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Al Qaeda's Global Jihad Strategy & Its Impact on U.S. Policy

Updated on December 30, 2014
Al Qaeda rallying jihadists.
Al Qaeda rallying jihadists. | Source

Overview of Al Qaeda's Global Jihad Strategy

Al Qaeda continues to pose a daunting threat to the national security of the United States due to their intent and capability to cause mass casualty producing attacks (Bergen 2011, 67). Osama Bin Laden created Al Qaeda in 1988 to facilitate a “pan-Islamic caliphate throughout the Muslim world” in an attempt to unify Muslims against Western influence (NCTC). In 1998, Al Qaeda transformed under the banner of “the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders” stating it was an obligation “for all Muslims to kill US citizens-civilian and military-and their allies everywhere” (NCTC). Since 9/11, Al Qaeda shifted and adapted their organizational structure, philosophy, and tactics to wage global jihad support in the fight against the United States (Bergen 2011, 90). This research will closely examine how Al Qaeda adapted their global jihad strategy to carry out an attack against America and how this strategy impacts the formulation, implementation, and direction of U.S. policy. Al Qaeda adapted their global jihad strategy by partnering with other Al Qaeda affiliates or militant groups worldwide, establishing an unwavering media campaign, and diversifying their audience to “enable jihadist attacks abroad, and shape propaganda as consultants” to inspire violence (Barniff 2011, 43). Through these techniques, Al Qaeda inspires individuals to coordinate, plan and execute small-scale attacks from numerous locations against US interests at home and abroad. Understanding the global jihad movement and its key components allows national security policy to effectively protect the U.S. homeland and its foreign interests. The global jihad strategy presents more complex challenges facing the U.S. national security establishment (Bergen 2011, 90).

Geography of the Middle East.
Geography of the Middle East. | Source


The U.S. drone attacks caused potential setbacks for Al Qaeda to plan and execute a large, catastrophic attack similar to 9/11 (Bergen 2011, 67). However, the terror group has the intent and capability to target the United States using their ideological appeal to radicalize small scale attacks from numerous locations around the globe, evidenced by the unveiled plots or attacks in Detroit, Arkansas, New York, and Fort Hood, Texas, just to name a few (Bergen 2011, 67). The global jihad strategy serves as an overarching umbrella for Al Qaeda to gain cooperation from its affiliated groups, associated groups and enabled believers to provide increased avenues of approach to terrorism (Braniff 2011, 37). Al Qaeda continues to augment their span of influence by franchising their efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, North Africa, and Yemen, as well as guiding other like-minded groups to adhere to their goals and achieve their expansionist ideology (Bergen 2011, 69). To invoke a global jihad paradigm, Al Qaeda is transforming into a “multi-polar organization” with a primary nucleus in North Waziristan, operating with other militant organizations that serve as independent “regional nodes” (Bergen 2011, 41).

Al Qaeda’s franchising efforts with other regional affiliated and associated groups influence attacks against the homeland. For example, the franchise with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula resulted in the attempted detonation of a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009, as well as an attempted printer cartridge bomb headed for the U.S. in late 2010 (Braniff 2011, 37). In 2005 and 2006, the ongoing partnership between Al Qaeda and the Taliban, an associated organization, caused a dramatic increase in violence against coalition forces in Afghanistan (Bergen 2010). The Taliban began to share plans and pledge support to Osama Bin Laden by implementing Al Qaeda-style attacks against U.S. interests continuing into 2010 (Bergen 2010). Due to Al Qaeda’s influence, the Taliban started planning attacks against the United States, evidenced by the Time Square bomb in May 2010 by Faisal Shahzad. The type of bomb was comparable to an attempted detonation in 2009, by an Al Qaeda recruit, Najbullah Zazi, (Bergen 2010). The like-minded militant organizations serve as force-multipliers and help spread Al Qaeda’s philosophy and tactics locally in their region and allow Al Qaeda to “engage in networking, propagandizing, and resource mobilization in active conflict zones” (Bergen 2011, 41). Al Qaeda continues to utilize their alliances and informal associations to increase manpower and intelligence collection, serving as an aggressive tactic to facilitate and refocus violence against the United States (Bergen 2011, 41).

Opposing Research

Opposing research suggests Al Qaeda’s expansionist ideology and franchising efforts have resulted in forcing or bullying some of the weaker Islamic groups to conform (Mendelsohn 2011, 30). The Al Qaeda organization progressively manipulated other Islamic groups to target the U.S. rather than promoting sharia law in the Middle East. Al Qaeda believes that they embody “moral superiority” over other Islamic groups and will use coercion “to force them on to the ‘right’ path” (Mendelsohn 2011, 38). Al Qaeda’s forceful tactics led to detrimental fights with Hamas, a Palestinian organization, Sunni extremist groups in Iraq, and Islamic groups from Egypt and Libya (Mendelsohn 2011, 38). These coercive techniques have deteriorating effects to Al Qaeda’s overall expansionist movement, causing potential fractures within the organization. Similarly, further research suggests branching out causes decentralization issues regarding the slow arrival of information or misinterpretation of targets, allowing room for error to weaken public support (Mendelsohn 2011, 43). However, building alliances grants Al Qaeda “more members, greater geographic reach, and a level of ideological sophistication” (Mendelsohn 2011, 31).

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Al Sahab, Al Qaeda's Media Wing

The creation of Al Qaeda’s active media wing, al-Sahab, is a dynamic innovation, signifying Al Qaeda’s capability to harness global jihad support and ability to produce numerous small scale attacks oriented toward the United States. Al Qaeda created al-Sahab to compete with the United States in the “war of ideas,” an attempt to maneuver for marketing dominance. (Ciovacco 2009, 853). The media wing implemented a worldwide communications network that is highly saturated with jihad propaganda in the form of CDs, movies, websites, manuals, television shows, and radio broadcasts in a variety of languages (Braniff 2011, 44). The media competition began in the aftermath of 9/11 to sway the loyalty of the Muslim population in the arena of ideas.

As of September 2006, the Al Qaeda organization significantly promoted jihad globally and surpassed the United States in the virtual marketplace (Braniff 2011, 44). According to in-depth analysis provided by Ciovacco (2009), he identified and assessed sixty-four media releases from Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the first and second in command of Al Qaeda, between September 11, 2001 and September 11, 2008. Each source of media was evaluated for “release date, speaker, medium, production source, dissemination means, title, audience targeted, topics discussed and whether the release was reactive or proactive in nature” (Ciovacco 2009, 854). The study yielded nine specific characteristics that were central to understanding Al Qaeda’s media campaign. The results proved that Al Qaeda tailors their messages to specific audiences while simultaneously addressing the global community, totaling 57 Muslim messages, 14 American messages, and 6 European messages mostly directed against the United States. The results suggested Al Qaeda exploits anniversaries of major conflicts with the United States to provoke and enhance radical interest such as “9/11… Iraq invasion and the opening of Guantanamo Prison” (Ciovacco 2009, 857). Another key finding states Al Qaeda reinforces seven themes in almost all media releases, “call to jihad, clash of civilizations, apostate Muslim leaders are betraying Islam, the United States-Israel connection, Muslim unity, the United States is weakening, and the United States is stealing Muslim oil” (Ciovacco 2009, 858).

The use of repetition contributes to Al Qaeda’s overall strategy and ensures their ideology elicits and reorients violence toward the United States. Al Qaeda’s strategic and innovative media campaign exposes individuals to Islamic jihad through distorted doctrine, molding passive supporters into active jihadists (Gunaratna 2011, 213). Lastly, the Al Qaeda leadership “attempts to influence American Foreign Policy” by using messages directed towards Americans at critical times during the War on Terror. The study emphasized four key events such as “the 2004 Presidential Election, the 2006 Congressional Election, the announcement of the troop surge in Iraq, and the Congressional bill to limit the war’s funding and set a timetable for withdrawal” (Ciovacco 2009, 863).

During each time period, Bin Laden and Zawahiri directed messages toward the American people to weaken U.S. support for the American government and its policies. The study highlights Al Qaeda’s systematic approach to exploit and undermine the United States by demonstrating their comprehension of technology, propaganda, “marketing through the global media, and world politics” (Ciovacco 2009, 868). Al Qaeda’s media campaign significantly contributes to their global jihad movement by improving regional and international communications, uniting the Muslim community and using propaganda to encourage radical followers to commit attacks against the United States (Ciovacco 2009, 853).

Leadership of Al Qaeda.
Leadership of Al Qaeda. | Source

Diversification of Followers

Before 9/11, Al Qaeda exclusively sought Muslim support to confront the United States, however, the organization is progressively widening recruitment efforts in order to diversify followers and reach out to a broader community (Braniff 2011, 40). In 2005, Zawahiri and Bin Laden expressed their radical appeal in an article titled “The Freeing of Humanity and Homelands Under Banner of the Quran” and in Inspire magazine, attempting to appeal to global warming and environmental activists in America (Braniff 2011, 40). Similarly, Zawahiri mentions Malcolm X and his heroism for sacrificing himself to racial oppression. The propaganda techniques are intended to appeal to the minority population, cause dissension within the United States, and enable diverse individuals such as Muslims, non-Muslims, Muslim converts, and Americans to commit terrorist acts (Braniff 2011, 40). Widening recruitment and propaganda efforts has shown a dramatic increase in “U.S. based terrorists of all nationalities” who are inspired by global jihad ideology, “but are unaffiliated” with Al Qaeda (Alexander 2011, 467).

Diversification creates an unparalleled type of threat posing the United States and the U.S. national security institution. In 2009, the United States experienced a notable spike in terrorist attacks and plots “totaling 11 jihadist attacks, jihadist inspired plots, or efforts by Americans to travel overseas to obtain terrorist training” (Bergen 2011, 67). The terrorist activity consisted of the Fort Hood shooting, the shooting against two Army recruiters in Arkansas, five attempted plots, and four cases of Americans attempting to receive terrorist training abroad (Bergen 2011, 67). The terrorist attacks and plots in 2009 provide a greater outlook on America’s potential adversaries ranging from individual inspired jihadists, radical Muslim-converts, Americans, to trained Al Qaeda operatives (Bergen 2011, 69). Al Qaeda’s global jihad movement strategically plans to “co-opt American citizens in the broader global Al Qaeda battlefield” (Bergen 2011, 69). A review of twenty case studies by Dean Alexander (2011) identified eighty-seven terrorist prosecutions affiliated with Al Qaeda and 428 prosecutions of Islamic inspired terrorism, but unaffiliated with Al Qaeda between September 2009 and September 11, 2011, against the United States.

The findings of the case studies indicated that there are many paths to terrorism ranging from online training, tutorials and small scale or lone wolf type of attacks with minimum resources (Alexander 2011, 475). These “free agents” do not require funding or resources from Al Qaeda and can greatly expand the number of potential terrorists to follow jihad and attack the United States (Alexander 2011, 476). The rising number of unaffiliated terrorists supports Al Qaeda’s diversification goals, creating decentralized, small-scale units and lone wolfs to conduct less-complex attacks from numerous locations. The diversification and Americanization of the threat accompanied with Al Qaeda’s media strategy will cause problems for “law enforcement and the intelligence community” to detect unaffiliated terrorist plots against the United States (Alexander 2011, 476).

Impact on U.S. Policy

The adaptive nature of Al Qaeda’s global jihad movement greatly impacts the formulation, implementation, and direction of U.S. policy at home and abroad. The transformation of the Al Qaeda threat into a global jihadist network and the ongoing threat it poses against U.S. national security has triggered the need to build stronger partnerships within the international community, with the purpose of defeating and preventing Al Qaeda and its franchises from conducting more violence (Rollins 2010). The United States government has proactively sought out other state actors to build cohesion in support of U.S. national security and the universal fight against global terrorism (Rollins 2010). Research indicates U.S. national security policy has adapted to match the global Al Qaeda threat by striking at the heart of the insurgency through diplomatic partnerships with the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen (Rollins 2010, 9,11). The National Security Strategy outlined by President Obama in 2010, states the need for the U.S. and Afghanistan to continually deny Al Qaeda a safe haven by strengthening the Afghan government and its security forces to prevent global terrorism and secure Afghanistan’s future (NSS 2010). To succeed in this strategy, the United States continues to build relationships with the “United Nations and the Afghan government” to provide assistance to the Afghan President, “ministries, governors, and local leaders” who strive to defeat violent extremism (NSS 2010, 21).

In Pakistan, the U.S. drone strikes and covert operations are causing anti-American sentiment, limiting U.S. action and policy in the defeat of Al Qaeda in Pakistan (Rollins 2010, 9). Although, the United States government is dedicating a “long-term increase in economic and development assistance to Pakistan” as seen by the passage of the Enhance Partnership With Pakistan Act in 2009 to 2014, authorizing “1.5 billion in annual nonmilitary aid” (Rollins 2010, 10). United States policy continues to allocate resources to the development of Pakistan’s “counterterrorism and counterinsurgency capabilities,” while devoting the U.S. strategy to providing economic assistance, building Pakistan’s military force, increasing drone attacks against enemy combatants, and enabling the leadership of Pakistan to continually put pressure on Al Qaeda and its affiliates (Rollins 2010, 10).

In Yemen, the Obama administration partnered with President Saleh of Yemen and his security forces to assist in the apprehension of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and to represent a partnered force, minimizing U.S. military occupation (Sharp 2011, 23). The United States provides “equipment, training, and financial assistance” to the cause and the Yemeni government provides intelligence and carries out military action against AQAP operatives, securing a joint effort to dismantle Al Qaeda and prevent attacks against the United States (Sharp 2011, 23). The Obama administration is emphasizing short-term security assistance accompanied with a long-term plan to enhance economic development, although, predominantly focusing support for counterterrorism and defeating AQAP (Sharp 2011, 23). President Obama continues to enhance counterterrorism efforts to combat the radicalization of inspired jihadists by keeping the American public, communities, and organizations well informed of the threat (NSS 2010).

The Obama administration continues to “invest in intelligence” and “expand community engagement” to promote a high level awareness among the American population (NSS 2010). United States policy is directed toward building relationships within the international community and strengthening counterterrorism efforts at home and abroad (NSS 2010). This direction ensures maximum cooperation to prevent Al Qaeda and its affiliates from conducting terrorist attacks and enabling jihadists to join the global jihad network.

Conclusive Remarks

Since 9/11, Al Qaeda adapted their organizational structure and philosophy to reorient violence against the United States (Bergen 2011, 90). Al Qaeda progressively harnesses a global jihad strategy by employing other Al Qaeda affiliates or like-minded organizations worldwide, establishing an influential media campaign, and diversifying potential recruits to inspire jihadist attacks globally (Barniff 2011, 43). Al Qaeda inspires individuals to actively plan and execute small-scale attacks from numerous locations to target the U.S. homeland. Grasping the goals, intent, and capability of Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and other like-minded groups assists in the development and implementation of U.S. policy (Rollins 2010). U.S. policy is oriented towards the destruction of Al Qaeda and its global jihad movement by building partnerships within the international community to promote economic development, enhancing counterterrorism measures, and securing a unified effort to combat global terrorism (NSS 2010).


Alexander, Dean. “Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: Inspired, Homegrown Terrorism in the United States.” Applied Security Research 6, no. 4 (October 2011).

Bencie, Luke. “Ayman Al-Zawahiri: Al Qaeda’s Former Number #2 Now Becomes HVT #1” Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security International 17, no. 3 (2011)

Bergen Peter. “The Evolving Nature of Terrorism Nine Years after the 9/11 Attacks.” New American Foundation. September 2010.

Bergen, Peter. “Assessing the Jihadist Terrorist Threat to America and American Interests” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 34 (2011) 65-101.

Braniff, Bill. “Towards Global Jihadism: Al Qaeda’s Strategic, Ideological, and Structural Adaptations since 9/11.” Perspective on Terrorism 5, no. 2 (May 2011) 36-49.

Ciovacco, Carl. “The Contours of Al Qaeda’s Media Strategy.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 32, no. 10. (Spetember 2009) 853-875.

Gunaratna, Rohan. “Global Support for Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden: An Increase or Decrease?” Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. January 25, 2011.

Mendelsohn, Barak. “Al Qaeda’s Franchising Strategy.” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 53, no. 3 (May 2011) 29-50.

National Security Strategy 2010. White House. Barrack Obama.

National Counter Terrorism Center. Terrorist Groups: Al Qa’ida.

Rollins, John. Al Qaeda and Affiliates: Historical Persepective, Global Presence, and Implication for U.S. Policy. Congressional Research Service. February 5, 2010.

Sharp, Jeremy. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: History, Profile, and U.S. Counterterrorism Policy. Congressional Research Service Report. 2011. 13-25.


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    • mtariqsattar profile image

      Tariq Sattar 

      3 years ago from Karachi

      Hi, Jill hope you are doing fine.

      Well as for the Alqaeda is concerned - it's perhaps not there or isn't talked about even if it's there, it might not be that effective as it was in past.

      What's more dangerous; and this is me as a Muslim contending, is the advent of ISIS.

      And why has it surfaced? Well the answer is obvious, it has surfaced because of weakening of Iraq and Syrian states. Now it's explicit that Iraq war was a disaster. US should never have attacked Iraq.

      I would comment after your response, let's see how you justify American War over Iraq back in 2003.


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