In April 2011, a post appeared on the leading jihadist web forum Shumukh al-Islam authored by a little known writer called Abu Asma al-Kubi. The post itself was unimpressive. It argued that European support had been critical in keeping the United States in Afghanistan, and thus "individual jihad" targeting Europe could cause America's complete collapse "before the end of this year." The BBC's web monitoring service rightly described the post as "a poorly written and incoherent analysis of current events."
Yet even at the time, the jihadist sympathizers who ran the web forum treated the post with a sense of importance out of step with its meager intellectual heft. Shumukh al-Islam promoted it heavily, placing a banner advertising the article on its main page. This was the second time that the forum had given such a prominent place to one of Kubi's posts -- the previous time, it was for an October 2010 post contending that then-ISAF commander Gen. David Petraeus was preparing to negotiate a ceasefire with al Qaeda. The author's adopted name -- al-Kubi, or "the Cuban" -- suggested that he spent time at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, a hint that the man behind these posts may have been someone of significance.
Kubi would continue to post online for another couple of years, anonymously producing over a dozen long posts for a variety of jihadist sites. And when his identity was revealed, he turned out to be more influential than Western analysts could ever have imagined: He was Said al-Shihri, the deputy emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It was only after AQAP admitted in July 2013 that Shihri had been killed in a drone strike that forum members went public with his identity.
At a time when the risk of a major terrorist attack by AQAP has succeeded in disrupting U.S. diplomatic work in roughly 20 countries, from Mauritania to Afghanistan, Shihri's writings provide a unique glimpse into the thinking of the organization's leadership. And with AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi's recent promotion to deputy manager of the global organization, they may even provide readers with hints of the direction that the entire terror organization will take.
Shihri's writings reveal a thinker who preferred a strong, centralized jihadist organization that nonetheless left ample room for individual initiative in carrying out attacks. At a time when some analysts still question whether al Qaeda is capable of strategic thought, he offered a phased plan for expanding jihadist power in the post-Arab Spring world. Yet despite his emphasis on strategy, Shihri's paranoia about Shiites -- who were seemingly an even greater target for his animosity than the United States -- distinguished him even from other jihadist writers. Given the renewed Sunni-Shiite sectarian animus over the Syria war, Shihri's writings may even have been ahead of the curve with regard to jihadist thought. If such views are held by Wuhayshi, al Qaeda may be poised to repeat some of the brutal errors it made in the past.
A jihad of one
Shihri's April 2011 post to Shumukh al-Islam claimed that "individual jihad" -- attacks by individuals not guided by al Qaeda's central leadership -- in Europe could cause the collapse of the United States. It was a theme he would harp on repeatedly. Several scholars have also addressed this issue, with some -- such as Marc Sageman in his 2008 book Leaderless Jihad -- suggesting that such informal networks could eclipse the importance of al Qaeda itself.
Shihri, however, saw no contradiction between individual jihad and al Qaeda's central hierarchy. In a February 2012 post, he described individual jihad as "very important," especially against the United States, which he viewed as a paper tiger. He thought it shameful that the United States had killed al Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, and Anwar al-Awlaki without provoking even small retaliatory attacks, such as setting fire to forests or cars. Shihri stated that individual jihad could "harm, deter, and distract the enemy," pointing specifically to the economic consequences of forcing the United States to spend "billions to secure its inside."
Shihri's posts seem to differ with opinions that argue that either individual or regionalized jihad has eclipsed al Qaeda's organizational structure as the driving force in terrorism today. He sees no contradiction between the existence of many different al Qaeda branches and a central jihadist structure. As he writes, God blessed the movement with "many jihadist organizations under one emirate."
A jihadist need not wait to coordinate with the larger group, Shihri counseled. Rather, he should take his own initiative in gathering information "and whatever he can find ... to benefit jihad." That information should be passed along to the nearest leadership outpost, and "if there is an outpost in his country, he joins it or proposes to it the work that he can do."
In other words, Shihri formulates a largely centralized model, but one that incentivizes, encourages, and sets the direction for individual actions. This is consistent with the messaging and propaganda of AQAP, whose online English-language magazine Inspire consistently encourages readers to undertake individual jihad.