Al-Qa'ida is not simply the terrorist organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks; it is a violent manifestation of a social movement that rejects the current international order. A terrorist organization may be destroyed by military, intelligence, and police operations (what some call the “close battle”), but a violent social movement, however weak, cannot be defeated without an ideological “deep battle,” including a viable counternarrative to the movement’s propaganda used to recruit potential allies.[1] By deploying state-of-the-art military technology including drones and developing the ability to process “big data”—virtually all of the world’s telecommunications—in the service of counterterrorism, the United States has fought a highly effective close battle against al-Qa'ida. At the same time, it has not recognized the social movement that al-Qa'ida inspires, let alone engaged it in the deep battle of ideas.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current al-Qa'ida leader, has always claimed to belong to a transnational “jihadi movement,” a term that is only related to the classic religious term “jihad” in the sense that al-Qa'ida has used it to mask activities that most Muslims find immoral. American success in the close battle has kept Americans relatively safe at home, but U.S. failure to drain the swamp of future recruits by engaging forthrightly in the battle of ideas sets the scene for another strategic surprise, perhaps from a group other than al-Qa'ida.

Movement, Not Organization

In 2001, al-Zawahiri, in hiding and expecting to die in what he called “bad circumstances,” wrote a book that he intended to be his jihadi legacy. Titled Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, it mostly deals with the history of jihadi struggles inside Egypt, but in a brief section called “The Future of the Jihadist Movement,” al-Zawahiri lays out a succinct outline for a doctrine and new strategy that others can develop in detail.

Then, in 2002 and 2003 an influential al-Qa'ida strategist and author was a  contributor to the biweekly online al-Qa'ida magazine al-Ansar under the pseudonym Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi. The purpose of his articles was to combat what he considered a mood of defeatism among those who were the potential pool for al-Qa'ida recruitment. Even after the “success” of the 9/11 attacks, al-Qurashi recognized that most Muslims thought that the United States’ overwhelming power made a terrorist campaign against it quixotic at best and self-destructive at worst. Similarly, al-Qa'ida authors Abu Bakr Naji, Abu Musab al-Suri, and others wrote about how the weak could still defeat the strong. They drew from concepts of Mao Tse-Tung and his followers in regard to the so-called “war of the flea,” or how those thought to be weak could still defeat the strong, just as a tiny flea can destroy a powerful dog. These authors and many others developed a voluminous account of a new jihadi ideology and doctrine intended to inspire those who followed them in what they called “the long war” against the United States.

Alan Cullison, the Wall Street Journal reporter who bought al-Zawahiri’s desktop computer (containing a draft of Knights) from an Afghan jeweler in Kabul in 2001, became convinced that 9/11 occurred because of the fractious organization’s weakness, not its strength. Cullison believed that al-Qa'ida needed 9/11 to heal internal wounds caused by infighting, or at least to bring the jihadists together in a common struggle. At the same time, Cullison wrote in 2004, “As Arab resentment against the United States spreads, al-Qaeda may look less like a tightly knit terror group and more like a mass movement.”[2] This prediction appears prophetic today, as the al-Qa'ida organization of 2001, which styled itself as the jihadi vanguard, is nearly destroyed, while the jihadi organizations it spawned or inspired have spread from Pakistan through the Middle East to North Africa and the Sahel. Moreover, individual jihadists in Europe and the United States continue to carry out hopeless but tragic terror attacks in small, radicalized groups of as little as two isolated individuals.[3]

Essentially, the core al-Qa'ida leadership remained a small group that continued to influence and persuade but could no longer command. According to al-Zawahiri, the real action moved to regional affiliates. Further afield, al-Qa'ida terrorist cells carried out spectacular terrorist attacks in London and Madrid and became an abiding threat in most of Europe. Now, after Bin Laden’s death and the turbulent events of the “Arab Spring,” the adaptable al-Qa'ida is changing again. If the Arab Spring is a movement striving for dignity and a place to prosper in the global society of nations, the weakened al-Qa'ida and its allies are the backlash.

The Jihadi Movement: Next Phase

Abu Mundhir al-Shanqiti,[4] a shadowy online presence and the same man who published a fatwa justifying the killing of any U.S. ambassador shortly after the tragic assassination of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, offered some advice to fellow al-Qa'ida-type jihadists who might be returning home to Arab Spring countries after fighting in Iraq or elsewhere. He advised them to adopt new names and form new organizations that were unconnected to each other but could join up later “because we do not recognize borders.” After rejecting names such as “Salafist” or “Salafi-Jihadist” and not even considering “al-Qa'ida,” al-Shanqiti suggested that the new name should be something like “Ansar al-Shari'a” (supporters of Islamic law). He argued that such a name, having religious credentials, would be more acceptable to the local people jihadists aim to mobilize.[5] Today, in addition to Ansar al-Shari'a in Libya and Yemen, organizations with this or similar names now exist in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and the Sahel. Not all of these groups are equally dangerous and all of them are weak, even if well-armed with pilfered Libyan weapons. But they will be waiting along with other existing al-Qa'ida affiliates to receive those who will someday return from Syria as hardened fighters.

The United States cannot and the American people do not want to fight all of these widely dispersed jihadi groups. On the other hand, ignoring the movement they represent is a recipe for a dangerous situation to develop once again. Doing nothing ultimately means that al-Qa'ida wins. So, as the United States lowers the intensity of its counterterrorism operations, it is crucial to remain alert to new threats and respond with appropriately scaled military and intelligence operations when necessary. Most importantly, however, for the first time Americans must engage in the deep battle of ideas against the jihadi movement—a battle that the United States won during the Cold War when it competed with international communism. Now facing a small but dangerous opponent, the United States can still demonstrate to the vast majority of citizens in the greater Middle East the relative success of democracy in delivering dignity, jobs, and social justice to its citizens.

This counternarrative is not the same as an information war or psychological operations; it is a forthright narrative that is demonstrably true. The story will be more effective if relayed by the private sector rather than the government and is composed of at least three parts.

The first is that al-Qa'ida and those who follow its ideological project cannot win the close battle; al-Qa'ida can only destroy rather than build an economy or an acceptable system of justice. The evidence for this component of the narrative is not difficult to find in the international press and scholarly studies. Where self-styled jihadi groups have waged an insurgency they have not produced a viable state either because they overreached their capabilities and were roundly defeated, as in Saudi Arabia or Mali, or they created mayhem without any result beyond destruction, as in Somalia, Yemen, and parts of Pakistan. Most importantly, however, methodologically sound studies have demonstrated that al-Qa'ida has mainly killed other Muslims.[6]

Second, by using al-Qa'ida’s own documents and actions, scholars can show that the core of jihadi political-military strategy is secular and familiar, not based on Islam despite its propaganda to the contrary. For example, al-Qa'ida strategic authors are quick to point out that jihadi attacks and insurgencies are not a product of religious reasoning but  should be waged according to the "universal laws" of war and politics that are shared by all people. On the other hand, religious arguments are mainly featured in al-Qa'ida literature for their value as propaganda tools to recruit young men and to mobilize support from Muslim populations. The counternarrative’s objective here would not be to make an arcane theological argument; rather, it would illustrate a weakness that has worried al-Qa'ida leaders starting with bin Laden, namely that their terrorism campaigns and their bloody results are repugnant to ordinary Muslims everywhere.

Most importantly, the United States needs to emphasize what many in the greater Middle East already know: that the thriving American Muslim community is economically integrated, successful, and able to practice its religious beliefs freely and protected by law. Because the United States is a remarkably open society, al-Qa'ida propagandists have long been able to use American internal criticism to argue that our society is corrupt and unjust, rather than self-critical and self-correcting. The U.S. government cannot effectively counter these claims directly because communities in many places where al-Qa'ida operates are quick to dismiss any government's statements. However, factual international media coverage of American life, while showing that it is not perfect, can amply demonstrate how Muslims can succeed in a democratic society. There should be no concern that problems in American society will be featured on occasion; currently, the problems are amply represented, but the real, balanced story cannot be effectively told without robust international media access to everyday American life.

Clearly, these suggestions for a counternarrative are only the barest beginnings of a process that requires the best ideas and diverse points of view. Like most significant battles, the deep battle will not be won in an instant, but we must begin it.

[1] I have borrowed the concepts of the “close battle” and the “deep battle” from former CIA Director General Michael V. Hayden. These concepts are developed in detail in my forthcoming book, Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle against America (New York: Columbia University Press, August 2013).

[2] For details of this intriguing story, see Alan Cullison, “Inside Al-Qaeda’s Hard Drive,” The Atlantic, 1 September 2004,`ida-s-hard-drive/303428/.

[3] The copies of Inspire that the Tsarnaev brothers read to learn about homemade bombs also contained English translations of Abu Musab al-Suri’s excerpted writings explaining and promoting what is sometimes called “lone wolf” or “homegrown” jihad.

[4] In Arabic, al-Shanqiti (likely a pseudonym) indicates someone from Mauritania.

[5] See Abu Mundhir al-Shanqiti, “We Are Ansar al-Shari'ah” (in Arabic),, n.d.

[6] For example see Yasin Musharbush, "Al-Qaida Kills Eight Times More Muslims Than Non-Muslims," Spiegel Online International, 3 December 2009. Musharbush based his analysis on The Combating Terrorism (CTC) study, "Deadly Vanguards: A Study of Al-Qa‘ida's Violence Against Muslims," December 2009.