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  • Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America by Michael W.S. Ryan
  • Barak Mendelsohn (bio)
Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America, by Michael W.S. Ryan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. 352pages. $37.50.

A decade after the academic community was introduced to the concept of jihadi strategic studies, there is still a dearth of scholarship on the subject. Most works on al-Qa‘ida focus on telling its story, exploring its internal dynamics, assessing its success, or uncovering the stories of its leaders through biographies. Many books also explore al-Qa‘ida’s terrorist tactics, primarily suicide bombings. Yet surprisingly few works look at al-Qa‘ida’s doctrine, thus avoiding the messier task of understanding how doctrine and strategy relate to al-Qa‘ida’s political and organizational objectives. Therefore, Michael W.S. Ryan’s book, Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy, is a welcome and much needed addition. It fills an important gap in the literature with a study that is thoroughly researched and remarkably accessible to scholars, practitioners, and all people who love a good read.

Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy seeks to shed light on the revolutionary doctrine that guides al-Qa‘ida’s actions. Focusing on the works of jihadi luminaries Abu Bakr Naji, Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri, Abu ‘Ubayd al-Qurashi, and ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Muqrin, the book suggests that al-Qa‘ida’s global orientation led it to adopt a multilayered doctrine. Al-Qa‘ida’s doctrine addresses the challenges of fighting insurgency in an age of US global hegemony, steeled by advances in technology. The nature of this struggle leads al-Qa‘ida to fight in numerous locations throughout the world, using multiple types of agents (individuals, cells, and much larger groupings) and diverse instruments (terrorist methods, insurgencies), fitted to the type of challenges and opportunities presented in each location. Ryan further demonstrates how al-Qa‘ida’s strategic thinkers negotiated the need to formulate a strategy for an Islamic struggle when the main historical lessons influencing their thinking did not come from knowledge of Islamic law, but from the works of earlier revolutionaries (mostly Communists).

Thus, Ryan’s book makes unique contributions to our understanding of al-Qa‘ida. It joins the discussion about the role of ideology in al-Qa‘ida’s activities and points at vulnerabilities stemming from the group’s secular strategy that could be exploited by the US and its allies. The study also provides an innovative approach that compellingly links elements in the work of al-Qa‘ida’s strategists. This effort suggests a way to resolve what previously appeared as a contradiction between the works of these thinkers, particularly Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri’s emphasis on the leaderless jihad strategy for global engagement and Naji’s discussion of the much more centrally-directed campaign for insurgencies in Muslim countries.

Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy is a seminal work, but it leaves some questions unanswered and some issues unresolved. It is the first book to present the works of al-Qa‘ida’s strategists with a penetrating and lucid analysis that links their thinking. But this accomplishment also reveals information gaps about the way al-Qa‘ida functions. Impressively, Ryan weaves together the theorists’ thinking, but he stops short of demonstrating how the four are connected in practice. It is hardly surprising that after spending a long time in a similar milieu and thinking about the same problems, there are some similarities in the strategists’ works, but this does not tell us the extent to which al-Qa‘ida’s leadership encouraged these works, or how it utilized these works in practice. Although he provides evidence that these thinkers were widely read by jihadis in the field, and probably had an even greater impact on the strategy employed by al-Qa‘ida’s branches in the Arabian Peninsula, Ryan does not explain al-Qa‘ida actions that do not fit as well with the doctrine. Al-Qa‘ida’s organizational expansion is not explained, and neither are the activities of its franchises which in some arenas probably contradicted the doctrine (for example, in...


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pp. 334-335
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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