The Strategy of al Qaeda and ISIS

A closer look at the extremists’ military-political plan shows that they have a sophisticated and staged strategy based on Mao and Muhammad, supporting once again the contention that this is an insurgent problem rather than a terrorist one.

Grand Strategic Plan of al Qaeda and ISIS

The extremists' military-political strategy is consistently called "the Methodology" (al minhaj). It was developed during the 1990s and makes its first public appearance in documents captured after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. The Methodology has two seemingly contradictory foundations: the life of Muhammad (the Sira) and the practical thinking of Mao and Giap.

From Muhammad, the Methodology has taken the concept of reliving the sacred life of the Prophet in stages and phases ordained by God Himself for success. This mandates a military-political plan that takes the group from Mecca to Medina and back to Mecca before taking on the world. Although captured documents and public statements make this quite clear, the precise religious names for each of the main phases will remain doubtful until further materials are captured.

From Mao and Giap, the Methodology takes the pragmatic concepts for forming a group, moving to guerrilla warfare, developing into hybrid warfare, and eventually fighting a regular war. Al Qaeda especially has also been willing to step back a phase if events warrant, a concept modeled after Giap.

The Basic Stages. There are four basic military-political stages layered on top of the phases of Muhammad's life: covert jihad, strategic defense, equilibrium, and strategic offense.

Covert jihad, the first stage, is characterized by creating the group, stockpiling weapons, setting up training areas, and assassinating specific targets without taking credit. At some point, the local government will catch on and begin arresting or otherwise harassing the group.

This leads to open warfare, the first phase of which is called strategic defense. During this phase, the group trains fighters and carries out guerrilla warfare, attempting to attrite the central government and exhaust its military so that it is driven from priority areas. These ungoverned spaces will form the territorial basis for the organization’s states.

With the departure of the central government, the area enters equilibrium, also called "no war, no peace." This stage is focused on institution building and the gathering of "elements of success," various milestones that the group believes are necessary for a state. Equilibrium includes the establishment of a "nascent state," the taking of territory around major cities, the formation of a regular army, and the declaration of a "solid state."

The establishment of this state, in many different countries, will lead to the declaration of the Caliphate. With this event, the group believes that it has everything necessary to take on the central government and defeat it in a massive strategic offensive.

From Local to Global. Al Qaeda attempted to use the Methodology during the 1990s on a country-by-country basis and failed miserably. After 9/11, however, the group redefined the Methodology to transform it from a local to a global concept.

In this new conceptualization, the United States and its allies (the Jewish-Crusaders) became the "central government" for a "world regime." Each of the four stages could then be applied to the U.S. with specific Muslim-majority countries acting like prioritized "provinces" for this world government.

During the strategic defense, al Qaeda hoped to lure the "central government" into multiple wars to attrite and exhaust its military and force it then to retreat. This would allow the group to impose its vision of governance and enter equilibrium on a global scale.

In al Qaeda's reading, this happened in 2011, when the U.S. allowed its "agents" (Hosni Mubarak, Muammar al Qaddafi, Ali Abdullah Saleh, et al.) to fall and then withdrew to the homeland, ceding these priority areas to its foe. From 2011 onward, al Qaeda therefore concentrated on gathering the "elements of success" and building institutions throughout the greater Middle East.

ISIS agrees completely with this vision of the Methodology, just disagreeing about the timing for the creation of the Caliphate, which al Qaeda put off until the entire world entered the strategic offensive.