A major function of our intelligence agencies is to shape the narrative, molding history like clay on a wheel

Summary:  Another in a series about the effectiveness of our intelligence apparatus.  Today we examine one of its greatest accomplishment, the creation of the global jihad.  Just-in-time salvation for the 21st century military/intelligence apparatus, facing the prospect of post-communist obsolescence.  Previous chapters: 

(1)  How useful are our intelligence agencies? To what degree are they blinded by prejudice and institutional needs?
(2)  About our intelligence agences: the struggle to find an accurate AND institutionally useful narrative


One of the great works about modern warfare is David Kilcullen’s “Countering Global Insurgency“, Journal of Strategic Studies, August 2005  .  While not widely known to a general audience, much of the media and internet commentary about insurgencies can be traced back to this work — foundational in building awareness of the global jihad threatening the West.

Bin Laden’s declaration announced a global war against the US and the broader Western-dominated world order. It issued a fatwa calling for jihad, indicating that bin Laden claimed religious authority (necessary to issue a fatwa) and political authority as a Muslim ruler (needed to issue a call to jihad).4 Subsequent Al Qaeda statements refer to bin Laden as the Sheikh or Emir (Prince or Commander) of the World Islamic Front, staking a claim to authority over a broad united front of Islamist militant fighters worldwide.

… Al Qaeda has cells in at least 40 countries and, though disrupted by the loss of its Afghan base in 2001, is still functioning globally.

… In essence, then, this analysis indicates that there is a global movement, but it comprises a group of aligned independent movements, not a single unified organisation, and not all Islamist terrorism or insurgency is linked to it. Global players link and exploit local players through regional affiliates – they rarely interact directly with local players, but sponsor and support them through intermediaries. Each theatre has operational players who are able to tap into the global jihad, and these tend to be regional Al Qa’eda affiliates.

… The jihad is, therefore, a global insurgency. Al Qaeda and similar groups feed on local grievances, integrate them into broader ideologies, and link disparate conflicts through globalized communications, finances and technology. In this, Al Qaeda resembles the Communist Internationale of the twentieth century – a holding company and clearing-house for world revolution. But whereas the Comintern was a state-sponsored support organization for local revolutions and insurgencies, the global jihad is itself an insurgent movement. Moreover, whereas the Comintern was sponsored by the Soviet Union, the Islamist jihad seeks to form the basis for a new supra-national state.

Thus the distinguishing feature of the jihadists is not their use of terrorism, a tactic they share with dozens of movements worldwide. Rather, it is that they represent a global insurgency, which – like other insurgent movements – uses terrorism, subversion, propaganda and open warfare.

Establishing al Qaeda as first among jihadist organizations, the only with a truly global brand name, is bin Laden’s greatest accomplishment.  Of course this required assistance.  He couldn’t have done it without our help.  Kilcullen touches on this, without reflecting on its deeper significance.

US strategy for the overall War on Terrorism remains vaguely understood. … In fact, analysis of action in the war so far indicates a de facto strategy of ‘aggregation’ – lumping together all terrorism, all rogue or failed states and all strategic competitors.

… As described, dozens of local movements, grievances and issues have been aggregated (through regional and global players) into a global jihad against the West. These regional and global players prey upon, link and exploit local actors and issues that are pre-existing. What makes the jihad so dangerous is its global nature. Without the ‘series of nested interactions’ this article has described, or the ability to aggregate dozens of conflicts into a broad movement, the global jihad ceases to exist. It becomes simply a series of disparate local conflicts that can be addressed at the regional or national level without interference from global enemies such as Al Qaeda.

Indeed, it can be argued that the essence of jihadist ‘operational art’ is the ability to aggregate numerous tactical actions, dispersed across time and space, to achieve an overall strategic effect. This was the conception behind the 9/11 attacks, the Bali bombing, the 1998 African embassy bombings, the Christmas 2000 bombings in Indonesia, and various attempted or planned attacks including the so-called ‘Operation Bojinka’ – which sought to hijack simultaneously up to a dozen airliners over the Pacific Ocean.

This is too mildly stated.   The US and its allies deserve at least half the credit for creating the global jihadist movement and establishing bin Laden at its peak.   Following 9-11 a flood of analysis by US government and military-related sources (which means most of the US community of geopolitical analysts) portrayed al Qaeda as the flagship of the global jihad.  The motive is obvious.  The US miltiary-industrial complex faced an existential threat — a reduction in its role following the fall of the global communist menace.  Future threats — such as China — were too small to justify the trillion-dollar defense and intelligence budget.  Non-military threats — such as global warming — might reduce the flow of funds.

In every cloud there is a silver lining, for somebody.

Articles about al Qaeda

  1. In Afghanistan, Taliban surpasses al-Qaeda“, Washington Post, 11 November 2009 — “Although the war in Afghanistan began as a response to al-Qaeda terrorism, there are perhaps fewer than 100 members of the group left in the country, according to a senior U.S. military intelligence official in Kabul who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The official estimated that there are 300 al-Qaeda members in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where the group is based …”
  2. Whether it’s AQ or not, nobody in Arab media cares“, Marc Lynch, blog of Foreign Policy, 27 December 2009
  3. Yemen: Opening A New ‘Front’ in the Long War Nicht Schwerpunkt as a Prescription for Defeat by a 1000 Cuts“, Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired), 30 December 2009 — Analysis from someone worth reading!
  4. Unhappy Yemen“, Tariq Ali, London Review of Books, 25 March 2010 — An answer to the seldom-mentioned detail:  many al Qaeda are in Yemen?

Other posts about al Qaeda on the FM website

  1. Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq, 29 December 2005 — Is al Qaeda like Cobra, SPECTRE, and THRUSH?
  2. Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008 — An example of madness in action.
  3. Successful info ops, but who are the targets?, 1 May 2008
  4. Was 9/11 the most effective single military operation in the history of the world?, 11 June 2008
  5. The enigma of Al Qaeda. Even in death, these unanswered questions remain important, 15 September 2008
  6. “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
  7. Read the newest Zenpundit post; one of his best!, 7 August 2009
  8. More evidence that all our enemies are al Qaeda, 14 September 2009
  9. Can we defeat our almost imaginary enemies?, 10 December 2009
  10. Are islamic extremists like the anarchists?, 14 December 2009
  11. RAND explains How Terrorist Groups End, and gives Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, 15 January 2010
  12. Stratfor’s strategic analysis – “Jihadism in 2010: The Threat Continues”, 17 March 2010
  13. Stratfor: “Jihadism: The Grassroots Paradox”, 21 March 2010

Posts about the work of David Kilcullen

  1. The Essential 4GW reading list: David Kilcullen
  2. Why we lose at 4GW:  an analysis of Kilcullen’s “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency”.
  3. What if bin Laden were smart, like Dr. No or Ernest Blofeld?  28 Articles: a guide to a successful insurgency against America
  4. America takes another step towards the “Long War“— a comparison of Kilcullen and that key figure of the Cold War, George Kennan.
  5. Stories or statistics? Read and compare to find the truth! – a discussion of Kilcullen’s “Anatomy of a Tribal Revolt”.
  6. Kilcullen explains all you need to know about the Iraq War – a discussion of Kilcullen’s “Counterinsurgency in Iraq: Theory and Practice.”
  7. Roads in Afghanistan, a new weapon to win 4GW’s? – Kilcullen talks about roads, in Rome and Afghanistan.
  8. Another “must-read” presentation by Kilcullen about COIN – Kilcullen discovers the “Darwinian ratchet.”
  9. A moment of truth about Iraq; apologies quickly follow – please forget this ASAP! — Kilcullen blurts out the truth about the Iraq War.


  • For more about this website, see the About the FM website page.
  • Send emails to fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
  • You can subscribe to receive posts by email; see the box on the upper right.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: