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Understanding Al-Qaeda's Pakistan PSYOP and Insurgency

The Troubling Effectiveness of al-Qaeda's PSYOP On The Pakistani Army

By Steve Schippert | September 25, 2007

Going forward in the global conflict before us, it is important to acknowledge and understand that al-Qaeda is currently engaged in an Information Operation (IO) campaign inside Pakistan. This is in addition to its efforts to gain influence outside of Pakistan, particularly with Muslims in Europe, the Middle East and in the US. The primary target of the Pakistan campaign is the Pakistani military and it is driven by al-Qaeda's accelerating insurgency inside Pakistan. Understanding how and why al-Qaeda has undertaken this effort allows decision makers greater understanding of al-Qaeda's aims and equips them with a 'lay of the land' required to counter al-Qaeda's message and objectives.

Usama bin Laden's latest recorded message is the third in just two weeks following three years of virtual silence from the al-Qaeda leader. In it, bin Laden calls on Pakistani Muslims to acknowledge that Musharraf's actions are examples of his loyalty to the United States and representative of his unbelief. For bin Laden and his compatriots, such unbelief marks Musharraf as 'kufr' and places the requirement on believers to make "armed rebellion against him." The misguided understanding that bin Laden and al-Qaeda have of Islam makes it obligatory to fight against those who rule outside of their interpretation of Islam, and its overly broad application of tawhid. Yet bin Laden crafts a different message for the Pakistani Army, whom he advises to “resign” from their jobs, “disassociate yourself from Pervez and his Shirk (polytheism)” and “enter anew into Islam.” There is a reason for this, which will be discussed below.

Ayman al-Zawahiri's latest video message and bin Laden's audio message, released on the same day, mark as-Sahab's 77th and 78th propaganda productions this year alone. There is a clear shifting of gears in the al-Qaeda Information Operations, most notably within Pakistan as well as their international efforts surrounding the 6th anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

Before looking further into the al-Qaeda Pakistani IO campaign, we must address the al-Qaeda-Taliban insurgency actively ongoing in Pakistan.

al-Qaeda in Pakistan - From Terrorism to Insurgency

There is, of course, no single agreed upon definition of terrorism. Terrorism is defined in the US Code of Federal Regulations as “...the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85) For instance, terrorism is – among other things - a tactic employed to increase support for a group through inspiration while also decreasing effective resistance to the group through intimidation. An example of this type of terrorism would be the beheading of those deemed to be 'spies' for the Americans in South Waziristan, the multiple car bomb and rocket attacks, or the anti-aircraft assassination attempts on Musharraf. Additionally, the bombings that took place after the Pakistani government raid on Lal Masjid (the Red Mosque) are an example of the use of terror to gain influence. No matter the definition of terrorism being applied, al-Qaeda has clearly been a terrorist organization in Pakistan.

Beyond Pakistan, Al-Qaeda seeks to – in part - influence American foreign policy through terrorist means. But within Pakistan, al-Qaeda has clearly and by specific design transformed from being simply a dangerous international terrorist group within Pakistan to a full-fledged internal insurgency against it. This transformation is represented through the efforts of al-Qaeda to acquire the armored assets of a state Army and its nuclear weapons, as well as the pursuit of land holdings to be integrated into the larger objective of creating an Islamic state to be ruled by a successor to the Prophet, a Khalifa or Caliph, nearly 1350 years after the last of the 'rightly guided' rulers.

An insurgency is a movement with specific governmental designs on the host country. In Countering Evolved Insurgent Networks, Col. Thomas X. Hammes (USMC, Ret.) quotes Bard O'Neill to define an insurgency. O'Neill wrote, “Insurgency may be defined as a struggle between a nonruling group and the ruling authorities in which the nonruling group consciously uses political resources (e.g., organizational expertise, propaganda, and demonstrations) and violence to destroy, reformulate, or sustain the basis of one or more aspects of politics.”

In more accessible terms, Terrorism-Research.com offers that the ultimate goal of an insurgency "is to challenge the existing government for control of all or a portion of its territory, or force political concessions in sharing political power."

Both aptly describe al-Qaeda's actions, operations and aims within Pakistan, a ready-made nuclear power which the terrorist group seeks to wrest complete control.

Perhaps the best way to describe al-Qaeda's Pakistan insurgency is to call it a “Death by a Thousand Cuts.” They have openly sought not only the assassination of Pervez Musharraf, but also the demise – or reconfiguration – of the Pakistani national government. In a strategy that has been executed with remarkable patience, al-Qaeda has gained acknowledged control of several sizable territories in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

After defeating Pakistani forces on the battlefield, the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance have secured various 'peace accords' replete with concessions from the Musharraf government. Effective control of North Waziristan, South Waziristan, Bajour and Swat have been ceded to them and Pakistani forces were – upon agreement – effectively withdrawn from the areas handed the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance through the accords. The accords, no matter how presented by the Musharraf government, represented abject defeat.

Al-Qaeda Insurgency: Destination - Islamabad

Domination in these territories has allowed al-Qaeda the haven necessary to rebuild its training and planning infrastructure as well as replenish its human resources. After a few short weeks of basic military training, Taliban conscripts are sent in waves across the border to battle US and Coalition forces in Afghanistan.

However, al-Qaeda has no designs on investing in regaining that territory. There are no resources for them there – and a more formidable, if reduced, military force to be reckoned with. One whose defeat of the terrorist group drove them into Pakistan's border regions to begin with. Al-Qaeda's designs are not back towards the west, but rather onward deeper into the heart of Pakistan.

While al-Qaeda's Pakistan insurgency has been largely waged in the FATA region, it's territorial aims are by no means limited to it. Rather, al-Qaeda seeks control of all of Pakistan, including its military, weapons and economic capabilities. Al-Qaeda has been executing this strategy one territory, one victory at a time. And it now closes in on Islamabad.

Indeed, an analysis by the Pakistani Interior Ministry warned Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf of precisely this. The New York Times reported that the 15-page internal Pakistani document warned Musharraf that "the influence of the extremists is swiftly bleeding east and deeper into his own country, threatening areas like Peshawar, Nowshera and Kohat, which were considered to be safeguarded by Pakistani government forces." The Interior Ministry document said that Peshewar endures the “highest number of terrorist incidents, including attacks on local police,” and that in Bannu and Tank regions, police are “patronizing the local Taliban and have abdicated the role of law and order.”

It is important to note that Peshewar is the capital of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Much of the Pakistani government, non-Islamist educators, officials and police forces live inside heavily armed and walled communities in the NWFP, where they are more safe from al-Qaeda attack. The NWFP borders the Federally Administered Tribal Areas under direct Taliban-al-Qaeda control on one side and the Pakistani capital of Islamabad on the other. The rising violence is a clear indicator of the expansion of al-Qaeda's insurgency as it marches patiently but steadily toward Islamabad. As evidenced by bin Laden's latest message, that patience may be nearing an end.

Usama bin Laden's latest message implored the Pakistani public to take up arms against Musharraf and warned the army's soldiers to break ranks and fight Musharraf with al-Qaeda rather than serve him. This is a sign that al-Qaeda's patient approach to its Pakistan insurgency has run its course. There could be a maelstrom of events to follow in Pakistan.

AQ Targets Police for Violence and Army Soldiers for Influence

The al-Qaeda Information Operation (IO) is designed to support the insurgency's incremental march on Islamabad. The key to understanding the al-Qaeda IO and its insurgency goals is to understand how al-Qaeda primarily targets Pakistani Interior Ministry forces (police, constabularies and the Frontier Corps) for physical attack while targeting Pakistani regular army forces for influence and subversion.

The persistent mention of Pakistani police forces – rather than Pakistani Army forces – is expected in any Pakistani Interior Ministry report, as the Police forces fall under the Interior. But Pakistani police forces also decidedly bear the brunt of al-Qaeda's lethal attacks and not the Pakistani Army. It's not that al-Qaeda and their indigenous Taliban allies cannot attack the Pakistani Army with expectations of success. They most certainly can and have. With bin Laden's latest audio message delivering a combination invitation and ultimatum to Pakistani Army soldiers, al-Qaeda's designs for the Pakistani Army are more clearly visible. The reason for attacking Pakistani police forces is two-fold and – in this writer's view - also the most elusive and yet perhaps most important indicator of the ongoing al-Qaeda insurgency.

First, the Interior Ministry is widely regarded as the one segment of the Pakistani government with unwavering loyalty to Musharraf, whom al-Qaeda has sought to assassinate several times. Unlike the military and the military's intelligence arm (ISI), the Pakistani police forces, constabularies and Frontier Corps of the Interior Ministry do not have historical ties to Islamist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Interior Ministry loyalty to Musharraf makes their ranks logical targets for the Islamists who seek to kill and replace Musharraf atop an Islamist-run Pakistani government.

Secondly, and most importantly, al-Qaeda at the same time seeks to avoid open bloody conflict with the Army. Not because it fears the deadly consequences of such a confrontation, but rather because al-Qaeda senior leadership wants the Pakistani military intact – for themselves. Ideally, they do not want to ultimately find Musharraf killed or oustered only to have the military splintered internally between pro-government and pro-al-Qaeda commanders. Al-Qaeda is executing an insurgency to gain control, not to touch off a civil war.

In the end, al-Qaeda's design is also to co-opt an intact military in order to gain command of a military force with the assets of a state (aircraft, armor, etc.) and direct control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Recent reports of defections of Pakistani military elements since bin Laden's latest message to them indicates a level of success in the al-Qaeda IO campaign targeting them.

Measuring al-Qaeda's PSYOP Success

Three weeks ago, well over 200 Pakistani Army soldiers surrendered to a much smaller number of fighters from the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance without a shot fired. But the al-Qaeda IO campaign primarily targeting the Pakistani regular army forces has a spillover effect on other forces - and the general populace - as well. It is reported in Pakistan that many soldiers in the Pakistani Army, Frontier Corps paramilitary and police forces are refusing to fight or putting up little fight against their own countrymen inside the Federally Administered Tribal Area.

It is difficult to dispute the success of al-Qaeda's Psychological Warfare efforts inside Pakistan. The message has been consistent for several years and al-Qaeda's patience and restraint in seeing it through are significant qualities of the terrorist organization turned insurgent group. With every message and in all their forms, al-Qaeda has sought to convince the Army soldiers that they are not al-Qaeda's enemy, rather that they are simply being misled by Musharraf. In bin Laden's latest message, he said of the Pakistani Army, “we see the armies becoming tools and weapons in the hands of the Kuffaar [unbeliever, referencing Musharraf and the US] against the Muslims.”

This message resonates, as many Pakistanis are reluctant to take up arms against other Pakistanis, whether those they would confront are Taliban or al-Qaeda or not. It must also be considered that upwards of 30% of the Pakistani Army are, like the Taliban, ethnic Pashtuns. The vast majority of them are enlisted foot soldiers, as very few ethnic Pashtuns hold leadership positions, largely due to internal social and educational dynamics.

Even among the Pakistani police forces in the North West Frontier Province, many are said to have requested leave or simply deserted when faced with the outlook of deadly confrontations with fellow Pakistanis among the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance. In other instances, including the Interior Ministry's report that specifically cited the Bannu and Tank regions, police are “patronizing the local Taliban and have abdicated the role of law and order.”

Where True Power Lies...And Grows

This is an indication that fear is also a prime motivator among Pakistanis. In the North West Frontier Province capital of Peshawar, al-Qaeda's black banner of jihad can be seen displayed in the widows of many shops and flying in various places. This does not necessarily mean that there is explicit support in the hearts and minds of all Pakistanis there – even among those flying the al-Qaeda banner.

Though Peshewar and the rest of the NWFP are technically under Pakistani state control, this indicates a reflection among the populace of where the true power lies – outside the walled communities where many government employees and 'moderate' citizens take refuge. In many cases, the al-Qaeda banner may well be flown simply out of self-protection to avoid attack on their particular shops.

The police cannot protect everyone all the time, but al-Qaeda and the Taliban can attack at their choosing. And from a local's perspective, this is where the true power lies. And as more and more Pakistanis in the police forces, the Frontier Corps and the regular army begin to show a reluctance to do battle, the al-Qaeda power in these region grows, both in measurable means on the ground and within the minds of the Pakistani populace.

Such are the tangible gains of effective, persistent and robust al-Qaeda information operations, a classic PSYOP directed at both the Pakistani population writ large and also expressly directed at the Pakistani Army. As a result, Pakistani forces are engaging al-Qaeda and the Taliban less and less. In fact, President Musharraf announced that in 2008, there will be no Pakistani Army activity at all in al-Qaeda-held territory, deferring engagement to the less capable and less effective Frontier Corps and Pakistani police and constabularies.


The growing success of this long running al-Qaeda PSYOP makes it clear that the defeat of al-Qaeda and the elimination of their global headquarters in Pakistan will not come from Pakistani sources or initiative. As with so many other theaters in this global conflict, the initiative must again come directly from the United States. The American public and American political leaders must prepare themselves for the reality that, at this stage, defeating al-Qaeda in Pakistan most likely requires American boots on Pakistani soil.

The continued disengagement from the fight by Pakistani military forces unwilling to combat terrorists and insurgents within their own country is indeed troubling. President Musharraf's recent decision to fully disengage and withdraw his most capable combat forces from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas by January 2008 certainly does not bode well for continued distanced engagement or non-engagement by American forces. In the end, defeating al-Qaeda in Pakistan will require direct American military action on the ground. The alternative is to accept the consequences of a strengthening al-Qaeda insurgency that is gaining momentum.

There can therefore be little debate that al-Qaeda and its global headquarters in Pakistan must be defeated before they consume Pakistan and the assets of a nuclear-armed state with professional military forces. The first step is an effective IO strategy of our own to counter this very powerful aspect of the insurgency. At current, only Pervez Musharraf openly engages the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance in the war of words and ideas within Pakistan. Unfortunately, these efforts amount to little given his poor domestic credibility. More Pakistani voices are required, and they must address the Pakistani people, bottom up, in a credible manner.


It may well be Canadian boots on Pakistani ground securing the MSR from Karachi.

ISAF in Afghanistan is at the end of a very long and vulnerable line of communication. In my opinion that is the reason the US has been so tolerant of Musharraf. For all his faults, he keeps the LOC open.

Does anybody remember how the First Afghan War ended?

It seems that your whole discussion was leading up to calling for military action. But your last paragraph calls for more talk.

I understand this part of the world is the graveyard of Empires. There is no good solution. Our only solace is GWB has kept America safe these past 6 years.

Bin Laden, or whoever is the head of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, will surely unleash every nuclear missile iin his arsenal. Will it go towrds India? Or Europe? I dont think they can hit the US-yet.

Rest assured, if a Dem is in the White House, even Obama, AQ will get the time to make the necessary upgrades to hit the North American continent.

What I said, kingronjo, was that American boots on the ground is and will remain inevitable.

The first step, mind you, is countering the al-Qaeda IO campaign, which can be employed immediately. Unfortunately, no American voice can effectively do this. None. It must be a credible Pakistani voice.

Running our troops into Pakistan right now ignites a firestorm that brings about precisely what al-Qaeda wants. It is also a logistical nightmare considering our commitments elsewhere.

Also consider, please, that until the Pakistani Army can and will act as the anvil to our hammer, doing so now would be a scattering redux of the Afghanistan invasion, which served Afghanistan well, but only forced AQ relocation.

The next engagement must be decisive and in a closed arena.

Otherwise, lather, rinse, repeat.

Not the best of situations, but it's the one we've got. The enemy is never in the business of making our decisions and tasks easy.

Steve, this is the best analysis of Al-qaeda and the real threat they represent I have seen anywhere. Great work. I wonder if you have an opinion on what strategy we could employ to neutralize the Pakistani nukes if the worst happens and the current govt there is overthrown by the radicals ? This would be a much worse threat to the world than Iran getting nukes in my opinion. Could we pull off a larger version of the Israeli raid into Syria if it comes to that ? I think the only way to protect us and our allies would be to take possession of their nuke sites, remove whatever we could, blow up the rest and get the hell out.


Thank you for the kind words, sir. I'm comfortable that we have a reasonable fix on Pakistan's nuclear weapons locations, though I have no way of knowing for certain, nor should I have any way.

Taking them...wouldn't that be a hoot? More realistic, however, is in-place destruction via aerial attack. Ideally, SOCOM and some key SSG commanders could iron out a lucrative co-op deal for direct human destruction. Either way, any reasonable soul with ego in check then worries every day - and pursues absolute confirmation via ground intelligence - whether we knew of and destroyed them all. It only takes one unknown.

What has to happen to avoid this nightmare is a lesser nightmare, but a nightmare nonetheless: The defeat of al-Qaeda and the preservation of a non-Islamist nationalist Pakistani government with its military loyalty intact.

The alternative to Musharraf in Pakistan is al-Qaeda. Plain and simple. With the current weak array of opposition (sans the Islamists), anyone who hypothetically unseats Musharraf from the moderate corners simply accelerates al-Qaeda's path to ownership. Period. And that's just the way it is.

Without a nationalist (and nationalist-led) Pakistan, there is no military anvil to swing our own hammer against to destroy al-Qaeda. We will simply see them scatter once more, likely into Kashmir and elsewhere. Are we prepared to go into Kashmir in pursuit?

If not, if we limit our scope geographically instead of leaving it wide open to follow AQ where it goes, we will be back here once again, repeating the same battles over and over and over again until we (or India or Europe) are either the recipients of a nuclear attack or we simply tire of fighting and come home to await our medicine.

Complex, but simple. Really. It's just hard. Hard is no reason to quit.

You've certainly laid out a thorough case for a nightmare scenario (i.e., bin Laden's finger on Pakistan's nuclear trigger). What I'd like to see next, Steve, is your scenario for how and when the U.S. will enter Pakistan to strike militarily against al-Qaeda, particularly when Musharraf has consistently and stridently opposed any such action.

And there's the rub, or one of them, Jeffrey.

We just may find ourselves without much choice soon. Further, we just may find ourselves without Musharraf soon as well.

Consider this: If Musharraf finally runs out of luck and 9 lives and is successfully assassinated, and when al-Qaeda's insurgency march reaches Islamabad (which does not require his assassination but is aided by it), the ballgame changes.

How? When? Excellent questions. It is quite certain that I cannot generate the magic solution - military or otherwise - that will work immediately (or ever) without considerable risk, particularly in the aftermath.

However, regardless of the when and how, surely it is apparent that there will be no defeating al-Qaeda in their FATA stronghold without overwhelming ground force. Their will alone dictates this.

In a perfect world, the source of that overwhelming force would be Pakistani. But, for myriad reasons, it is not and likely will remain so. Consider, if you will, al-Qaeda's growing military power, infused with the current mass of military defections from the Pakistani Army.

The current rash of defections since bin Laden's call for jihad and ultimatum with the Pak Army is like a sure touchdown pass that is instead intercepted and run back for a touchdown the other way. It's not just seven points. It's a loss of 7 for one and a gain of 7 for the other. That's a 14-point swing in a game that is already nervously close late in the game.

It's just plain ugly, isn't it? And so the solution will be, too.

I'll have more soon.

Unleash the ANA, and let the Pashtuns ignore the writ of Kabul instead of the writ of Islamabad. India would go for this, and so would a lot of Pashtuns.

It takes an Apache to catch an Apache.