Unraveling Al-Qa`ida’s Target Selection Calculus
From the Horse’s Mouth: Unraveling Al-Qa`ida’s Target Selection Calculus
Al-Qa`ida’s primarily selects economic targets to derail the American economy, to sever American and Muslim alliances, and to remove all Western influence from the Middle East.
By Sammy Salama and David Wheeler
The topic of al-Qa`ida’s choice of targets has been the subject of much conjecture and speculation in open source literature. Some analysts argue that al-Qa`ida’s modus operandi is similar to traditional terrorism in that it is a form of “political theater” meant to bring attention to the group and its objectives by attacking targets of high importance. Others have diverged from this view, arguing that unlike traditional terror organizations, the al-Qa`ida network is more interested in the mass killing of Western civilians as revenge for perceived historical injustices against Muslims. In some cases, the debate concerning al-Qa`ida’s target selection is based on the assumption that al-Qa`ida targets symbolic facilities within the United States to demonstrate its military prowess and long-reach capability. Others argue that al-Qa`ida attacks soft targets due to the difficulty of attacking military and security facilities in the West. Yet an examination of primary al-Qa`ida operational manuals and published open source literature reveals a much different set of considerations in the group’s target selection. Such an analysis of what al-Qa`ida tells the world—and, most importantly, what it instructs its recruits and would-be cell members—indicates that al-Qa`ida’s target selection calculus is motivated by a far more ambitious, sophisticated and sinister motive: to destroy the economy of the United States and other Western powers by striking economic targets in the West and in the Muslim world. The network asserts that doing so curtails the American presence and influence in the Middle East and will end Western military and diplomatic support to regimes in the region. This ambition serves the final objective of severing American and Muslim alliances and bringing about the removal of all Western influence from the Middle East, as well as the overthrow of current Muslim regimes.
To best understand al-Qa`ida target selection, it is important to keep in mind al-Qa`ida’s foremost strategic objective, which is to “bleed” [exhaust] the United States economically and militarily by forcing the U.S. to spend enormous amounts of money to protect its numerous sectors and facilities. Al-Qa`ida’s primary literature and manuals affirm that the United States draws its formidable military power and political influence from its superior economy. Therefore, if the American economy is derailed, the United States will crumble and will not be able to sustain its military hegemony and presence overseas. One al-Qa`ida member stated that hindering Western economies is “the most dangerous and effective arena of Jihad, because we live in a materialistic world.” Accordingly, al-Qa`ida cells are encouraged to attack targets that have a high economic value and will cause the United States severe economic losses.
The calculus of primarily attacking western targets of significant economic value is bluntly discussed in al-Qa`ida’s political publications which aim to “educate” the Muslim world about al-Qa`ida’s objectives and methods. These publications elaborate in sinister detail the network’s intention to empower individual cell members with the training and skills required to sustain al-Qa`ida’s global Jihad. The following excerpts from Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad), the official publication of al-Qa`ida in Saudi Arabia, illustrate the rationale behind al-Qa`ida’s target selection:
What Else Is There to Say about September 11?
Another al-Qa`ida text authored in late 2005 clearly articulates the network’s emphasis on attacking economic targets. In October 2005, Abu Mus`ab al-Najadi, a Saudi supporter/member of al-Qa`ida, authored a seven page document titled “Al-Qa`ida’s Battle is Economic not Military.” In late 2005, this document was circulated on numerous Jihadi websites, elaborating on the logic for attacking soft targets of high economic value. As stated by al-Najadi:
Based on al-Qa`ida’s own description of its calculus and explanation of its targeting rationale, one must assume that this network is most likely to target facilities and establishments of high economic value on the U.S. mainland. Such facilities include but are not limited to airports, bus stations, train stations, subways, ports, financial districts, financial buildings, malls, markets, resorts, planes, ships, oil installations, hotels, sports arenas, theaters and embassies. As illustrated previously, al-Qa`ida’s stated objective is to cause the greatest possible economic damage as well as force the United States to spend excessive resources on guarding and protecting facilities all over the United States in order to ultimately bring down the U.S. economy, the source of American military power and hegemony.
In addition to statements in al-Qa`ida publications that articulate the networks’ strategy, the calculus of attacking western targets of high economic value is also elaborated in al-Qa`ida’s operational manuals that teach individuals cell members how to attack and exact severe losses on the West. For example, a detailed online manual entitled Al-Mubtakkar al-Farid: Li Irsaal al-Safah al-Athiri Ila al-Kafir al-`Anid [The Unique Invention: To Deliver the Gaseous Killer to the Stubborn Infidel], teaches the reader how to manufacture a hydrogen cyanide dispersal device. The manual provides would-be terrorists with step-by-step instructions, in explicit detail, on utilizing various precursors and procuring readily available components to assemble the dispersal device. The al-Mubtakar manual primarily guides al-Qa`ida members in using this crude hydrogen cyanide dispersal device to attack mostly civilian targets of high economic value that are abundantly available in Western societies. It specifically highlights the following targets:
Another short document dealing with radiological terrorism posted on a prominent Jihadi operational website also emphasized the network’s desire to exact severe economic losses on the United States and its allies. The short posting entitled “Instances of Radiation Pollution from 1945-1987” specifically encouraged the Jihadi community to attack western cities with Radiological Dispersal Devises (RDDs or dirty bombs) in order to cause acute economic losses. It explicitly states the following economic benefits to such attacks:
In addition to attacking economic targets in the United States and other western nations, another stated objective of the network is to hinder Westerners from conducting commerce and business in the Arab and Muslim world. In al-Qa`ida’s world view, Western commerce in Muslim and Arab countries has resulted in Western military support for corrupt and “apostate” regimes in the region (specifically Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco). It has also contributed to the corruption of Muslim societies through imported Western values and the “theft” of Muslim natural resources, including oil. In the past few years, we have seen the al-Qa`ida network repeatedly attack Western interests, facilities and citizens in numerous Muslim and Arab countries including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and Indonesia.
Attacking American interests in these countries further serves to “bleed” the United States economically and deny Westerners commercial opportunities in the Arab and Muslim world. Also, of equal importance, it serves to hinder an alliance between the United States and its regional allies. The terrorist tactics aim to isolate the regional governments that al-Qa`ida considers “apostates” and ultimately wishes to overthrow as it seeks to re-establish the global caliphate. As a matter of operational expediency, the al-Qa`ida network intends to carry out attacks against American interests in the Muslim and Arab worlds continuously. This is stated clearly in a widely circulated al-Qa`ida operational manual that trains prospective Jihadis in urban operations in the Arab and Muslim world. “Military Sciences — Targets Inside the Cities” directly identifies the following targets:
In addition to instructing the Jihadi community and individual al-Qa`ida cell members to concentrate their attacks on economic targets inside the Arab and Muslim world and beyond, this manual also breaks down in vivid detail the nationality, religion and profession of al-Qa`ida’s prime “human targets.” In this, the operational instructions to cell members are consistent with previous political arguments put forth in al-Qa`ida’s open source publications. It tells would-be al-Qa`ida terrorists to concentrate on Western businessmen as they represent the foremost candidates. It states unambiguously:
These instructions given to prospective Jihadis further demonstrate that the primary targets of the al-Qa`ida network are American entities of high economic value such as businessmen and corporations. It should be noted, in particular, that American military targets and soldiers are relegated to secondary importance as potential targets. However, the network does not usually specify in print which specific Western companies or sectors are to be targeted. It is probable that the leadership of al-Qa`ida is being intentionally vague on this matter to make it possible for individual cell leaders to choose appropriate targets on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the availability of targets in their respective theaters of operations.
Two sectors which are sure to be in the sights of al-Qa`ida operatives are the oil and tourism industries. In the past two years the leaders of al-Qa`ida, including Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, have specifically called on their operatives to target oil installations in the Gulf to hinder what they refer to as the ongoing “theft of Muslim resources,” and have likewise called for attacks on tourist resorts in the Muslim world. Clearly, the message has been received by al-Qa`ida’s rank and file and other terrorists inspired by the network, as can be seen from the recent bombings in Egyptian tourist resorts and the constant attacks on oil facilities in Iraq (as well as attempted attacks in Saudi Arabia). In the future, al-Qa`ida operations outside the U.S. mainland are likely to concentrate on similar facilities, in addition to financial districts, buildings of high economic value and Western embassies.
One more primary objective of the September 11th attacks is important to note: the goal of dragging the United States into a wider war through which al-Qa`ida and its allies hope to scatter, isolate and bleed the United States militarily and economically [this is referred to as Harb Istinzaf—a long term war of attrition, i.e., “dragging” and “bleeding” the enemy]. The U.S. invasion of Iraq has provided al-Qa`ida with a prime opportunity to attack U.S. troops within the Arab world, as was stated explicitly by Usama Bin Laden in his message to his supporters in 2005, “Bleeding the United States, which is currently in Iraq economically, militarily and morally, is a golden opportunity that you should not miss or you will regret it . . . concentrate your operations on it, especially in Iraq and the Gulf. This will be their end.” The American presence in the Gulf states, coupled with the American occupation of Iraq, is being exploited by al-Qa`ida to rally its supporters to concentrate their efforts on American and Western targets in Iraq, the Gulf (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE and Oman), Yemen as well as in Jordan.
Nevertheless, al-Qa`ida is still likely to attempt to attack the American homeland. Attacking U.S. territory offers al-Qa`ida many advantages, primarily through its symbolic value as well as its indication of the network’s reach and perseverance. More importantly, as discussed previously, such an attack would further the goal of stressing the United States economically. Continuously attacking the American homeland also causes further rifts between the United States and its Arab and Muslim allies, an objective which is among al-Qa`ida’s foremost strategic goals. This point was argued by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the network’s second in command in 2001:
Al-Qa`ida’s leadership argues that only when military and economic alliances between the United States and its Arab and Muslim allies are broken will the network be able to weaken and overthrow these “apostate” regimes and impose an Islamic state, which is the eventual goal of al-Qa`ida. This is the main reason why al-Zawahiri and bin Laden decided to embark on an external Jihad against the “Far Enemy,” i.e., the United States and the West. They opted to attack the West to severe its military and economic support for Arab and Muslim leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other states seen to have close ties to the United States. Al-Qa`ida’s leadership reasoned that direct attacks on U.S. and European territory will force Western leaders to doubt their alliances with Muslim and Arab leaders and will eventually force the West to abandon their regional allies.
This approach was a clear departure from the traditional Jihadi strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood and its various offshoots in the Middle East, who in previous decades have opted to wage a long term internal Jihad against the “near enemy,” Arab and Muslim regimes. Al-Qa`ida also aims to stretch the United States thin, knowing full well that even superpowers have limited financial and military resources. It is the objective of this network to pull the United States into a third quagmire, in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, in order to drag, exhaust and further “bleed” the U.S. As stated in a communiqué released in July 2004:
The Various Phases of al-Qa`ida’s Global War and Path to the Caliphate
Ongoing analysis and examination of al-Qa`ida’s vast published literature, abundant manuals and endless statements imply the following eight successive phases in the network’s plan for a long-term battle against the United States and its allies in the Middle East and Muslim world:
Currently, we are still in the first three phases of this long and protracted conflict, which the al-Qa`ida network wishes to expand and intensify. In these concurrent initial three phases, the al-Qa`ida network aims to exhaust the United States, sever its alliances with Muslim and Arab governments, and simultaneously escalate anti-Western animosity in the region. The al-Qa`ida network reasons that the best way to achieve the goal of exhausting the United States is through repeated attacks against American and Western targets of high economic value. Some prominent analysts of the global Jihadi movement argue that al-Qa`ida’s quest for the reestablishment of the historic Caliphate and the removal of all western influences from the Muslim world is a step toward the networks ultimate goal of establishing” Hakimiyyat Allah — God’s rule over the world”, whereby the Caliphate dominates the rest of the world.
In sum, al-Qa`ida’s target selection is neither arbitrary nor impulsive. Continuing examination of al-Qa`ida’s primary literature and operational manuals reveals that their target selection calculus is governed by a sinister desire to bring down the economy of the United States and other western powers. This targeting strategy is an integral part of the network’s overall objective of “bleeding” and exhausting the United States in order to force it to leave the Middle East and abandon its regional allies. To do so, al-Qa`ida will primarily attack facilities of high economic value. The al-Qa`ida network is likely to continue to focus on targets that cause economic disruption within the United States and worldwide, as al-Qa`ida’s strategy is to engage the United States and its allies in a long-term war of attrition. As noted in a network communiqué, “The enemy may be patient, but it cannot endure. As for us with our doctrine, belief, and our love for meeting God, we can endure until the enemy crumbles. If this takes decades or centuries, we are charged with fighting them come victory or martyrdom.”
Note: This article is drawn in part from the piece entitled “Unraveling al-Qa`ida’s Target Selection Calculus,” written by Sammy Salama for the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy, West Point, in December 2006.
 Nur al-Din al-Kurdi, “The Arenas of Jihad,” Dharwat al-Sunam (Peak of the Camel’s Hump), Volume 3, p. 27-28 [translation by author].
 Akhu Man Ta`a Allah, “What Else is There to Say About September 11,” Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad Magazine), Volume 26, p. 35-42 [translation by author].
 Abu Mus`ab al-Najadi, “al-Qaeda’s Battle is Economic not Military,” October 3, 2005 [translation by author].
 “Al-Mubtakkar al-Farid: Li Irsaal al-Safah al-Athiri Ila al-Kafir al-`Anid — The Unique Invention: To Deliver the Atheric Killer to the Stubborn Infidel,” al-FirdawsJihadi Website, October 2005 [translation by author].
 Abu al-Usood al-Faqir, “Instances of Radiation Pollution from 1945-1987,” al-FarouqJihadi Website, October 2005 [translation by author].
 Abi Hajer Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin, “Military Sciences — Targets inside the Cities,” Mu`askar al-Battar (al-Battar Camp) Magazine, Volume 7, p. 23-27[translation by author].
 “The Complete Text of Sheikh Usama Bin Laden’s Call Especially to the Muslims of Saudi Arabia and General Muslims Elsewhere,” al-Tawhid wal-Jihad Website, December 15, 2005 [translation by author].
 Jane Corbin, Al-Qaeda: In Search of the Terror Network That Threatens the World (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003), 81-82; “Verdict Reached in U.S. Embassy Bombings Trials,” CNN, May 29, 2001.
 Ibid., p. 199.
 Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam (New York: IB Taurus, 2004), 199.
 Jane Corbin, Al-Qaeda: In Search of the Terror Network That Threatens the World, p.95
 Peter L. Bergen, Holy War, Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden (New York: Free Press, 2001), 27-28.
 Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, p. 265.
 “Bin Laden ‘inspired Bali attacks,'” BBC, July 10, 2003.
 “Al Qaida Trained JI Hotel Bombers,” Sunday Mail (SA), August 10, 2003; Simon Elegant, “A New Wave of Terror?” Time, August 10, 2003.
 “Hambali caught in Thailand,” New Straits Times (Malaysia), August 16, 2003.
 Toby Harnden and Amberin Zaman, “Synagogue bombs were ours, says al-Qa`eda group,” The Daily Telegraph (London), November 17, 2003; “Istanbul rocked by double bombing,” BBC, November 20, 2003.
 Damien McElroy and Philip Sherwell, “Bomb attacks were planned in internet cafe,” The Sunday Telegraph (London), November 23, 2003.
 “Turkey: Charges in Istanbul Bombing,” New York Times, February 26, 2004; Sebnem Arsu, “Turkish court sentences militants for 2003 bombings,” International Herald Tribune, February 16, 2007.
 Hugh MacLeod, “Syria Hands Over Suspects who Fled After Quadruple Suicide Bombings in Turkey,” The Independent (London), December 1, 2003; James C. Helicke, “Turkish synagogue bombers ‘met bin Laden,'” Jerusalem Post, September 14, 2004.
 “Turkish bomb gang defused,” The Weekend Australian, December 27, 2003.
 “Truck bombs rock Istanbul,” Jerusalem Post, November 21, 2003.
 Marianne Kearney and Sebastien Berger, “Car bomb explodes outside Australian Embassy in Jakarta,” Ottawa Citizen, September 10, 2004.
 “Full text: ‘Al-Qaeda’ Madrid claim,” BBC, March 14, 2004; Al Goodman, “Madrid bombings trial: Key defendant denies involvement,” CNN, February 15, 2007.
 Michael Scheuer, “The London Bombings: For al-Qaeda, Steady as She Goes,” Terrorism Focus, Volume 2, Issue 14 (July 22, 2005) p. 5-8.
 “Explosion rocks Red Sea resorts,” BBC, October 8, 2004.
 Roger Hardy, “Tracking down Egypt’s bombers,” BBC, July 26, 2005; Diaa Rashwan, “Was it Al-Qaeda?,” Al-Ahram Weekly, 28 July-3 August 2005.
 “‘Bomber confession’ shocks Jordan,” CNN, November 14, 2005; “Bomber’s wife arrested in Jordan,” BBC, November 13, 2005.
 Sharmila Devi and William Wallis, “Al-Qaeda says it unleashed Amman bombers,” Financial Times, November 11, 2005.
 “Aircraft bomb plot thwarted,” Telegraph, October 8, 2006; “‘Airlines terror plot’ disrupted,” BBC, August 10, 2006.
 John Ward Anderson and Karen DeYoung, “Plot to Bomb U.S.-Bound Jets Is Foiled,” Washington Post, August 11, 2006.
 “Details emerge on alleged plot to bomb airliners,” MSNBC, August 10, 2006.
 David Batty and Mark Oliver, “‘Mass murder terror plot’ uncovered,” Guardian, August 10, 2006.
 Op. cit.; John Ward Anderson and Karen DeYoung, “Plot to Bomb U.S.-Bound Jets Is Foiled,” Washington Post, August 11, 2006.
 “‘Airlines terror plot’ disrupted,” BBC, August 10, 2006.
 John Ward Anderson and Karen DeYoung, “Plot to Bomb U.S.-Bound Jets Is Foiled,” Washington Post, August 11, 2006.
 “Triple blasts rock Egypt resort,” BBC, April 25, 2004.
 “Egypt bomb suspects ‘surrender’,” BBC, May 13, 2006.
 “Country Reports on Terrorism 2005 – Statistical Annex,” United States Department of State, April 7, 2006,<http://www.state.gov/documents/ organization/65489.pdf>.
 Ibid., p. 131.
 Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), p. 22.
 Abu Hafez al-Masri Brigades [al-Qaeda in Europe], “A Communiqué.” July 1, 2004 [translation by author].
 Abu Bakr Naji, “Idarat al-Tawahush: The Most Dangerous Phase That The Islamic Nation Will Go Through,” The Center for Islamic Studies and Research, as viewed on al-Firdaws Website, October 2005; Stephen Ulph, “New Online Book Lays Out al-Qaeda’s Military Strategy,” Jamestown, March 18, 2005; an excellent English translation of the book “Idarat al-Tawahush” by William McCants is available from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, at: http://www.ctc.usma.edu/ Management_of_Savagery.pdf.
 Dr. Bassam Tibi, discussion with author, Monterey, Spring 2005; Bassam Tibi, “Jihadism’s roots in political Islam,” International Herald Tribune, August 30, 2005.
 Abu Hafez al-Masri Brigades [al-Qaeda in Europe], “A Communiqué.” July 1, 2004 [translation by author]. ——————————————————————————————-
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