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Al Qa’ida’s Strategy

[From David Kilcullen’s The Accidental Guerrilla, Hurst, 2009, 29-32]

Al Qa’ida’s military strategy appears to be aimed at bleeding the United States to exhaustion and bankruptcy, forcing America to withdraw in disarray from the Muslim world so that its local allies collapse, and simultaneously to use the provoking and alienating effects of U.S. intervention as a form of provocation to incite a mass uprising in the Islamic world, or at least to generate and sustain popular support for AQ. In a statement released in late 2004, Usama bin Laden outlined this strategic approach as follows:

All that we have mentioned has made it easy to provoke and bait this [U.S.] Administration, All we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point East to raise a cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals to race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without achieving for it anything of note… so we are continuing this policy of bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing and nothing is too great for Allah.

In support of this strategy AQ applies four basic tactics that are standard for any insurgent movement, as follows:


Insurgents throughout history have committed atrocities, carrying out extremely provocative events to prompt their opponents to react (or overreact) in ways that harm their interests. This may involve provoking government forces into repressive actions that alienate the population or provoking one tribal, religious, ethnic, or community group into attacking another in order to create and exploit instability.

Al Qa’ida or groups allied to it have carried out numerous provocation attacks… The most obvious example of a provocation attack is 9/11 itself, which was designed to provoke a massive U.S. retaliation and prompt a spontaneous uprising of the ummah. While the worldwide uprising failed to occur, subsequent U.S. actions could be seen as playing into the hands of this AQ agenda.


Insurgents seek to prevent local populations from cooperating with governments or coalition forces by publicly killing those who collaborate, intimidating others who might seek to work with the government, and co-opting others. This dynamic was highlighted by the classical insurgency theorist Bernard B. Fall, who served in the French Resistance in World War II. Fall wrote in 1965 that

any sound revolutionary warfare operator (the French underground, the Norwegian underground, or any other anti-Nazi European underground) most of the time used small-war tactics — not to destroy the German army, of which they were thoroughly incapable, but to establish a competitive system of control over the population. Of course, in order to do this, here and there they had to kill some of the occupying forces and attack some of the military targets. But above all they had to kill their own people who collaborated with the enemy.

As Fall notes, insurgents also intimidate government forces (especially police and local government officials) in order to force them into defensive actions that alienate the population or to deter them from taking active measures against the insurgents. Likewise, AQ and its allies have mounted terrorist attacks with the intention of intimidating Western countries and forcing them to cease their support of U.S.-led interventions in Iraq (such as the Madrid bombings of 2004, and the kidnapping of Filipino contractors in the same year, which successfully knocked Spain and the Philippines out of the coalition).


Insurgents seek to prolong the conflict in order to exhaust their opponents’ resources, erode the government’s political will, sap public support for the conflict, and avoid losses. Typically, insurgents react to government countermeasures by going quiet (reducing activity and hiding in inaccessible terrain or within sympathetic or intimidated population groups) when pressure becomes too severe. They then emerge later to fight on.

This is one reason why an enemy-centric approach to counterinsurgency is often counterproductive: it tends to alienate and harm the innocent population, who become caught up in the fighting or suffer “collateral” damage, but does little harm to the enemy, who simply melt away when pressure becomes too great.


Finally, exhaustion is an insurgent tactic that seeks to impose costs on the opponent government, overstress its support system, tire its troops, and waste lives, resources, and political capital, in order to convince the government that continuing the war is not worth the cost… In Iraq, the insurgents ambush and attack convoys and aircraft so that each vehicle has to be retrofitted with expensive protective equipment — armor that alienates our forces from the population — and electronic countermeasures, so that every activity takes much longer and costs much more effort, while carrying greater risk of death or injury.

This imposes what Clausewitz called “friction” on a counterinsurgent force, and ultimately causes the government and the domestic population to cease supporting the war. As noted, an exhaustion strategy of this type is precisely the approach AQ adopted and bin Laden outlined in 2004.

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