2016-06-30
William McCants, a fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, received a phone call last year from a colleague with an interesting request. Princeton University Professor Michael Duran, now head of Middle Eastern Affairs for the National Security Agency, had discovered online what seemed to be an important book on Jihadi intelligence and management techniques written by someone high up in Al-Qaeda.

Duran turned to McCants and his exceptional Arabic-language skills for help. McCants got to work. Four months later, he produced a viable English version of  “The Management of Savagery,” by Abu Bakr Naji (a pseudonym), a chilling, sophisticated book detailing Western-inspiried strategies that would help Al-Qaeda to bring down the United States. Beliefnet’s Islam editor Dilshad D. Ali spoke with McCants about the book.



How did you and Michael Duran know which manuals and articles found online are genuine jihadi works?

With this one it was easy to tell because many parts of it were published serially in a magazine called Sawt al-Jihad, “The Voice of Jihad,” which is an official Al-Qaeda magazine. This magazine had been published out of Saudi Arabia. And so, we knew that this book definitely has the seal of approval of Al-Qaeda.


Tell me about the book. What are some of the major things you learned?

It really struck me how informed the jihadis are about U.S. policy, about Western political science, and military tactics. Naji draws on those sources heavily to frame his argument.

And this piece, which is in the genre that jihadis call strategic studies, is very secular in orientation and argument. The author is not trying to justify the tactics he recommends through religious arguments. He’s speaking to the choir. He draws heavily on Western sources. For example, he quotes Paul Kennedy with regard to imperial overreach and the notion that a superpower can be hurt if it overextends itself militarily and economically--like the Soviet Union. He uses that as his jumping-off point for his discussion on how best to take down the United States.

What does Naji say are the best ways to destroy the United States?

His grand strategy is that in the past, the jihadis have tried to overthrow their local governments, and they haven’t had much success. And the primary reason for this, Naji argues, is that the local governments are propped up by a superpower. And so, even if they throw all their energy into taking it down, they won’t have any ultimate success because the superpower will always be there to prop it up.

What you need to do is to remove the superpower’s influence from the region. Naji doesn’t have any delusions as to the relative strength of the jihadis versus the United States, but he does believe that you can make the United States withdraw its influence. And the model he points to is the Soviet Union and Afghanistan.

Naji advises provoking the superpower into invading the region directly, and this does several things for the jihadi movement. It’s a major propaganda victory for the jihadis because by attacking the superpower directly, they’re seen as standing up to the crusader. But when they attack the local government, they’re seen as fighting other Muslims, which is a major public-relations problem for them. By forcing the United States to come in directly, they can be seen as standing up to the great worldwide oppressor.

The second thing this tactic does is, if you can bog the United.States down in the region, it will remove its aura of invincibility that Naji says is supported by the media. And he says once you’ve dispelled this aura of invincibility, then you can persuade more and more people to join your cause and to agitate against local governments. And these local governments, if they’re allied with the superpower, will be put under a lot of pressure.

And then finally, what you can achieve with the superpower invading directly is that they will be overextended militarily and economically the longer that they stay. And that, eventually, will cause a lot of social divisions at home, and the superpower will have to withdraw its forces. Its influence will be greatly diminished in the region. Iraq is the best example of this.

Most of this book is focused on the media. How does Naji say the media should be used?

Naji is focused on media and how media can create reality, and an aura of invincibility for superpowers. He urges the jihadis to make better use of the media to argue for their own causes, to justify their attacks, and to gain more followers for the movement.

Naji points specifically to failings in Egypt during the 1990s, when jihadi groups were attacking the tourist industry. He writes that this was a catastrophe for the movement because the jihadis didn’t do a good job of justifying their attacks, and people saw this as unwarranted attacks on national wealth. It greatly diminished the appeal of the jihadis as an opposition movement to the Egyptian government. And Ayman al-Zawahiri [another high-ranking Al-Qaeda member] talks about the same sort of things in several of his books.

What did the book say would be the right way to engage the media?

Much of Naji’s writing is geared toward the Middle Eastern audience rather than justifying what the jihadis are doing to the wider world. He puts a lot of emphasis on telling the truth, which I suppose may be a fairly simple thing to urge. He says that the people are very disillusioned with the kind of information that comes out of government-run presses, and they’re not impressed by the United States or its media efforts since September 11th.

And so, he greatly urges the jihadis to tell the truth and also to get their statements out rapidly and not allow others to frame their attacks in ways that are damaging to the jihadi movement. Naji also tells them they can’t do things that will harm the movement and are difficult to spin. For example, attacking fellow Muslims is a big no-no for him--not on theological grounds, but on pragmatic grounds. So going after Shi’as would be a very bad idea.


So then Naji would disapprove the current sectarian violence in Iraq. He would advise against this violence?

Exactly. And again, it’s on pragmatic grounds. He’s no fan of the Shi’as, but he said these kind of sectarian differences need to be tabled until they’ve established an Islamic state. And you saw Zawahiri say the same sort of things to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in his letter. It’s a measure of Al-Qaeda’s desperation in Iraq, that Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri are willing to sanction sectarian violence against the Shi’as, whereas formerly they had discouraged it.

[The Iraqi sectarian violence] also goes against what Zawahiri had said formerly. I think Naji is of the same generation as Zawahiri. They both saw the damage caused by Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Algeria or in Egypt, and they strongly urge the next generation to avoid it. It’s a measure of how marginalized Al-Qaeda and Iraq have become, that “the high command”--as Naji calls the Al-Qaeda leadership--is now willing to sanction that kind of violence.

How influential is this book in the jihadi movement and the Al-Qaeda network?

It’s hard to measure influence with this kind of stuff. Naji is cited sometimes on jihadi forums, but it’s hard to tell even the extent of how influential those forums are. You don’t know if these are real foot soldiers in the movement. Perhaps another way to view Naji is as a highly placed insider who has watched the movement for decades. He is a direct participant who wrote a strategy piece that has the seal of approval of Al-Qaeda.

His discouragement of sectarian violence is representative of the thinking of the old Al-Qaeda high command. And the fact that Al-Qaeda is no longer willing to follow that line is a measure of how bad things have gone for them in Iraq. Zarqawi has squandered whatever propaganda capital Al-Qaeda had generated after the 9/11 attacks.

If you look at the polling among Middle Easterners that was done since 9/11 about bin Laden, opinion of him was pretty high in certain countries. But over time it has deteriorated. And that’s not because of anything the United States did--it’s in spite of what the United States did in invading Iraq.

This is because of the beheadings, and because of some other tactics Zarqawi had used. In the past, the two last bastions of support for bin Laden had been Pakistan and Jordan. After the attacks in Jordan on the hotels [in November 2005], the favorable opinion of Al-Qaeda and bin Laden there has gone way down.

Was it worth it to spend four months on this translation?

The translation is useful, because it helped to eliminate a number of things for me or put them in the proper context. For example, I didn’t really put Al-Qaeda’s push to move into security vacuums in the proper framework until I read this book. Much of Naji’s book is about how to move into a security vacuum--whether it be an unpoliced city or an unpoliced region--and then establish a rudimentary government. Then [the goal is to] move from that point to the establishment of an Islamic state.

This is what you’re seeing today in Somalia; Mogadishu has come under Islamic rule there in the past few months That’s exactly out of Naji’s book. Whether [the military commanders in Somalia] are reading Naji or not, I have no idea. But you can see it being played out across the region.

When there’s a vacuum and then an Islamic government arises in the vacuum, how is it determined if that government is Islamist, or if it’s just an Islamic government? Western perceptions and Middle Eastern perceptions on this are very different.

It’s hard to tell. Even the jihadis themselves are very careful not to lay out criteria for that because it’s a very divisive issue. The bottom line for the jihadis for what constitutes a true Islamic government is that Islamic law has to be the only source of law. There should not be any sort of democracy. There can be sort of a general consultative body that can advise the ruler. But mainly, it would sort of be a benign dictator who would rule over the Islamic state, similar to what you see forming in Afghanistan.


People like Naji and others point to the old Taliban state in Afghanistan as the paradigm. They saw that as a real Islamic state. So, if you want to get a sense for what the jihadis are advocating, you should look at what the Taliban was implementing in the area it controlled.

What benefit does Al-Qaeda get by putting material like this book online? It offers techniques about how to bring down the United States, but if it is online, then anyone can read it.

Why show your hand? I think there are two reasons. One is that this is the kind of information that was floating around in training camps in Afghanistan. So, that’s where it would have been imparted. But since the United States rolled up those training camps after the invasion, Al-Qaeda strategists have had to go online with this kind of information to make sure that the next generation of jihadi thinkers and activists will have access to it. It’s worth the risk. They have weighed the cost and benefits, and they see that the benefits outweigh the costs.

And then the second reason, I think, is that people like Abu Bakr Naji are in competition with other strategists. And so, in order to build a following, you have to put this kind of stuff online.

What kind of a competition would Naji be in? Aren’t all jihadis after the same goal?

They are, but there’s also intellectual pride as well. And they’re each trying to build their own constituency, and the only way to do that now in an era where there are no training camps is to put you pieces online. Naji’s not giving away any big secrets. The West could guess at a number of his strategies. But with this book, he has laid out some general guidelines for fellow jihadis. And this isn’t only to help the movement but to help him.

How is this translation being used in the United States?

There’s a minor in terrorism studies at West Point. So the cadets use this translation and others to inform their own discussions about the jihadi movement. And certainly, the U.S. government is reading this book and analyzing it closely.

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