The Terrorist’s Dilemma; Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy

In This Review

The Terrorist's Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations
by Jacob N. Shapiro
Princeton University Press, 2013
352 pp. $29.95
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Decoding Al-Qaeda's Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America
by Michael W. S. Ryan
Columbia University Press, 2013
368 pp. $37.50
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If terrorists want to achieve their political ends, they need a strategy, as well as an organizational structure, that allows them to use their limited resources most effectively and maximize their impact. In this, they are no different from other political entities, except that their resources tend to be as meager as their ambitions are huge. Their organizational challenges are aggravated further by the need to remain covert.

In a unique study, Shapiro explores the management of such groups with considerable rigor, beginning with the nineteenth-century Russian progenitors of contemporary terrorist groups and ending with al Qaeda. Some of the groups he examines, such as the Palestinian organization Fatah and the Provisional Irish Republican Army, were substantial operations, and their size made it more difficult to retain cohesion among their distinct factions, especially when opportunities arose to move into more mainstream political activity. When Shapiro turns to smaller and supposedly more fanatical groups, it is strangely comforting to find their leaders struggling with dodgy expense claims and insubordinate hotheads and to see how bolder members feel weighed down by bureaucratic demands and slow decision-making. By analyzing the internal travails of such groups, Shapiro exposes some of their vulnerabilities: for example, the way their leaders, in trying to keep tabs on followers, inadvertently leave clues for intelligence agencies.

Ryan reinforces Shapiro’s underlying point about the calculating nature of terrorist groups with a forensic history al Qaeda’s strategic development. Ryan scrutinizes a number of important Salafi texts in which theorists allied with al Qaeda explain the radical nature of their objectives and methods. The most important observation is that they do not, as many might suppose, depend largely on inspiration from established currents in Islamist thinking; instead, they draw on some of the classic works on guerrilla warfare, including those by Clausewitz, Mao Zedong, and the North Vietnamese leader Vo Nguyen Giap. One important al Qaeda strategist, Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi, about whom little is known, appears to be extremely well read in Western military studies, including relatively recent works on “fourth-generation warfare,” which is marked to a degree by the rise of violent nonstate groups.