As radical Islamic groups continue to pursue the imposition of their ideologies and grab for power around the Middle East and North Africa, a prominent al-Qaeda ideologue has called on groups working within the framework of the infamous radical group to adopt a new strategy to infiltrate legitimate regimes in the region and build their influence and power from within. The logic is that this approach will allow them to better establish a lasting presence and implement their vision. Abdullah bin Mohammed has written several articles on al-Qaeda's strategies and conducted research on jihad in the region. Among his works is “Strategic Diaries,” available online, and “The Strategy of the Regional War in Syria.” His Twitter account, “Strategic Affairs,” has attracted some 242,000 followers.
Mohammed, an al-Qaeda member, is the ideologue representing a new path for the movement, not just a different current. Marwan Chehadeh, an expert on islamists groups, told Al-Monitor, “Mohammed is an expert on security and military affairs. I believe he’s from the Arabian Peninsula and introduced some new concepts, including political guerrilla wars. Mohammed calls for changing thinking about ruling in Islam. He is against jihadi emirates.”
Mohammed believes the outcome of the jihadi effort of the last three decades justifies a change in strategy. In his article “Political Guerrilla Wars,” he wrote, “The jihadi group’s main problem isn’t finding a way to fight the international system, as al-Qaeda provided an answer to this issue. The main problem is how to be able to rule under such a system. This needs political guerrilla war.” He clarified his thinking, stating, “The military calculations proved to us that an open confrontation with a strong enemy like the US is military suicide. Therefore we had to go a different way in military confrontation, and in politics an open confrontation like declaring a state is also political suicide, as the West has the power to weaken us, pressure our societies and at the end uproot us as they did in Afghanistan and Iraq. Therefore, we have to build a new strategy that can enhance our resilience.”
Mohammed cited the al-Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group as an example, explaining that it was able to build solid alliances with other Islamic and revolutionary groups and was flexible toward the outside world. “They issued a fatwa that allowed them to participate in the democratic regime after they demanded that Sharia be a main source of legislation. Next they will start working on building their Islamic regime,” he said, also using images to denounce the tendency of some groups toward beheadings, which he said gives the West a pretext to intervene militarily.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Mohammed stated, “I discussed the idea [of a new strategy] with some jihadi leaders a year ago and had a positive interaction.” He added, “As a jihadi current, we have two examples: either we continue along the path of al-Qaeda, without entering political life, or the path of [Islamic State, or IS], which declared a state and started open war on everyone. The first succeeded during the Arab Spring and then failed due to the counterrevolutions, which proved the need to take up arms, while [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi’s [IS] gained ground after the counterrevolutions, but is now losing ground, after deciding to fight all parties together. I’m suggesting a flexible strategy that can help us live within the given environment and with new challenges. I wrote the piece ['Political Guerrilla War'] and other ones to promote this idea among jihadi supporters to prepare them to accept a solution in this regard in Syria and Yemen.”
When Mohammed published his new vision on the Internet, it elicited several replies from prominent jihadi personalities, including Jabhat al-Nusra’s second-in-command, Abu Mariah al-Qahtani, who welcomed the idea, praising its importance. Qahtani wrote, “Those who understand the current situation are going to value this approach. It needs to be set within a Sharia framework to enhance it.” Another supporting voice came from Abu Mohammed al-Sadek, the mufti of Ahrar al-Sham, who wrote, “If jihadi groups failed in managing the jihad to attain their goals and adapt to changes and use these changes in whatever way possible, then they are going to stay imprisoned in a circle of failure.”
The famous Jordanian-Palestinian jihadist Abu Qatada, however, expressed skepticism. “The act of jihad is what can help us reach our goals and defeat the circles of apostasy,” he asserted. Abu Qatada agreed, however, that there is a need to stop publishing pictures and footage of beheadings, but said it is difficult to build alliances with Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. “The jihadi movement agreed previously to make an alliance with the Taliban, who are not Salafists, so why not with the Muslim Brotherhood? It’s because of them, not the jihadi movements.”
Characterizing the reactions he received, Mohammed told Al-Monitor, “It was encouraging. There were several debates and responses. The crisis al-Qaeda is facing isn’t in recruitment, because the chaos in the region is increasing the number of volunteers. The problem is in the management of the [group's] presence.” Mohammed said of relevant criticism, “Those who rejected [my thesis] doubted its strategic usefulness. There were no solid dismissals.”
Mohammed explained the purpose and use of his writing, stating, “I’m interested in jihad and make sure not to appear like I am writing for al-Qaeda. This might lead to my prosecution in my country.” He added, “I wrote several pieces and research that were used by jihadi groups as references for student guides for preparing warriors. I also wrote, the ‘War of Minds,’ and this is being taught to the mujahedeen in Syria.”
It is believed that Mohammed’s strategy of political guerrilla war has made its way to being adopted by some of al-Qaeda’s affiliated groups, primarily in Syria. Reports have suggested that the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra, might be moving toward a rebranding phase as a result of pressure exerted by allies in the region that want to legitimize the group so it can play a role in Syria's future. The idea to create the Army of Conquest (Jaish al-Fatah), with all the Islamist groups fighting under one banner legitimized by regional and international backers, might well have been influenced by Mohammed's theory.