Tomorrow at noon, meet author Malcom Nance as he discusses his latest book An End to Al Qaeda at the International Spy Museum. The author seminar and book signing is free to the public.
A 27-year intelligence and combat veteran of modern counterterrorism warfare, Nance lays out a comprehensive plan that would defeat Al Qaeda in less than twenty-four months without a single violent military action. His proposals include waging a war against the fear Al Qaeda has stoked, drastically reducing heavy military operations that kill civilians in the process, and relying more heavily on counterintelligence to root out terrorist groups.
Your book argues that one of the major failures of the war against Al Qaeda has been in the war of ideas. How do you define Al Qaeda ideologically?
Nance: Ideologically, Al Qaeda are a religious cult. They are not a legitimate religious-based resistance or political movement. Like many other cults they are led by a charismatic leader who has reinterpreted a mainstream religion to suit his personal beliefs. That means Al Qaeda has all the legitimacy of Soko Asihara’s Aum Shinrikyo of Japan or Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in Guyana. They have just been more successful in operating on a global scale. Unfortunately, because their beliefs are based on a global religion practiced by 1.5 billion people, they have been misclassified as just another extremist faction within Islam. This is a fundamentally flawed. My book details the mass of doctrinal evidence, that is taken from al Qaeda’s own statements and writings, that Al Qaeda’s ideology is in direct conflict with traditional Islam. Their doctrines and practices are outside the fringes of even the most radical fundamentalist practices of Islam including the fundamentalist practices of Wahabism and Salafism in Saudi Arabia. One of our biggest mistakes is confronting them as if they had military, religious and political legitimacy and acting as if Bin Laden was the spokesman for the Muslim world.
Al Qaeda operatives are foot soldiers of a cultist view that traditional Islam itself must be destroyed. Al Qaeda members believe that the Muslim world must reengineered into a militant force of 1.5 billion suicide martyrs who will then defeat democracy in a clash of civilizations. Muslims the world round have rejected these beliefs as unIslamic but we never listen to their rejections.
Al Qaeda operates on a cult philosophy best called Bin Ladenism. This is the sole operating philosophy that combines the beliefs of numerous radical ideologues and strategists such as Ibn Wahab, Sayyid Qutb, Mohammad Faraj, Abdullah Azzam, Omar al-Rahman, Al-Suri, Maqdisi, and Ayman al Zawahiri et al into the mission of destroying traditional Islam and obligating all Muslims to wage a perpetual holy war against the rest of the world to establish a new Islamic caliphate. The core component of that war is that all must sacrifice their lives to win the world for Bin Laden’s version of Islam.
The Saudi government, Al Qaeda’s most hated foes, refer to them derisively as neo-Salafists or more plainly, un-Islamic heretics. Note: Al Qaeda views the most ardently religious, ultra orthodox Saudi as a raging libertines.
One of your keys to defeating Al Qaeda is something you refer to as “counter-ideological warfare.” What and how is this implemented?
Nance: Counter-ideological operations and warfare (CIDOW) is a form of information warfare where the ideological tenets of an enemy, in this case an illegitimate religious cult, are attack with all means of both hard and soft power using the entire spectrum of diplomatic, intelligence, information, military and economic power. Since 9/11 this field has been entirely ignored or misused to influence mainly the American public about the success in the war on terror. In misusing CIDOW, Al Qaeda has been given 10 years to cultivate its target market, convert and recruit people who would, with the facts at hand normally reject their murderous message as legitimate. CIDOW targets the real center of gravity of this group. It destroys the legitimacy of ‘why they fight’ and forces them to confront and explain their own illogical actions.
If the United States were to place CIDOW on an equal level with kinetic military operations (much in the same way that the Defense Department places tactical psychological operations in its battle plans) the meaning of why AQ fights would be damaged to the point that they would be forced to not only withdraw from the cyber battlespace, where their viral propaganda, supporters and messages go unhindered. Today AQ views and projects themselves to their constituency as happy romantic religious warriors who can take a righteous battle to their American foes for God. However, if they were more accurately described as the corrupt cult of one man who actively seeks to destroy traditional Islam and kill anyone including any Muslim man woman or child who gets in their way; that would destroy their base of support. Al Qaeda themselves has warned that should America get wise to this game they could be “crushed in the shadows.”
Are there any historical examples you would cite as a successful model for this tactic?
Nance: Yes, the “sahwah” or Awakening campaign against Al Qaeda in Iraq by the Iraqi Ba’athists insurgents in 1986 2006, was a spontaneous uprising against what Al Qaeda believed in and why they were fighting. The Iraqi insurgents were formerly privileged Sunni Muslims with a high level of education that fought the US forces in an effort to resist an invasion and occupation. However, AQ’s senior leadership, after being convinced by Abu Mussab al Zarqawi saw Iraq as the new central battlefront to defeat the American army in the heart of the Islamic world and thus inspire a pan-Islamic jihad. Until the AQI members started killing ex-Ba’athists tribal leaders and imposing their radical ideology on the Sunnah community, the insurgents were happy to let them attack the American forces. Once the Sunnah insurgents saw their traditional way of life and tribal structures under attack by the Bin Ladenists, they decided that working with the Americans and Shia’s was better. With their assistance AQI was decisively defeated in less than a year. Done right, we could reproduce these results across the world in 24 months of operations. It would not be the beginning of the end; it would be the end of AQ.
After the recent events at Abu Ghraib, the inability to close Guantanamo, and the ongoing torture argument, how difficult will it be for the US to retake the high ground in this debate against Al Qaeda?
Nance: It is critical to have mutual respect between the Muslim world and the West for each party to achieve their own defensive goals. The Muslim world should be given the opportunity to revisit our grievance for the 9/11 attacks and the errors which angered them must be heard with serious regret. But to do that we must reset the bar on how America is seen by the Muslim world. We can also use CIDOW to put forward the image of what America is and who Americans are truly. Right now Bin Laden is better at defining America though our missteps.
AQ is an existential threat to Islam but getting this message across means re-framing who we are and what we believe. We also have to help the Islamic world get past Abu Ghraieb and Guantanamo by owning up to transgressions such as torture. We have the same goals as the Muslims, get rid of this infectious virus that could expand and topple Islamic traditions. However, before we can begin a major CIDOW campaign we need to allow that our past actions may have been rash. A simple apology could undo a decade of damage but many Americans still feel nothing wrong was done by choosing torture or war as a first option. Al Qaeda relies on American reticence and violence to spread their ideological virus to men like Major Hassan, Omar Farouk Abu Muttalab and other non-traditional converts like Jihad Jane.