Jihadi Thinker Emphasizes the Media's Importance

William McCants, a fellow at West Point, talks with Steve Inskeep about the strengths and weaknesses of the jihadi movement. McCants recently translated The Management of Savagery, a jihadi guide written by al-Qaida operative Abu Bakr Naji. The text maps out U.S. weaknesses, as well as outlining jihadi ideology, goals, and internal struggles.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you want to know the al-Qaida strategy against the West, you may not have to look farther than your computer. That's where a teacher at West Point located a book with the chilling title, The Management of Savagery. The author writes under the pseudonym Abu Bakr Naji.

Mr. WILLIAM MCCANTS (Fellow, Combating Terrorism Center, West Point): He seems to be highly placed in the al-Qaida organization. He has a good bird's-eye view of the movement, and he's a terrific student of where past jihadi movements have gone wrong in the Middle East.

INSKEEP: That's William McCants, a fellow at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center. He translated The Management of Savagery from its original Arabic, and he has the first of our conversations on the strategy of terror. The book says al-Qaida is targeting countries from Nigeria to Yemen to Pakistan. Those countries are chosen because they have weak governments, receptive people, and lots of weapons.

Mr. MCCANTS: Naji's plan is to conduct small-to medium-scale attacks on crucial infrastructure, such as oil or tourism, which will cause the government to draw in its security forces, and chaos or savagery, as he calls it, will erupt in these unpoliced areas, these security vacuums, which can be as large as a province or as small as a city like Fallujah.

And the jihadis will then move into these security vacuums and provide basic services to the people, so hence, the title of his book, The Management of Savagery. And he says the people will welcome it because they're providing basic services.

INSKEEP: As you describe the strategy, I'm thinking of Somalia where there was chaos for years, and an Islamist group is now in control of the capital and providing...

Mr. MCCANTS: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...services, justice.

Mr. MCCANTS: Exactly. It's exactly right. That's straight out of Naji's book.

INSKEEP: Let's talk a little bit about some of the tactics that are discussed in this book. There's almost a list of do's and don'ts when it comes to public relations. What are you supposed to do and not do if you're trying to be a successful jihadi, according to this book?

Mr. MCCANTS: Yeah, he spends a lot of time talking about public relations, and he says this is what the jihadis have really failed to do in the past. And he says the first order of business is to convince people that the United States is not invincible. And he says the United States has convinced people of this because of their media.

He says their military power is not actually that strong and that they can be bled economically and forced to pull out of a region; so you have to convince people that in order to succeed, the jihadis have to get a lot more savvy about spinning the attacks in the way that the public will respond to.

And I think Naji probably, looking at the current situation, is perhaps dismayed, because he saw the U.S. incursion into the region as a big boon for the jihadi movement, that it would be a huge PR victory. But I think Zarqawi has really squandered that PR victory for them, and I think Naji would look on something like that with dismay.

INSKEEP: What did Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late terrorist leader in Iraq, do to squander his PR advantage?

Mr. MCCANTS: Well, several things. One was his beheading of captives horrified a lot of Muslims. Two, his willingness to attack other Muslims - civilians -that's a big no-no in Islamic law.

The two bastions of support for al-Qaida have been Pakistan and Jordan, and once Zarqawi hit the hotels in Amman, that really drove down support for al-Qaida in Jordan.

INSKEEP: Hmm. You know, it's amazing, I'm reading here this text that you translated from Arabic, and there's a section here called Mastery of the Art of Management, and there are suggestions about places you can go for management advice. It's like leadership secrets of Osama bin Laden. What's going on here?

Mr. MCCANTS: That's what I thought when I saw it. It's the Seven Highly Effective Habits of Jihadi Leaders. Naji asks his readers to get over their prejudice against Western literature. And he says it's necessary to master Western political science, military science, and books on good management style, if they are ever to successfully run an Islamic state in the Middle East.

And most interesting, he also asks them to read Western books on anthropology, particularly as it deals with tribes in the Middle East. Because he feels that from this literature, the jihadis can better learn how to buy off tribal leaders, which has been a big problem for them, both in Afghanistan and prior to that in Syria.

INSKEEP: And what does it mean to you that this management book ended up on a Web site where anybody could go read it?

Mr. MCCANTS: I think that after the United States defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan, jihadi leaders had no choice but to put their strategic documents online, because this is the kind of information that usually was reserved for people that were coming through the training camps in Afghanistan.

And the second reason why I think it's online is that people like Naji and other strategists are competing with each other for allegiance of their constituency among the jihadi movement. And so I think there's an element of ego involved as well.

But this book was certainly sanctioned by al-Qaida because much of it was published in al-Qaida's main journal, The Voice of Jihad, which was published out of Saudi Arabia.

INSKEEP: Hmm. You've been translating this and thinking about it at West Point, where the next generation of American strategic thinkers is being groomed, even as we speak. Do you think that this amounts to a smart strategy?

Mr. MCCANTS: Yes, I do. I don't think the jihadis are left with a lot of options, and I think Naji is frightening in the sense that he has really grasped the power of the media, which is nine-tenths of the battle in defeating the jihadi movement but also nine-tenths of their battle in defeating the United States and establishing Islamic governments in the region.

And the cadets at West Point have been studying this book and similar books, and we're hoping to raise up a new generation of military thinkers who are intimately familiar with jihadi strategy, just as their thinkers are familiar with U.S. military strategy.

INSKEEP: We've been talking with William McCants. He's a fellow at West Point's Combating Terror Center, and he recently translated a book called The Management of Savagery. Thanks very much.

Mr. MCCANTS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And our conversations continue tomorrow when we'll talk about the TV production group that produces al-Qaida's videos.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.