President Obama may not have a strategy for defeating the Islamic State, but the Islamic State has a strategy for the U.S. In fact, that strategy is set out, in part, in an al-Qaeda manual recently translated for the benefit of the U.S. military.
A guerrilla war proceeds in phases, according to Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin’s A Practical Course for Guerrilla War, a strategic and tactical guide to mujahideen intent on establishing “a pure Islamic system free from defects and infidel elements.” It was written after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The first phase is “attrition (strategic defense),” the time for carrying out attacks, “spectacular operations, which will create a positive impact.” The terrorists use the attacks as a recruitment tool and a morale boost for potential jihadis.
Phase two is the time of “relative strategic balance,” when the jihadis build an army to hold territory that has been wrested from the incumbent regime. “There the mujahidin will set up base camps, hospitals, sharia courts, and broadcasting stations, as well as a jumping-off point for military and political actions,” al-Muqrin writes.
The third phase, a time of internal discord and political upheaval for the “collaborationist” regime, is “decisive.” The terrorists use their conventional army to launch dramatic assaults.
“By means of these mujahadin conventional forces, the mujahidin will begin to attack smaller cities and exploit in the media their successes and victories in order to raise the morale of the mujahidin and the people in general and to demoralize the enemy,” al-Muqrin writes in a passage that brings to mind the Islamic State’s rampage across northern Iraq. “The reason for the mujahidin’s treating of smaller cities is that when the enemy’s forces see the fall of cities into the mujahidin’s hands with such ease their morale will collapse and they will become convinced that they are incapable of dealing with the mujahidin.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters that the Islamic State “is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” That’s true insofar as al-Qaeda did not build a conventional army or declare itself a state. He shouldn’t be so surprised, though. The U.S. national-security apparatus has been following this jihadist ambition for years.