One of the things that's made Osama & Co. so hard to beat is how decentralized they are; there's no central headquarters to flatten, and few big commanders that can't be quickly replaced.But that doesn't mean the jihadists don't have weaknesses -- weaknesses that the U.S. can exploit. No one knows that better than the insurgents themselves, notes a new West Point study, Stealing Al-Qa'ida's Playbook. Thanks to William Lind for pointing it out.
Jihadi leaders are surprisingly frank when discussing the vulnerabilities of their movement and their strategies for toppling local regimes and undermining the United States... In a sense, members of the jihadi movement have put their teamsplaybooks online. By mining these texts for their tactical and strategic insights, the United States will be able to craft effective tactics, techniques, and procedures to defeat followers of the movement.The trick is to use the terrorists' loose command-and-control structure against them. Without rigid discipline and introdictrination, extremist groups have a natural tendency to drift apart, to balkanize on ideaological or tactical grounds. Harmony and Disharmony, a companion piece to Playbook, offers up some steps on how to turbo-charge that drift.Some are obvious, and are already being done -- pressure Al Qaeda's finances, make it as hard as possible for the jihadists to operate safely. Then there are recommendations like these:
Al-Qaida members who appear less committed should not necessarily be removed from the network if they can be reliably observed, even if they present easy targets. By leaving them in place, the probability that the group will identify agency problems and hence adopt security-reducing measures increases...Make credible punishment of operatives harder for al-Qaida. This is most easily done by providing an exit option for members other than indefinite detention or death. This approach can yield benefits in two ways. First, it will make it harder for groups to enforce discipline-hence control- through the use of force against their own members. This will reduce the level of political impact groups can achieve. Second, offering well-publicized amnesty or reduced punishment for defectors will encourage those dissatisfied with the organization to leave by reducing the perceived costs of exit. In response, al-Qaida will have to become more careful about screening applicants, which will in turn reduce the pool of potential members, or increase the use of problematic screening mechanisms...Publicly emphasize the differences between al-Qaida leaders and affiliate groups. Agency problems can be enhanced within al-Qaida by reducing incentives for al-Qaida subgroups to remain closely linked to the center. Giving Osama bin Laden credit for Abu Musab al-Zarqawis terrorist attacks only legitimizes and strengthens their relationship. Publicly recognizing the differences between peripheral groups and the center, however, may generate competition for authority between them. Terrorist organizations are inherently weak relative to their opponents and must overcome that weakness in order to rally supporters to their cause. Al-Qaidas central leadership maintains nominal relationships with peripheral groups in part to generate a perception that it is a powerful group that can realistically challenge its enemy. Effective policies to degrade al-Qaidas capacity will avoid supporting this tactic and highlight differences in the movement instead...Create uncertainty about operationally relevant technical information. One key vulnerability of all terrorist organizations is communications. A greater volume of communications between operational cells and others presents a proportionally greater number of opportunities for compromise. If al-Qaidas operators can readily find reliable technical information on bomb-making and the like, they can operate with a great deal of independence. However, if public technical data sources are rife with misinformation, then cells will need to communicate more to make sure they are using appropriate materials/techniques. These increased communications reduce the maximum feasible level of security.Make screening strategies appear risky. Al-Qaida can reduce preference divergence, and hence increase their ability to achieve political impact, by screening their membership more closely. A common strategy to do so is to recruit within familial networks. By openly monitoring the family relations of known al-Qaida members, governments can create the perception that using family ties to screen potential members is a security risk. This takes away a useful screening strategy, reducing the maximum feasible level of security.But the most important advice Playbook gives is to turn the jihadists' barbarism against them. That's done by exploiting what the authors call the "Shayma effect."
One of his most painful lessons, [Al Qaeda #2 Ayman al-] Zawahiri relates in his Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet, was learned after an assassination attempt on Egyptian Prime Minister Atif Sidqi. Members of Islamic Jihad detonated a car bomb in a failed attempt to kill the prime minister as his motorcade passed by. Instead, the blast killed a 12 year-old girl named Shayma in a nearby elementary school. The government launched a media campaign claiming that Islamic Jihad had deliberately targeted Shayma and not the prime minister. Zawahiri explains that members of the group had surveyed the area and thought the school was unoccupied. Nevertheless, he admits that he was deeply pained by the death of the girl and acknowledges that the governments media campaign drastically reduced public support for the movement. It also stunned his senior leadership, causing several of them to resign from the organization.This background explains Zawahiris words of caution to Zarqawi in his recent letter, counseling him against attacks that could inadvertently kill Muslim civilians. This is not out of ideological or theological reasons, but from a purely pragmatic, strategic calculus: The masses must view jihadis as liberators, not oppressors. They must be seen as fighting a just war and walking the moral high ground. Killing Muslimseven when undertaking legitimate operations against members of an unpopular local regime or symbols of Western occupationis damaging to the jihadi movement because it inevitably leads to a loss of support among the Muslim masses.UPDATE 03/07/06 7:22 AM: The Washington Post is reporting that "tribal chiefs in Iraq's western Anbar province and in an area near the northern city of Kirkuk, two regions teeming with insurgents, are vowing to strike back at al-Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni Arab-led group that is waging war against Sunni tribal leaders who are cooperating with the Iraqi government and the U.S. military. Anbar tribes have formed a militia that has killed 20 insurgents from al-Qaeda in Iraq, leaders said."