Channeling Sageman

Ekhlaas member Abu Hamza 2005, whom we’ve already met, has written a short essay called, “Bin Laden and the Globalization of Jihad.” In it, he argues that Bin Laden and al-Qaeda have transformed Jihadi-Salafism from an ideology in service of national or regional goals into a global ideology. Before 9/11, AQ was an organization that carried out operations. Through its actions and the response of the U.S. and its allies, Muslims came to more fully identify with the suffering of foreign Muslims. Now its primary role is to motivate the Muslim community to become part of the global conflict.

In its role of advocate and exemplar rather than organizer, AQ has done away with structural organizations and is instead marketing a methodology (manhaj). On account of its success and notoriety, cells have formed that identify with its methodology but do not necessarily join its organization.

Complimenting the shift of AQ from an organization to a methodology has been has been its use of new media to spread its message. This allows it to circumvent the censorship of state-controlled media in the Middle East and to have equal footing with the U.S.-dominated global media.

Many analysts have asked, “Will AQ survive once Bin Laden is gone?” Of course! Abu Hamza answers; one need only look at the death of Zarqawi. Many analysts said his organization would fall apart after he died, but the opposite happened. This will also be the case when Bin Laden dies since AQ is a flat organization that does not depend on leaders.

To finish, here are two interesting quotes:

The spidery chain of spontaneously-generating cells, an expanding network, and terrorist strikes will not end as long as there are basic incentives, like religious and ideological doctrine and the bitter reality of domination, oppression, and humiliation in which the umma lives.


Al-Qaeda is not an organization or a traditional side in an international war. It is cells and an ideological orientation that jumps every day to new regions that meet the requisite Sharia and strategic goals. It is important to note that a majority of the members of al-Qaeda are well educated and from the upper classes. They are skilled at dealing with the modern technology that the West produces and many of them have studied at technical institutes, which gives them an advantage in designing terrorist attacks…

All of this sounds suspiciously like Marc Sageman’s recent Leaderless Jihad, in which he argues that AQ Central’s international role is confined to inspiring a decentralized network of like-minded militants who follow the organization’s method and ideology, but do not have any formal ties to it. This is not to say Abu Hamza is reading Sageman (although Jihadis are quite well read in the latest Western academic literature on AQ). But it does seem to be an idea that has really taken hold among Western analysts and Jihadis.

For my part, I think Abu Hamza’s thesis is as overreaching as that of Sageman (whose book has a number of excellent observations to recommend it). This whole business about flat organizations, networks, spontaneous generation, and the like may sound swell in our current Facebook milieu, but it misses two important things. First, it presumes that AQ was something different before 9/11–a bureaucracy that had tight command and control. I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, I think it functioned much the same as it does today, albeit in a diminished capacity. It was and is a terrorist venture capitalist firm that funds projects and people it likes but does not absorb many personnel into its organization.

Second, the idea that you can knock off a talent like Bin Laden and it won’t matter is nonsense. Sure, the Jihadi Movement will keep rolling and Bin Laden will be hailed as a martyr, but it is very difficult to replace someone with Bin Laden’s skills. Look at Abu Hamza’s Zarqawi example: Abu Hamza maintains that AQ in Iraq was just fine after Zarqawi’s death. But a more reasonable assessment has to conclude that AQI has suffered a great deal and is close to completely losing its footing in Iraq.

Document (Arabic): 5-21-08-ekhlaas-abu-hamza-on-globalization-of-jihad

Filed under:
Share this:
Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on telegram
Share on email
Share on print

7 Responses

  1. Sageman is on my reading list, but haven’t quite gotten to him yet. From the peanut gallery, though, I’d have to disagree about the significance of Bin Laden, particularly the use of the Zarqawi example. Maybe it’s wrong to suggest a weak analogy inherently disproves the rule, but AQI’s perilous status in Iraq is more the result of US adoption of proper counterinsurgency tactics along with AQ’s proven intolerance to play nice with fellow Sunni groups, pissing off the sheikhs who chose AQI as a bigger enemy than the US (or at least a more immediate enemy). Zarqawi’s ruthless tactics helped put AQI solidly on that path to alienating the locals – I don’t believe much of AQI’s MO changed after his death, particularly with respect to relations with the locals.

    That was all nitpicking in relation to the general theme of the post, but hey, that’s what I had. . .

  2. Matt, fair point and worth far more than a peanut from the gallery. So you think AQI would be worse if Zarqawi were still alive?

  3. Perhaps not worse off if he remained alive, but no better off. I think the general trend of what’s happened to AQI since Zarqawi’s June 2006 timely demise would have occurred with him in charge or not. AQI is on the ropes today because the Sunnis turned on it – its a virus that is losing its host. Zarqawi, if anything, was even more ideologically uncompromising, I feel, with his fellow Sunnis than the current leadership – I don’t see why his continued presence would have prevented the animosity from creating that fissure. Unless somehow the spectre of Zarqawi was enough to intimidate the Sunnis where the actual brutality failed, but given the relatively adept practice of COIN by US forces since mid-to-late 2006, I don’t think that would have endured either.

    To get back to your original topic, recently you mentioned how AQ recruiting consists of absorbing salafist cells with their own reputation and personnel – isn’t that an inherently decentralized structure, potentially with local cells very well attuned to local conditions? I am hardly clear on what UBL or Zawahiri’s day-to-day control over AQ is (is anybody?) but even if it remains fairly rigid, I’d say building an organization out of potentially self-contained units – as your description of the “recruiting” process entails – carries at least the potential for a “flattened” network, and thus one where the true importance of UBL is unclear.


  4. What you say is true about Zarqawi’s shortcomings: he was unwilling to compromise and too bloodthirsty. But he had an awful lot of charisma, which brought money and recruits. He was also feared by the other insurgents, which gave AQ a lot of respect and a larger seat at the table. And although he was shortsighted, he did have a good strategic brain, which the organization is now lacking (look at his letter to Zawahiri and his rationale for attacking the Shia). That’s why he’s missed. Bin Laden’s death or capture will be a loss for the Jihadis for similar reasons. Sure, they shoot themselves in the foot. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t still valuable.

    As for your point about a flat network, it might be useful to dump the dimensional language altogether. Networks have hubs and spokes. Sometimes hubs can become hierarchical corporations, but sometimes they are just clumps of influential people who share common goals. Today, AQ Central is a hub of the clump type. Some argue that it was more of a corporation in the ’90s, but I think that’s a little oversold.

  5. Fair enough on AQ’s general structure – I am way out my league in arguing it one way or the other – was just floating a generalisation based on your perception of AQ “recruiting.” Agree certainly that flat network is a bogus term, and the more I think about it, not what I meant. Another in vogue term that doesn’t have nearly as wide a reach as people (like myself) think.

    On Zarqawi, however, I would still contest his strategic prowess. I haven’t read the letter (a quick Google search only found Zawahiri’s infamous memo to Zarqawi – was that what you meant?), so am speaking from my usual position of ignorance, but Zarqawi’s unwillingness to compromise may be ideological purity (and a draw for recruits and money from the powers that be), but it’s strategic shortsightedness. It gave AQI a bigger seat at the Sunni insurgency table, but it also made it clear to the other groups that AQI was not fighting for the same reason (i.e., political marginalisation and others), was not a reliable partner, and was a potential enemy of its own. I think that’s symptomatic not only of Zarqawi’s strategic deficiencies, but those of AQ as a whole. They seem incapable of deciding who the immediate enemy is, who the long term enemy is, and who the truly far enemy is, and they can’t fight the Shi’tes, the moderate Sunni regimes in the Arab states, Israel, and the US all together. They’ve got the same strategic deficiency as Hitler did, in that respect.

    But I concede as well on the symbolic and charismatic importance of UBL in particular, or even Zarqawi. I kind of ignored that in favor of trying giving a Clausewitzian beatdown on strategy, but I’m going a little too far. . .



  6. I agree that Zarqawi was shortsighted in some ways. But he was farsighted in others. For example, he knew which way the wind was blowing when the U.S. attacked Afghanistan and he went to Iraq before other foreign Jihadis thought to do so. He also knew that attacking the Shia would push the Sunnis to provide sanctuary for his organization in return for its muscle. He talks about most of this in his letter:

    But I agree that he was very shortsighted when he sanctioned attacks on his fellow travelers and his Sunni base.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest Jihadica