contrary, the jihadist capability and intent that comprise the threat appear indisputable.

The application of the doctrine of decentralized jihad by a relatively small number of individuals who employ terrorist tactics and tools that have become the mainstay of their arsenal over the years provides a troublesome forecast for the future. When combined with the myriad widely acknowledged vulnerable target sets in the U.S. and an inherently dysfunctional apparatus responsible for “goalkeeping,” we have a potentially serious problem on the horizon that no amount of attrition overseas will mitigate. Any reassurance grounded in the apparent incompetence of terrorists will prove short-lived.

On the contrary, as Newton’s third law of physics reminds us, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” So long as we continue to prosecute the war on terrorism by applying force overtly around the world, and its effects are transmitted globally in near real time via the Internet and satellite television to the world’s 1-billion-plus Muslims, the jihadist ranks will continue to swell with fresh recruits from around the world. We must accept that we will never successfully prosecute the war on terrorism through the imprecise attrition of jihadists. Rather, it is essential to stem the flow of recruits by primarily working the informational line of operation through Islamic conduits to undermine the legitimacy of the violent Islamist revolutionary ideology and neutralize the mass appeal offered by perceptions of a defensive jihad. We must cease validating the jihadist propaganda and stop inadvertently feeding the recruitment pipeline through our actions.

If not, we must anticipate and plan for the eventual nexus of al-Suri’s independent jihadist doctrine and the suicide bombings, car bombs and IEDs in American cities. Failure to mitigate this risk and to undertake adequate preparations for this inevitability may ultimately lead to further over-reactive decision-making under duress, which will most certainly bring painful miscues with disastrous domestic consequences for our people and way of life, the likes of which the American public can barely conceive of at present.

LT. COL Scott Morrison retired as an Army Special Forces officer in July after 20 years of service, most recently as an adviser to Iraqi forces from May 2005 to May 2006. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Defense Department.