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Al-Qa’ida’s Doctrine for Insurgency: ’Abd al-’Aziz al-Muqrin’s A Practical Course for Guerrilla War

Al-Qa’ida’s Doctrine for Insurgency: ’Abd al-’Aziz al-Muqrin’s A Practical Course for Guerrilla War by ’Abd al-’Aziz al-Muqrin, translated and analyzed by Norman Cigar. Potomac Books, 2008, 210 pp.

In Al-Qa’ida’s Doctrine for Insurgency, Norman Cigar delivers a tour de force in terms of terrorist/insurgent training and doctrine by translating a major piece of terrorist thought from ’Abd al-’Aziz al-Muqrin, one of the founding members of Saudi Arabia’s al-Qaeda network. This book offers a fascinating look inside the mind of an insurgent intellectual who had 15 years of practical experience throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Much of this work could easily apply to any terrorist group in the world, regardless of ideological makeup.

After al-Muqrin’s death at the hands of Saudi security forces in June 2004, al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (QAP) declared him a martyr, posted many of his teachings online, and published A Practical Course for Guerrilla War, a collection of al-Muqrin’s writings. The collection appeared after QAP members voted on the specific presentation of his works (p. 88).

Before addressing A Practical Course for Guerrilla War itself, Cigar highlights al-Muqrin’s analytical insights as well as his life and works. A research fellow at the Marine Corps University with extensive experience as a political-military analyst, Cigar offers a good but rather lengthy overview of his subject. (Many of his comments, though helpful, are more appropriate for footnotes, which would have left additional room to expound upon al-Muqrin.)

In A Practical Course for Guerrilla War, a comprehensive approach to asymmetrical warfare within the radical Islamic framework, al-Muqrin presents his real-life experiences—from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia—in a classically structured guerrilla warfare doctrine. He defines concepts such as conventional and unconventional war prior to laying out the basic structures and operations of a “good” terrorist/insurgent organization. Dealing with leadership, logistics, and training, this “practical course” stresses the importance of propaganda and psychological warfare, making a number of recommendations. Al-Muqrin offers a relatively objective, straightforward, and intellectual description of guerrilla warfare in the Middle East, despite the occasional outburst at Jews and Christians (see, for example, his ranking of occupations and countries for destruction, pp. 127–31).

The course concentrates on the issues and locations most relevant to al-Qaeda operations, taking a step-by-step approach to the latter, from carrying out assassinations and taking hostages to conducting attacks on motorcades and making dead drops. The discussion includes gathering intelligence, preparing for attack, selecting personnel, executing with quick, deadly precision, and withdrawing afterward. Throughout, the treatise stresses the long-term, unconventional nature of jihad and the need to survive to fight another day (the course makes no mention of suicide attacks), covering such details as types of operational cell structure and size along with the characteristics of personnel and job functions for a typical organization.

Interestingly, al-Muqrin appears to have had an inordinate fear of opposition security forces, reflected in his suggestion that each operational cell have an assault team of two to four people, quite a small number. Although he does mention combining teams, this solution seems ad hoc and fails to address the matter of training and preparing teams for large-scale attack. Al-Muqrin seems to relegate his operation to minor attacks that have little impact, all out of fear that the enemy’s security forces could decimate his personnel. Indeed, terrorist/insurgent organizations frequently debate over the amount of separation among cells that is necessary to avoid complete annihilation of the organization brought about by information extracted from a captured member. To confirm the minimal impact of these small operations, one need only look to Saudi Arabia, where Saudi security forces took out al-Muqrin and many top QAP operatives between 2003 and 2004, soon after establishment of their Arabian network.

Cigar acknowledges the existence of many articles, videos, and manuals based upon al-Muqrin’s ideas—items either not included or given short shrift in this text. For example, readers find little if anything about terrorist activities in rural and nonmountainous areas, weapons of mass destruction, plans affecting the United States and other Western countries, financing, recruiting, specific training and development beyond a few types of attacks, and operations against critical Arab infrastructure such as oil fields and refineries. Granted, the QAP simply may have withheld some items or heavily edited the ones that appear in the text. Nevertheless, the inclusion of more of al-Muqrin’s works or those inspired by him would have provided a fuller picture of terrorist doctrine.

In sum, Al-Qa’ida’s Doctrine for Insurgency is a must-read for policy makers, military personnel, academics, and the general public—for anyone interested in terrorism, especially the version practiced by al-Qaeda. Because many of al-Muqrin’s precepts and standard operating procedures apply to any terrorist/insurgent organization, understanding the intellectual underpinnings of al-Qaeda and its operational doctrine can lead to much better countermeasures against terrorism in general. Although al-Muqrin’s death in 2004 obviously put an end to the development of his thinking on terrorism, resulting in the relatively unsophisticated treatise presented in this book, enough remains to give terrorists/insurgents something to build upon if they obtain the necessary experience, intelligence, and proficiency. However, the incomplete nature of texts such as this one perhaps played a role in leaving terrorists vulnerable to their enemies—witness the ignominious end of al-Muqrin and other prominent QAP leaders such as Osama bin Laden. Taking full advantage of this vulnerability represents yet another reason to read Al-Qa’ida’s Doctrine for Insurgency.

Steve Dobransky

Kent State University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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