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The Future of Al Qaeda & the Global Jihadi-Salafi Movement: Inside the Mind of Al Qaeda's Strategist

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

By Broderick McDonald

30 Sept 2023

Sayf Al-Adel (Al Qaeda) CTC West Point

Photo Credit: Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point (2021)

Earlier this month, Al Qaeda released an important new book on Jihadist Strategy which marks a major shift in the strategic and tactical thought of the terrorist group. The author, Sayf Al-Adel, is the most effective Jihadist strategist alive today, and likely the next leader of Al Qaeda. Published on 11 September 2023, the release of the book on encrypted social media platforms was intended to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks which Sayf Al-Adel helped plan alongside Osama bin Laden. This article explores the shift in strategic thought covered by the new book and its implications for international security more broadly.

Sayf Al-Adel (legal name Muhammad Salah al-Din Zaydan) is an Egyptian born jihadist widely considered to be one of the most formidable strategists and operatives within Al-Qaeda and the broader Global Jihadist Movement.[1] The US State Department's offer of a 10 million USD reward for assistance in Al-Adel's capture is indicative of the threat posed, but so far he remains at large. Few photos of Al-Adel exist but western officials have closely followed the veteran jihadist’s movements over the past two decades, much of which he spent in Iran (though he may have crossed the border back into Afghanistan within the past year). While Al Qaeda has not confirmed the name of its new leader after the death of Aymen al-Zawahiri, most analysts and intelligence agencies point to Sayf Al-Adel as the most likely successor and third emir of Al Qaeda.[2] Viewing itself as the elite vanguard of the Global Jihadist Movement, Al Qaeda maintains more operational opacity than its more ostentatious rival ISIS which continues to lose its public leaders with increasing frequency. As such, Al Qaeda’s strategic ambiguity about its leadership may be prudent planning on the part of the group. Unlike his predecessor al-Zawahiri who focussed on doctrinal issues and criticised by fellow jihadists for being hesitant and overly slow to act — Sayf Al-Adel is a strategist who is deeply committed to action. However, Al-Adel is not known to be reckless, and his adherence to developing a Jihadist grand strategy over the past three decades suggests a calculated and rational actor.

His new book was written between 2017 and 2022, a period of significant change and upheaval for the Global Jihadist Movement. During this time, Salafi-Jihadism has become more localized, and regional affiliates in Mali, Afghanistan, and Syria have often taken on more importance than the central organizations of Al Qaeda and ISIL. The central leadership of Al Qaeda has also languished during this time under the tenure of al-Zawahiri, even as Al Qaeda affiliates in the Sahel such as JNIM have surged and established self-governing territories. As such, Al Qaeda central is at a tenuous juncture and the future of the organization is uncertain. With Sayf Al-Adel (a kunya meaning Sword of Justice) at the helm, or in a senior leadership position, we should prepare for a new strategy from Al Qaeda, and expect the organization's next phase to be more active and dangerous.

The 381-page Arabic-language book is entitled Free Reading of 33 Strategies of War, a reference to The 33 Strategies of War, a controversial 2006 book by the American author Robert Greene. As Haid Haid has pointed out “al-Adl admires Greene's insights while openly criticising elements that clash with al-Qaeda's principles”.[3] This partial integration of a work by an author who is viewed as an enemy by Al Qaeda is surprising but perhaps not unprecedented. Speculation has long existed that the name of the organization, Al Qaeda (Arabic for The Foundation) was inspired by the American author Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which portrays a small ideological vanguard provoking vastly larger empire with a spectacular attack to spur an over-reaction, ultimately resulting in the empire’s collapse. While evidence for this is limited, Sayf Al-Adel makes clear that there are benefits to studying and drawing inspiration from western authors on strategy. However, it is telling that Al-Adel choose Greene’s book for inspiration rather than Clausewitz’ On War or other more established works from western authors.

Structurally, Sayf Al-Adel’s book is organized into five chapters, covering “a broad spectrum of strategic subjects, from developing leadership skills and promoting team dynamics to exploring guerrilla warfare techniques and the nuances of psychological warfare”.[4] Conceptually, it represents a significant shift in thinking for the group at a time of significant flux. One of the most important strategic discussions concerns Al-Adel’s admonishment against the use of indiscriminate violence and civilian targeting. He offers both strategic and ideological reasons for abandoning civilian targeting as these attacks both violate Al Qaeda’s claimed religious principles and alienate the organization as they generate significant levels of civilian anger and distrust. Al-Adel goes on to argue that “"If we target the general public, how can we expect their people to accept our call”? For Al-Adel, attacks should be concentrated on military and government targets, not everyday citizens. This call for greater caution in targeting and selective violence represents an important shift in the broader Global Jihadist Movement that has been observed in other contexts, including Syria and Afghanistan, and the Sahel.

Sayf Al-Adel’s strategy is markedly different from the policy of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). By contrast, Zarqawi’s strategy encouraged the use of indiscriminate violence and civilian targeting in an effort to spark wide-spread sectarian conflict and force everyday Sunni Arabs to seek protection from AQI. However, Zarqawi’s strategy never unfolded as he intended. While at first it appeared to spark sectarian tensions, the strategy soon backfired as civilian anger grew over the thousands of innocent civilians who lost their lives during an influx of sectarian conflict in Iraq that peaked from 2006 to 2007. Zarqawi later broke away from Al Qaeda’s central leadership after Zawahiri eventually reprimanded him for his sectarian attacks but later iterations of the strategy continue to be used by ISIS and its affiliates. The deep anger and damage caused by the sectarian strategy often adopted by Jihadist rebels has haunted the broader movement ever since Zarqawi. In his new book, Al-Adel makes clear that the approach is both morally reprehensible and strategically misguided.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Al-Adel also sharply criticizes those former Al Qaeda affiliates who have left the organization or branched out on their own, including the Islamic State (ISIS) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The leaders of both ISIS (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and later Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) and HTS (Abu Mohammad al-Golani) cut off ties with Al Qaeda over ideological and strategical disagreements in the past. However according to Al Adel, it was Al Qaeda which should be more pro-active and discipled in divorcing itself from affiliates who do not fit with Al Qaeda’s strategy or ideology going forward.

The Sahel and West Africa is the new global locus of jihadism, and it is noteworthy that the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) which has operated in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Côte d'Ivoire has adopted some of the strategies Al-Adel discusses. In particular, JNIM has worked integrated many Fulani fighters and grievances into its operation and taken up issues affecting civilians as it seeks to win hearts and minds. While it is too early to say if this will be possible given the extreme and outside nature of such groups, JNIM has made major advances in Mali & Burkina Faso recently that look unlikely to be reversed amidt ongoing coups and political vacuums in the region. Salafi-Jihadists are often too weak to compete and win against countries with strong state institutions, but the ongoing political vacuum in the Sahel has opened significant opportunities for jihadist rebels. However the costs of being affiliated with Al Qaeda or ISIS are significant for regional jihadist rebels as it drawns both the attention and action of the international community. As JNIM continues to expand in the Sahel, it may eventually be forced to follow the example of HTS in Syria which found that the benefits of affiliation with Al Qaeda did not outweigh the costs. Should this happen, Al-Adel’s doctrine would suggest that Al Qaeda’s central leadership should act first.

More broadly, Al-Adel argues Al Qaeda must focus on being unpredictable in the future, creating persistent violence which terrorizes and weakens the ‘far enemy’ (western governments) and the ‘near enemy’ (governments in the Middle East and North Africa which support US policies, and those regimes which oppress their citizens). Additionally, Al-Adel focusses heavily on leadership and the characteristics (humility, respect, loyalty, and openness to feedback from rank-and-file soldiers) which a good leader must possess. This discussion of leadership takes on greater importance if reports of Al-Adel succeeding Zawahiri as the leader of Al Qaeda are borne out.

Broderick McDonald is an Associate Fellow at Kings College London's International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and a postgraduate researcher at the University of Oxford


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