On Elephants and Al-Qaeda’s Moderation

Over the past several days, Leah Farrall and I have been debating on Twitter about her recent blog post on the killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi by a US drone. In her post, Leah argues that the US policy of killing senior al-Qaeda Central leaders is wrongheaded because those leaders are “a moderating force within a far more virulent current that has taken hold in the milieu.” Leah compares these strikes to the practice of killing older elephants to thin a herd, which leaves younger elephants without any respectable elder to turn to for guidance as to how to behave. By analogy, killing senior al-Qaeda Central leaders means there will be no one with enough clout to rein in the younger generation of jihadis when they go astray.

As a measure of the moderating influence of al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders, Leah contends that those leaders are very discriminating about the kinds of physical targets they choose to attack when seeking to affect the behavior of their intended audience. If you kill these leaders, she argues, the next generation will not be as discriminating, presumably meaning that they will widen their scope of physical targets and methods of attack in the West.

There might be good reasons not to kill al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders with drones but their potential moderating influence is not one of them. Here’s why:

1. AQ Central Senior Leaders Are Not Discriminating When Choosing What Kinds of People to Target in the West: Although AQ Central’s senior leaders have expressed concern about killing Muslim non-combatants, they have expressed no concern about indiscriminately killing people who are citizens of non-Muslim majority countries they do not like. Thus in the 1998 joint fatwa:

The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…

This basic targeting guidance has not changed in the ensuing years. Like any terrorist organization, al-Qaeda attacks civilians to create fear in its intended audience for the furtherance of its objectives. But unlike a lot of terrorist organizations, al-Qaeda has not focused on a particular category of civilian from Western countries (e.g. political leaders, the bourgeoisie, officials, businessmen).  Any citizen living in the United States or a non-Muslim majority country aligned with the United States is a potential target. That’s a lot of folks.

2. AQ Central Senior Leaders Discriminate When Choosing How To Kill Civilians in the West But They Do Not Seek Low Body Counts: When Leah argues that al-Qaeda Central is discriminating in its external operations, she means that they choose physical targets and methods of attack very carefully to elicit the desired response from their audience. She might also mean that they do not seek large body counts (she’s been unclear on this point).

It is certainly the case that al-Qaeda Central senior leaders have expressed a variety of opinions on how to kill civilians in the West and prioritized some means over others. And in their actual attack planning, tactics like bombing planes and subways  are preferred because they are more terrifying than other tactics. But al-Qaeda senior leadership has also supported more indiscriminate, high-casualty attacks like exploding a nuclear weapon and unleashing chemical or biological agents. They’ve also advocated the low-tech tactic of lone al-Qaeda supporters in the West buying a gun and going on a shooting spree. On the latter point, as recently as 2011 Adam Gadahn, Abu Yahya al-Libi, and Atiyya made a long video encouraging AQ supporters in the West to acquire handguns and shoot civilians indiscriminately (pt 1, pt 2). If Bin Laden differed with the other senior members of AQ over the use of this tactic in the West, I haven’t seen evidence of it.

It’s important to note that when AQ Central deliberates about attacks in the West, they prefer attacks that 1) they can successfully carry out and 2) will have the maximum impact on policy. Body count only factors into the discussion as a measure of impact (the greater the body count, the greater the impact), not as an inhibitor to action. Again, if there is a memo or statement fretting about killing too many non-Muslims, I haven’t seen it.

3. Abu Yahya al-Libi is Not a Moderating Force: It’s true that Libi is a very influential voice in al-Qaeda and that he might be able to take al-Qaeda in a less violent direction if he moderated his positions. But there was nothing in his career to suggest he would moderate al-Qaeda’s 1998 targeting guidance for Western countries. Even for ops in the Muslim world, he was more of a hardliner than other members of the senior leadership like Atiyya. For example, see Libi and Atiyya’s disagreement over over the status of former regime officials in Libya (Libi took a harder stance that Atiyya).

4. Even If al-Qaeda Central Senior Leaders Moderate, It Doesn’t Mean the Affiliates Will: The interplay between the affiliates and AQ Central is complicated and well researched by others, including Leah, so I don’t want to belabor this point. But just one well-known example of how hard it is to moderate the behavior of an affiliate: AQ Central failed to rein in AQ in Iraq after trying repeatedly.

Again, regardless of whether some in the senior leadership are trying to moderate the affiliates when it comes to targeting Muslims, they have not budged on the operational guidance given in the 1998 fatwa. Any new affiliate that joins accepts that guidance as foundational to their membership (of course, not all of them can act on it).


In summary, al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders seek to kill as many citizens as possible in the non-Muslim majority countries they don’t like, particularly the United States and its Western allies. AQ Central’s senior leaders choose their physical targets and means of attack overseas based on opportunity and policy impact. High body counts are welcome. They sanction these attacks for a variety of strategic reasons, the main one being that they want to pressure the US and its Western allies to reduce their influence in Muslim-majority countries so that it will be easier to establish Islamic states.

It is hard to imagine a more virulent current in the jihadi movement than that of al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders. Anyone with a desire or capability of moderating that organization was pushed out long ago. AQ Central may have moderated in how it conducts itself in Muslim-majority countries, but it certainly hasn’t moderated toward the United States, which is what has to be uppermost in the minds of US government counter-terrorism policymakers.

For a host of reasons, the US should take a hard look at the efficacy of its drone program. But the potential moderating influence of the current crew of old bull elephants leading al-Qaeda Central isn’t not one of them.

Update: Daveed weighs in.

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8 Responses

  1. Leah Farrall is partly right.
    The US policy of killing senior al-Qaeda Central leaders is wrongheaded becaus it comes into play Abu Musab al-Suri’s Military Theory of Jihad: “Elimination of the leaders”… “guerrilla warfare … leaderless autonomous command”. Call to Global Islamic Resistance.

    Excellent work of Professor Brynjar Lia in his book Architect of Global Jihad

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