Al Quaida, a Learning Organisation?

Spiegel Online claims to be in possession of a 42-page arabic language document that, according to the magazine’s author, Yassin Musharbash, suggests not only that Al Quaida had strategically targeted Madrid just before the elections, but, moreover, that the organisation’s intellectual and thus strategic capacities seem to have risen significantly. According to Musharbash’s article (in German), international experts who analysed the document – which was allegedly found on the internet by a Norwegian defense research agency in December 2003 – assume it to be authentic.



The article claims that the document bears witness of a new strategic sobriety within Al Quaida, as it renounces to many of the religious references of previous terror-guides. Accordingly, the paper has allegedly been signed by a “Service Center for Mujahedin” and not, as was apparently customary, by a “Coalition against Jews and Crusaders”.


With respect to the Madrid bombings, Mr Musharbash explains that the document suggests the terror consultants had singled out Spain as first brick in a domino chain after a detailed analysis of Spanish domestic policy, particularly the tension between the Aznar-led government and a large part of the population with respect to the country’s Iraq policy. The article quotes from page 33 of the document (my retranslation from German) –


“We believe that the Spanish government will not be able to bear more than two, maximal three strikes until popular pressure will lead to a troop withdrawal from Iraq. If Spanish forces were to remain in Iraq despite these attacks, a victory for the Socialist party would be almost certain and a troop withdrawal would be on the electoral agenda.”

And With Spain on retreat, other countries might follow. Poland and Italy are the next bricks to fall, according to the terror guide (see Scott’s post below).


It’s evidently impossible to tell if the document is really authentic or not. The timing of its public appearance certainly adds to the ambiguity. But even assuming that it were authentic – the indication that terrorists are more aware of their limitations and the need to use their “assets” strategically, more “rationally”, does not in itself help to answer the question whether they are stronger or weaker now than before.


So let’s hope it is a sign of weakness.

38 thoughts on “Al Quaida, a Learning Organisation?

  1. Interesting.

    But it raises more questions:

    Did their strategic analysis extend beyond Spain for this one bombing ?
    Have they done a similar analysis for the U.K.?
    …or Pakistan ?

    On the other issue: Are we prepared to deal with a legitimated Al Qaeda ?

  2. Well, the article is quite long in the original, so I did not quote everything. Moreover, it doesn’t quote on much more than Spain. With respect to the UK it says –

    “The only factor that could move Great Britain to withdraw troops would be massive public pressure. As opposed to Spain or Italy, the authors of the paper do not believe that Britain would cave after a few attacks by the Mujahedin or or two or three terrorist attacks.”

    (rough translation)

  3. Bernard: those were excellent links. I found the Policy Review article especially illuminating. Thanks.

  4. RSN,

    Keep in mind that they have very different views of what it is we’re dealing with. The STRATFOR letter essentially sees AQ in the same light as Tobias’ post, that is, as a rational actor pursuing its goals through what the second article calls “Clausewitzian” war. The policy implications of each view are very different, I think, and they would each put the recent events in Spain in a very different context.

    Bernard Guerrero

  5. Bernard: agreed.

    One factor which continues to be missed by most commentators, especially in Europe, is that the invasion of Iraq is integral to the neocon approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Islamofascist states and Europeans keep insisting that that is the first problem the US should be concentrating on. Neocons, however, are quite ready to make that the last priority.

    There was a growing sense during the late nineties, and especially after Arafat walked out of the 2000 Wye accords, that the conflict should be relegated to the back-burner. Arab inflexibility with an Israeli Labor PM was seen as an indication that they never intended to follow through with Oslo towards a lasting peace accord. Moreover, the conflict was seen as an excuse to forestall necessary reforms within the Arab World; Arab media, after all, directed the frustrations of the Arab World on Israel and away from their own states. After 9/11, the Iraqi invasion was seen as a necessary first step in solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue: the problem was not Israel, according to the neocons, but the fact that the Arab states surrounding Israel were not democratic. Therefore, the first step would be to bring democracy to the Arab world…

    And it seems to be working. The Palestinians are increasingly marginalized, as the eyes of the Arab World are on Iraq. It remains to be seen how all of this will pan out, but one thing is quite certain: the neocon strategy remains one of the boldest, most radical foreign policy initiatives America has ever undertaken.

  6. If this is true, we should follow the same strategy: annihilate the whole movement rationally and doggedly. Frankly, I am getting sick of the blame game everyone in the West seems to be playing because of the intervention in Iraq. So, can we please agree to disagree on that issue and work together on keeping our societies relatively free and open? And can we stop using terrorist attacks for rhetoric and short-sighted political gain? I’ll grant AQ and company one victory: they exposed our internecine squabbling.

  7. Grist for the mill. Such evidence goes to show that we barely understand this enemy, while they seem to understand us all too well.

  8. Good insight, Niall. I wonder how many have seen that photo pic of Rumsfeld warmly shaking Saddam’s hand in 1984: http://www.thepatriotsact.org/welcome.htm

    That was mid way in the Iraq-Iran war (1980-88) when both sides were using chemical weapons.

    Of course, that wasn’t a problem then.

  9. Bob,

    ‘Course not. We didn’t particularly like either regime, and they were happy to kill each other with wild abandon. Why not take advantage?

    You seem to be under a misapprehension. The problem isn’t that a regime might have WMD of any sort. Loads already do, not least of which are the Chinese, Israelis, Russians, etc. The problem is that there might be one out there with the means and willingness to use them on _us_.[FN1]

    Welcome to the real world, I say to thee.

    Condescendingly,
    Bernard Guerrero

    [FN1] The precise definition of “us” will vary from reader to reader, but the basic formulation is remarkably consistent across the board

  10. Guerrero: When a regime does not have WMD but is more than willing to use any it would have liked to have, does that count too?
    *We are still waiting for your invasion of North-Korea, BTW. Please hurry up.

    *the appeasing cheese munching surrender monkeys

  11. Snarky,

    “When a regime does not have WMD but is more than willing to use any it would have liked to have, does that count too?”

    Depends. What’s their future cash-flow look like? :^)

    “We are still waiting for your invasion of North-Korea, BTW. Please hurry up.”

    Speaking of future cash-flow, why hurry? NK may have a bomb now, but for how long? I understand that the upkeep is worse than on an 80’s vintage Jaguar.

    Bernard Guerrero

  12. I don’t think this paper is a sign which points toward weakness or strength. What it points to is the potential for Al Qaeda to vastly increase its effectiveness. I’m a bit worried about the implications of that.

  13. Bernard,

    “The problem is that there might be one out there with the means and willingness to use them on us”

    But Iraq didn’t have any WMD by the mid 1990s, at least according to the weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and David Kay.

    I would have thought there was and is far more to worry about the free lance distribution of nuclear weapons know-how to Iran and N Korea by Dr Khan, who got the credit for making Pakistan’s A-bomb: http://www.guardian.co.uk/pakistan/Story/0,2763,1141781,00.html

    And if we are talking about credible, present threats, North Korea must be close to the top of any serious list:

    “North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted that his country’s agents had abducted several Japanese citizens, answering long-held requests from Japan for information on the missing people. Pyongyang officials said eight of these citizens had died in North Korea, but the listed causes of death raised suspicion among the families of the victims, who branded the North Korean accounts as unbelievable. The remaining abductees who were still alive safely traveled back to Japan, arriving to an emotional welcome on Oct. 15. The five were initially expected to remain in Japan for a week or two after being reunited with their relatives, but the Japanese government was reluctant to let them return. Pyongyang subsequently threatened to indefinitely postpone security talks with Japan unless Tokyo allowed the five surviving abductees to go back to the communist country.” – from: http://mdn.mainichi.co.jp/features/0212/31nk.html

    “Japan?s daily newspaper Sankei Shimbun, based on an interview with a former North Korean agent An Myong-chin (who defected to South Korea in September 1993), reported that in November 1977, Megumi Yokota, a 13-year-old Japanese school girl was abducted in Niigata City and taken to North Korea for use as a teaching aide at a North Korean school for spy training. Japanese authorities disclosed that An?s description of the girl matched the profile of a girl reported missing in Niigata, Japan, at that time. Japanese authorities suspect that North Korea may have kidnaped at least nine other Japanese nationals since the mid-1970s..” http://www.fas.org/man/crs/RL30004.pdf

    If North Korean agents have the capability to abduct Japanese nationals from Japan’s home territory and take them back to North Korea, I would have thought that that leaving a baby nuke here or there would be comparatively simple.

    Besides that, several years ago, The Economist had a piece suggesting that due to the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union c. 1991 and the Yeltsin presidency, some nuclear materials and devices are not accounted for. The KGB had a line in suitcase nukes.

    By those standards, Iraq with Saddam was a relatively minor threat and certainly not a credible justification for a war which has killed c. 10,000 Iraqi civilians according to the Iraq Body Count: http://www.iraqbodycount.net/press.htm

    All that leads me to suspect that the Bush administration had quite different motives than the threat from Iraq for the war. I have previously suggested elsewhere:

    “America had and has coherent national-interest motives in terms of real politicks for conquering Iraq which were evident to many: (a) America needed to get its military bases out of Saudi Arabia, as the regime there is unstable, but couldn’t do so while Saddam remained in place; (b) American forces, positioned in Iraq, could pose real threats to the “axis-of-evil” regimes in Syria and Iran; (c) Iraq has the second largest known oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia.”

  14. Bob,

    As per my follow-up above, I’d have to say that a substantial cash-flow coupled with a virulent dislike of the U.S. coupled with prior use of WMD was more than enough to justify the war. I don’t really care if he had them warmed up and ready to fly in ’95 or ’03. Sitting on top of the level of reserves that he (as you pointed out) had available, it would have been childs-play to start up a program the day after Blix gave the thumbs-up and the sanctions got lifted. He and the regime were a threat-in-being well worth destroying sooner rather than later. And don’t get me wrong, I think Bush the Elder made a serious error in leaving the job for Billy and then Shrub.

    “America had and has coherent national-interest motives in terms of real politicks for conquering Iraq which were evident to many: (a) America needed to get its military bases out of Saudi Arabia, as the regime there is unstable, but couldn’t do so while Saddam remained in place; (b) American forces, positioned in Iraq, could pose real threats to the “axis-of-evil” regimes in Syria and Iran; (c) Iraq has the second largest known oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia.”

    And all good reasons to go to war in their own right, above and beyond any threat-in-being from the regime. You say real-politick as if it’s a bad word.

    Bernard Guerrero

  15. Bernard,

    “I’d have to say that a substantial cash-flow coupled with a virulent dislike of the U.S. coupled with prior use of WMD was more than enough to justify the war.”

    But evidently not according to the UN Security Council. Besides that:

    “A year after the war in Iraq, discontent with America and its policies has intensified rather than diminished. Opinion of the United States in France and Germany is at least as negative now as at the war?s conclusion, and British views are decidedly more critical. Perceptions of American unilateralism remain widespread in European and Muslim nations, and the war in Iraq has undermined America?s credibility abroad. Doubts about the motives behind the U.S.-led war on terrorism abound, and a growing percentage of Europeans want foreign policy and security arrangements independent from the United States.” – from: http://www.pewtrusts.com/pubs/pubs_item.cfm?content_item_id=2264&content_type_id=18&page=p3

  16. “…and a growing percentage of Europeans want foreign policy and security arrangements independent from the United States.”

    Don’t you think many Americans want the same thing? It is time to put distance between the two continents, as we have ceased to be “allies” in any real sense of the term, and have started to work against each others’ interests.

    The US should focus more on Latin America, the Far East, and India. Europe simply doesn’t have the demographics to support robust economic growth, and will have less significance as a world power as time goes on.

  17. “But evidently not according to the UN Security Council”

    What does that prove, other than that not all nation states have identical interests? The UN Security Council doesn’t lay claim to the sort of infallibility maintained by popes.

  18. For an American account of the gap between the Bush administration’s predictions for the Iraq war and the results: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4557891/

    For the account in the popular press in Britain: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/tm_objectid=14071416&method=full&siteid=89488&headline=-we-were-right-and-it-could-happen-again-if-we-don-t-ditch-tony–name_page.html

    Seems to me each vote in the Presidential election in November to re-elect Bush will send a clear message to the world that the American people prefer lies and incompetence.

    Can anyone, please, suggest where I might get an autographed copy of that photo pic of Rumsfeld warmly shaking Saddam’s hand in 1984? The photo pic can be seen at: http://www.thepatriotsact.org/welcome.htm

  19. Why don’t you want to collect pictures of Saddam and Chirac, or all the other European leaders that have made a pilgrimage to Baghdad, in the hopes of contracts and payoffs?

    France would have profited handsomely if it had succeeded in having the UN embargo dropped, which it was working for towards the end of the nineties.

    Estimates for the total value of French contracts range to a $100 billion. No wonder they opposed the war…

    Of course, they deny it now. Talk about lying world leaders…

  20. I mentioned above, Matthew Parris, at: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,482-1044541,00.html

    It seems that he, and for matter myself, are not short on distinguished company from across the political spectrum in Britain:

    “Iraq and terrorism are separate issues. It was not necessary to have the war on Iraq because the US and the UK had already emasculated Saddam Hussein. But the terrorist threat represented by al-Qa’ida remains as strong as ever. On that I stand with the US.” – Sir Malcolm Rifkind, 57, former Conservative foreign secretary and defence secretary

    “We are still in the grasp of a Christian fundamentalist in Downing Street, a cowboy fundamentalist in the White House as well as potentially suicidal Muslim fundamentalists. I don’t think I have ever been this angry or frightened about the politics in this country and the world.” – Alan Bleasdale, 57, playwright

    “Overthrowing a tyrant by force has always been justifiable in western political thought – so long as it’s likely to lead to betterment. That’s the rub. The reasons our government gave were foolishly hasty – we were not threatened. It was an American affair and we should have stood aside.” – Professor Sir Bernard Crick, 74, biographer of George Orwell and Blunkett’s political tutor, by his own account

    “Being stupid and ignorant as well as powerful, Bush is the most dangerous man on the planet. He has personally made the world more unsafe than it has been since the Cold War. Iraq’s name has joined Israel’s as a bugle call, recruiting young terrorists.” – Professor Richard Dawkins, 62, evolutionary biologist

    “In the past year, I have learnt about the mendacious quality of politicians, and the lies were even greater than we expected. There were no weapons of mass destruction and it’s clear there never were. As for Tony Blair, I used to think he was awful and now I just think he’s insane.” – Alexei Sayle, 52, comedian

    with more from: http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/this_britain/story.jsp?story=503149

    “It is very bad for Blair,” said Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics. “The British people feel manipulated and misinformed and that can be very corrosive, as the Spanish vote shows.” – from: http://www.reuters.co.uk/newsPackageArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=476194&section=news

  21. Bob,

    Appeals for authority don’t really carry much weight, you know, particularly when those you’re trying to convince don’t acknowledge the same authorities you do. I don’t see what special insights Richard Dawkins or Alexei Sayle have to bring to bear on the containment of terrorism.

  22. Bob,

    Appeals to authority don’t really carry much weight, you know, particularly when those you’re trying to convince don’t acknowledge the same authorities you do. I don’t see what special insights Richard Dawkins or Alexei Sayle have to bring to bear on the containment of terrorism.

  23. Abiola: “I don’t see what special insights Richard Dawkins or Alexei Sayle have to bring to bear on the containment of terrorism.”

    They have votes. Lincoln is credited with the insight: “You may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.”

    I got this valuable insight into the current re-writing of recent European history going on now in America:

    “We all see history through the prism of our own lives. I was born just prior to World War II in 1937. Roosevelt would begin his second term as President that year and the United States was still struggling to get out of the Depression. In Europe, Hitler was in control of Germany, telling them they were the ‘Master Race.’ France thought it was safe behind the Maginot Line, and an appeaser named Neville Chamberlain led England. Spain was neutral and under the control of the dictator Francisco Franco.

    “In 1938, at Germany?s demand, England and France would agree to carve up Czechoslovakia, ceding the Sudetenland to Germany to avoid war. Austria would be taken over that year. After war broke out in Europe, in 1941 Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland in exchange for a non-aggression act. The original ‘axis of evil’ was formed between Germany, Japan and Italy. Hitler would betray every promise he made because that?s what dictators do.” – from: http://michnews.com/artman/publish/article_3043.shtml

    Nothing there about Britain starting rearmament in March 1935, or that in 1939, at 40 million, Britain’s population was almost exactly half that of Germany plus Austria, or the unsolicited offer Britain made to Poland on 31 March 1939 to guarantee its independence. That last is an especially suprising omission since that guarantee was the very basis on which Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, failing a response from Germany to an ultimatum to desist from the invasion of Poland, which had started on 1 September 1939.

    Above all, nothing about the fact that America only entered the war in Europe after Germany declared war on America in December 1941, a few days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. But then America had been good to Britain in lending us the money to fight the good fight against fascism and aggression in the meantime.

    Even the date of the German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact is wrong – it was signed on 23 August 1939. The later Friendship Treaty, signed on 28 September 1939, divided up Poland and arranged for the exchange of liaison officers across the new border running through what had been Poland. Stalin evidently had no insuperable ideological objection to the Soviet Union signing up to a Friendship Treaty with the Nazi regime in Germany.

    The basic, documented facts of the events leading up to WW II are easily checkable from dozens of sources, as well as the web, but for some reason neither the writer nor the editor of the publication was able to accomplish that simple task. The result is that Americans are being fed misinformation about Europe’s war time history and that doesn’t augur well.

    Btw John Lukacs, a distinguished American historian, summed up Britain’s predicament in WW2 correctly: “Churchill and Britain could not have won the Second World War; in the end America and Russia did. But in May Churchill was the one who did not lose it.” [Lukacs: Five Days in London May 1940 (Yale UP 1999), p.189]

  24. My, my, Bob. Aren’t we testy today. First you cite the opinions of artists, academics, and comedians on the righteousness of the war, and then you lambast Americans who rewrite history – as if Europeans aren’t in the process of doing exactly that with Iraq.

    All the more reason why there should be more disengagement between America and Europe on all levels. It’s time for America to realize that Europe can never, ever, be trusted.

  25. RSN: “First you cite the opinions of artists, academics, and comedians on the righteousness of the war”

    In a democracy, they each have a vote.

    Of course, in America, at the last presidential election in 2000, the other guy got more popular votes than Bush. As well as telling us something about democracy in America, it also reassures me about Americans.

  26. “They have votes.”

    So do the rest of the British adult population, and right now, those votes don’t look likely to go the way Dawkins and Sayle might want them to.

  27. “As well as telling us something about democracy in America”

    That it’s a union of states, as in “United STATES of America” – a useful thing to keep in mind.

    It’s clear that you have an intense hatred of Bush, but I don’t know whose mind you expect to change with an argument that basically boils down to name-calling.

    I’m not particularly fond of Bush’s domestic policy myself, but if Kerry really intends to allow France, Germany and Russia to hold American foreign policy to ransom, he deserves to be defeated. A war is not automatically made “illegitimate” just because the French and the Russians have contracts they’d like to pursue or Kofi Annan doesn’t like it, and I think you’ll find most Iraqis rather unsympathetic to your argument that there was something “immoral” about Bush’s “unilateral” decision to depose their former tormentor.

  28. Abiola: “So do the rest of the British adult population, and right now, those votes don’t look likely to go the way Dawkins and Sayle might want them to.”

    I wouldn’t be too sure. Try this: http://politics.guardian.co.uk/labour/comment/0,9236,1160220,00.html

    If it were not all so sad, there’s a delicious news report in Britain’s Independent on Sunday:

    “Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence, urged President Bush to consider bombing Iraq almost immediately after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, says a former senior aide.

    “Richard Clarke, the White House counter-terrorism coordinator at the time, has revealed details of a meeting the day after the attacks during which officials considered the US response. Already, he said, they were certain al-Qa’ida was to blame and there was no hint of Iraqi involvement. ‘Rumsfeld was saying we needed to bomb Iraq,’ Mr Clarke said. ‘We all said: ‘No, no, al-Qa’ida is in Afghanistan.'” – from: http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/story.jsp?story=503437

    Seems Rumsfeld wanted to bomb Iraq because there weren’t any really good targets in Afghanistan to bomb.

  29. Bob, that’s old news. I read about that (in American papers, no less) a few weeks after 9/11.

    Why are European newspapers so behind the learning curve?

    Rumsfeld’s reasoning was actually quite cogent: let’s send a massive retaliatory strike against those nations who have openly called for America’s destruction, in order to send the proper shock waves around the world.

    I actually would have supported that strike, 100%. But, quite frankly, the Afghan strike was much more masterful. And, thanks to that strike, we have the beginnings of a viable democracy in Afghanistan today.

  30. Mmm, gotta love the kind of viable democracy where even soldiers are too scared to go outside the capital city.

    & re the “argument” for Rumsfeld’s disgraceful behaviour… if someone doesn’t like me, and someone else steals my car, then it’s acceptable for me to kick the first person’s head in, right?

  31. john b:

    “gotta love the kind of viable democracy where even soldiers are too scared to go outside the capital city.”

    There are parts of France – especially suburban Paris, where French police officers are too scared to go.

    And 9/11 wasn’t about car theft, 9/11 was about the beginning of a war. If you haven’t noticed, this enemy doesn’t just want a car, this enemy wants to eliminate a whole people.

    And should we talk about disgraceful behaviours, we could start with de Villepin and his betrayals…

    I wonder about your sense of proportions. Your measuring stick seems to be crooked.

  32. i just want to ask some questions,

    as i think i ‘ve understand, al quaida has a long term policy. they are well structured;

    they are well established in europe, in USA, in asia, in africa, in Iraq, in Saudi Arabia but not in israel neighter palestinian territories, why?.

    Could any organisation do what al quaida does without the support of a country?

    Who reelly profit of al quaida crimes?

  33. Something to consider. A lot of people in the West consider themselves to be enlightened intellectuals, living far above the brutish levels found in other parts of the world. There’s a simple fact that they don’t understand, or cannot comprehend.

    The people in Al-Qaida want to kill us. Pure and simple. They want to thoroughly destabilize or annihilate our way of life, and replace it with their idea of living. Of course, this means destroying not only people, but the institutions that we adhere to as well.

    http://www.fas.org/irp/world/para/docs/980223-fatwa.htm

    This is not the sort of goal that can be subject to negotiation.

    For a lot of people in the West, this goal is incomprehensible. Many will go so far as to deny that this is what al-Qaida wants.

    If you want to stop the problem at this point, you have to steel yourself that for at least some period of time, you’re going to have to hunt all of them down and kill them. Since these people are dedicated to their cause to the point of being suicidal, you’re going to have to rely on something more terrible than sanctions or embargos or conferences to resolve this.

    There are sometimes when I wonder if Bush deliberately invaded Iraq (not for the public reasons) so that al-Qaida would be more likely to expend its energies attacking in a foreign country – rather than encouraging them to try again in the US. In terms of ease, a terrorist might well take a short trip to Iraq, cross a relatively unguarded border, and operate in a country with little legal or bureaucratic infrastructure. There, the suicidal terrorist could satisfy his urges, and the attack would take place somewhere other than on US soil.

    Cynical, yes. But does it work? And does it show an understanding of what al-Qaida wants?

  34. The thing is it is not about politics anymore. Politics is the base for what is happening, but there is no regulation, no channel to take up correspondence.

    There are a hell of a bunch of people out there who want to set the record straigt. US/Europeans still think the reign of machinery will solve it. But it will not.

    The consequences are common, even not related anymore to the strings that drive and drove this momentum of hate.

    America and Israel are bent and they may break. The breath of hate is restless.

    They act and wait.

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