Wolves at the door?

Why al-Qaeda's strategy to inspire an insurgency by individual Muslims from within the heart of the west will not succeed

Families at Fort Hood memorial service
Family members and troops attend the memorial service honoring the victims of the shooting spree that left 13 dead and 38 wounded at the Fort Hood military base in 2009. Credit: US army


May 2010: Roshonara Choudry, 21 and from the East End of London, visits Labour MP Stephen Timms' constituency surgery where she calmly plunges a kitchen knife into Timms' stomach as he goes to shake her hand. It was, she said, revenge for voting for the war on Iraq.

July 2011: Naser Jason Abdo, 21 and an AWOL US soldier, is arrested after police are alerted that he has bought an unusual amount of ammunition with cash from 'Guns Galore' in Killeen Texas. He is charged with planning an attack on a restaurant frequented by soldiers from Fort Hood.

November 2011: Jose Pimental, 27 and a US citizen, is arrested in New York for allegedly planning attacks on police stations and service men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. He had been building crude pipe bombs in his apartment using instructions from an article in al-Qaeda's Inspire Magazine called, 'how to make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom'.

Neither Choudry, Abdo nor Pimental had official links with al-Qaeda or any other terrorist networks. Instead, their 'lone wolf' attacks had been inspired by reading radical material on the internet which promoted Osama bin Laden's rallying cry to Muslims that [because Muslim lands are occupied] "jihad is obligatory for all of us".

However, according to Dr Alia Brahimi, of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at LSE,  historically the concept of jihad was not an uprising by individual Muslims.

"The idea was for Muslim rulers in neighbouring provinces to come to the aid of their co-religionists in other parts of the empire," explains Brahimi. "The assumption was always that all jihads, including defensive ones, would be led by established Muslim leaders within pre-modern states or clearly defined communities."

Bin Laden, a layman with no religious training, justified going over the heads of the region's rulers and clerics by claiming that they had sold out the Muslim umma, or community. They had, he claimed, been co-opted or marginalised by regimes presiding over Muslim majority countries.

Dr Brahimi argues that this democratisation of Islamic authority by bin Laden is al-Qaeda's downfall. She points out that as bin Laden's jihad became global and its own authority dispersed, al-Qaeda fell prey to the tyranny of unintended consequences with al-Qaeda's victims being predominantly Muslim and civilian.

"The massacring of Muslims, from Baghdad to Baghlan, Amman to Algiers, by al-Qaeda's fanatical footmen contradicted bin Laden's stated end of protecting the umma," says Brahimi. "There are intercepted letters where he seems to be trying to stop the slaughter but he couldn't control his more reckless progeny.

"In Iraq, for example, we didn't win the battle for hearts and minds, but luckily al-Qaeda lost it. Between 2003-6 al-Qaeda owned the anti-imperialist narrative of resistance –  because of the US invasion of Iraq – and this resonated beyond the Muslim world. But come 2006, when there was an average of 60 Iraqis killed a day, mostly because of al-Qaeda and sectarian violence, al-Qaeda lost the its perceived 'high ground' and, along with it, any hope of attracting the broader support of the people."

A backlash inevitably ensued with those from within the ranks of al-Qaeda and other radicals casting doubt on bin Laden's personal authority to lead a jihad.  Even so, Brahimi argues that bin Laden was al-Qaeda's last unifying influence.

Fort Hood lowered flagTen years on from 9/11, the democratisation of authority has entered a second stage  with a new strategy which champions lone-wolf attacks by Muslims living in the west, without prior contact with al-Qaeda networks. 

This coincides with the rise of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its English- language publications such as Inspire magazine. A recent issue of Inspire, for example, includes a response to a reader enquiring how to reach the frontiers of jihad – stay where you are, they are advised, and plan an attack on an army recruitment centre or a nightclub instead.

Also associated with the AQAP was the charismatic preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a US drone attack in Yemen in September 2011. He directed his religious addresses, in fluent English, to Muslims in the West, stating in November 2010 that no fatwa or prior consultation with Islamic experts was necessary to 'fight and kill Americans'. He had had contact with Nidal Hassan the military psychiatrist who stands accused of 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted murder in the 2009 Fort Hood massacre and praised him after the attack.

But according to Brahimi the hope that al-Qaeda is attaching to this way forward – an insurgency from within the heart of the West – is thoroughly misplaced

"Al-Qaeda doesn't have that level of support anywhere, let alone in the West, she says. "And these tactics play to our strengths – intelligence, policing and law enforcement. This is the approach that we should have taken all along. It frees us from a counterproductive military strategy which helps generate aggrieved individuals ripe for radicalisation – Choudry, Abdo and Pimental all cited the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as integral to their mission and motivation. "

This article is based on a talk given to the British Academy by Dr Alia Brahimi in September 2011.

Article posted January 2012


Useful links

For full details of Dr Alia Brahimi's research and publications see her profile on the LSE experts directory: Alia Brahimi |

The 'changing' face of al-Qaeda|, an opinion piece by Dr Brahimi that first appeared on Al Jazeera's website

'Crushed in the Shadows: Why Al Qaeda will lose the war of ideas',| academic article from, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism [subscription needed]

Jihad and Just War in the War on Terror|, book by Dr Brahimi published by Oxford University Press