01 January 2010

Assessing Al Qaeda's 20 Year Plan

I think January is a great month for us to review Al Qaeda's state of existence. The goal of this post is to provide an assessment on Al Qaeda's "20 Year Plan" first reported by Yassin Musharbash, in 2005.

*Disclaimer: I don't believe we should view the "2o Year Plan" in a complete literal sense, but I think it provides us a context to analyze Al Qaeda's road to victory.

Yassin Musharbash first broke the story of Al Qaeda's "20 Year Plan" through a brief book review of Al Zarqawi: The Second Generation of Al Qaeda. The author is Fouad Hussein, a Jordanian Journalist. Fouad shared a prison cell with Abu Musab Zarqawi, in 1996. This allowed Fouad rare access to Al Qaeda's inner circle of leadership. The bulk of his information on the "20 Year Plan" derived from his interactions with Saif al-Adel. Saif al-Adel, pictured below, is one of the founding members of Al Qaeda. Fouad proves his interaction with Saif by publishing a 2 page letter from Saif in his book. I believe this lends a high degree of accuracy to Fouad's reporting of Al Qaeda's "20 Year Plan".

The endstate of the "20 Year Plan" is the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate. Al Qaeda's plan is divided into seven phases.

Phase I: "The Awakening" Yassin Musharbash writes, The aim of the attacks of 9/11 was to provoke the US into declaring war on the Islamic world and thereby "awakening" Muslims. This phase started on 9/11/01 and lasted until the US invasion of Iraq in April 2003. Osama bin Laden attempted to start Phase I on two occasions prior to 9/11. The first attempt was the August 7, 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Nairobi. The second attempt was the USS Cole bombing, on October 12, 2000. Both attacks failed to provoke a full scale ground invasion of the United States military. The start of Phase I was initiated with the US invasion of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden envisioned a similar fate to the United States that the Mujahideen inflicted on the Soviet Union two decades prior. The one aspect that I have a hard time with is Phase I ends with the US invasion of Iraq. I find that to be a Nostradamus like prophesy. Bob Woodward's book, Bush at War, highlights discussions between Rumsfeld, Powell, and President Bush about striking Iraq before Afghanistan. The thought process being, the American Public needs an upfront win since Afghanistan was never successfully invaded. I still think that the end of Phase I was defined sometime in 2004. I just don't want to give Al Qaeda the credit for foreseeing our invasion of Iraq since the ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein are almost non-existent. At the end of the day, Phase I was a success because Al Qaeda had an opportunity to atritt our forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Phase II: "Opening Eyes" Al Qaeda wants their organization to turn into a popular movement. The phase started at the fall of Baghdad and ends in 2006. The goal was to create an army of young ideological men to carry the banner forward. I would argue that Al Qaeda reached their high water in 2006. They clearly shifted from a terrorist organization into a popular world wide movement, centered in Iraq. The United States lost 105 soldiers in the last month of 2006. This figure is significant because it was before the Surge and there were no large operations, like in Falluja 2004, that would account for such a high casualty rate. I also believe that 2006 was the first year that Al Qaeda's overall plan started to unravel. The Al-Askari Mosque bombing in Samarra, on February 22, 2006, started a vicious sectarian war. Abu Musab Zarqawi overreached and set the conditions for the Anbar Awakening movement that would eventually lead to Al Qaeda in Iraq's decimation. Zarqawi was eliminated on June 8, 2006. This is about 1 year too late for Al Qaeda. It is well documented that Al Qaeda's inner circle did not approve of Zarqawi's actions, and Ayman al Zawahiri was was outspoken about it. Zawahiri's letter to Zarqawi stated, "...For that reason, many of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shia. The sharpness of this questioning increases when the attacks are on one of their mosques, and it increases more when the attacks are on the mausoleum of Imam Ali Bin Abi Talib, may God honor him. My opinion is that this matter won't be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue." 2006 was the last year that the "20 Year Plan" was on track.

Phase III: "Arising and Standing Up" Here the focuses is on conflict with Syria, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. The Phase lasts from 2007 to 2010. I think Zawahiri's letter above provides the best insight as to what the conflict is supposed to look like. Zawahiri believed that Zarqawi had the opportunity to expel the Coalition Forces from Iraq between late 2005 and early 2007. From here, Zarqawi could establish the beginnings of the global Caliphate in Iraq. Zahahiri then states their goal must be to expand the Jihad to secular countries neighboring Iraq. I believe Al Qaeda is still attempting to force this goal in Syria. Since Al Qaeda in Iraq can no longer operate out in the open, Syria is now a pivotal base for AQI to continue their spectacular attacks in Iraq. A key indication of Al Qaeda's intentions in Syria was the relocation of Sheikh Issa, a pivotal personality for Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Bill Roggio of the LWJ first broke this important news story here and here. I believe the end of Phase III will be adjusted to coincide with the complete withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq. Al Qaeda doesn't have to remove CF from Iraq with force anymore. I believe they will retain the ability to conduct attacks from Syria and complete their Phase II endstate, of establishing an Emirate in Iraq, post CF withdrawal. Once they topple the Shia led government of Iraq, Al Qaeda will turn their attention to Syria, Jordan, Turkey and then Israel. Al Qaeda sees conflict with Israel as an important step to gain Muslim support. I believe this will manifest with some form of collusion between AQAP and Hamas, which I briefly discussed at the bottom of my collusion post. Look for Phase III to take center stage sometime after August 2011.

Phase IV: "The Creeping Loss of the Regimes" I don't want to attempt to predict the next 4 phases of their plan, but a few recent occurrence need highlighting. Buried in the New Yorker article are some chilling Al Qaeda predictions. First, Al Qaeda believes that America's power will wane with the ever expanding circle confrontation (Resurgence in Iraq, Surge in Afghanistan, and AQAP in Yemen?). Al Qaeda will focus on causing America's economic decline by striking oil refineries in the Middle East while establishing a Cyber Warfare cell. Al Qaeda sees the decline of the US Dollar causing the World to use gold as the primary currency. The Sub-prime loan crisis was not caused by Al Qaeda but it clearly falls in line with their Phase IV goals.

Al Qaeda will use these opportunities to further the advancement of their "20 Year Plan". It is important not to get wrapped up in the literal translation of the "20 Year Plan." I believe Al Qaeda's overall goals for their plan won't change drastically, but they will have to shift the timing of the phases and maybe attempt to achieve goals from multiple phases simultaneously. As long as Al Qaeda continues to strive for a Global Caliphate, they will remain our number one transnational threat.



  1. Phase 3 suggests that Al Quaeda is or was reaching too far. Ignoring Israel for the moment, Syria, Turkey, and Jordan are hardly weak states. Indeed, if Al Quaeda does attempt to expand operations into those three nations it could prove fatal.

  2. Gyre,

    You right that Al Qaeda in Iraq will over reach if they attempt to expand operations against Syria, Turkey and Jordan. I think Pat's earlier post, about "Not counting AQI out", highlights what we believe AQI is currently doing. They are in a dormant state, treading water, until the redeployment of CF from Iraq. September 2011 is going to be a telling month for all of us.