Howard Gambrill Clark's Revolt Against Al Qa'ida is an unusual work by an unusual person. The author graduated Yale with a degree in international relations, worked as an analyst for George W. Bush's Chief Economic Advisor, joined the marines and fought in Iraq and became a senior intelligence analyst for the Department of Homeland Security, specializing in countering radical Islamist terror movements. Then he wrote this book, which comes very close to saying, "Everyone I worked with and everything I worked on was wrong." 

That's not the only case in which the book is unique. It begins with memoir, is peppered with clear frustration and personal anecdotes, but for all intents and purposes, it is a government policy paper. It's meant to be read by people who have closed-door meetings, with classified information and eyes-only clearance, yet it's printed and sold to the general public. Finally, despite a structural approach—a policy paper? ugh—that usually makes even graduate students wince, it's a very interesting and brisk read.

Part of what makes Clark's thesis so seemingly unusual is that he's a veteran and an intelligence insider of a conservative administration who echoes in principle a great deal of liberal critiques of the American military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clark notes that counter-insurgency strategy is centuries old, not a brand-new panacea and in fact uniquely ill-equipped to defeat Al-Qa'ida. (His own uniqueness in stating this is starting to change, as prominent conservatives like George Will increasingly question the long-term value of counter-insurgency strategy.) Most importantly, he sees the attempt to kill leading Al-Qa'ida members as a futile and endless war of attrition. Rather, we need to disengage from an all-out combat thinking and embrace tactics that eliminate Al-Qa'ida members by destroying their recruitment pool and enabling those who live amongst them to want to "revolt" against their influence.

First of all, Clark views counter-insurgency operations as doing the propaganda bidding of Al-Qa'ida. Those whose hearts and minds can be won in a country by bringing food aid or infrastructural development are those who likely were never going to embrace Al-Qa'ida anyway; they might knuckle under to physical threat, but their hearts and minds weren't in danger of being won by violent radicals. Instead, he sees Al-Qa'ida's rhetoric that "Islam is under attack" as possessing more legitimacy for small pools of potential disaffected recruits when they can look at U.S. military operations, drone attacks and targeted assassinations within Muslim countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, etc.

Further, Clark notes that American bellicosity and fear-mongering about Al-Qa'ida as a kind of "Public Enemies #1-?" list, as well as our targeted assassinations of leaders, are counter-productive in two ways. One, there are always new leaders within cells who are ready to step up. He uses the metaphor of the myth of the Hydra: slice off one head, and two more grow in its place. Two, by concentrating on these men, by demonizing them and painting them as so fearsome, the U.S. legitimizes their claims to global Islamic leadership, to real power, to the capacity to bring one's enemies to their knees. In short, we make them seem effective, and we make them seem sexy, which only makes it easier for them to replace the few members lost to assassination or death in combat. While making them spooky outlaws helps to sell policy to an American audience, it also helps to sell the power of terrorism to Al-Qa'ida's potential recruiting pools and at the same time dissuades local populations from resisting their violence because we've advertised it as so effective.

What Clark counter-proposes might be best characterized by "surgical lethality... plus blogging." He does not dismiss the possible necessity of conventional military action, but primarily he believes the United States should switch to light-footprint special forces actions that can pursue Al-Qa'ida across national borders and eliminate threats without relying on military bases, large-scale deployments or high collateral damage drone attacks, all of which service Al-Qa'ida's contention that "Islam is under attack." In short, while we're taking them out, we need to take out their #1 rhetorical recruiting tool.

Meanwhile, Clark turns to the metaphor of throwing all our weight against the enemy's vulnerability when the enemy says "ow." In this case, he points out how much effort Al-Qa'ida devotes to claiming Islamic theological legitimacy while disclaiming "wanton Tartarrus"—i.e. indiscriminate killing of innocents. At several points over the last decade, the U.S. could have exploited this weakness but missed key opportunities (viz. footage of Al-Qa'ida and Taliban members raping Muslim pre-teens, Al-Qa'ida members using a Muslim child with Down's Syndrome as a suicide bomber, against his will) because this kind of rhetorical combat hasn't been prioritized.

Here's where Clark gets into the meat of his proposal and ample data that most readers won't know. He profiles numerous Muslim scholars, including former Al-Qa'ida members who have renounced the group, who are already effectively attacking Al-Qa'ida's theological legitimacy, condemning them as heretics and murderers. Unfortunately, these voices have not been "mainstreamed" internationally, instead occupying a tiny corner of religious debate in the Muslim world.

What the U.S. instead must do is find effective anonymous third-party outlets (ones that don't have the stamp of "American propaganda" on them) to transmit these criticisms as effectively as Al-Qa'ida uses the internet and video to justify itself. At present, we essentially cede the debate to them, failing to counter their ideological attack with a concomitant counter-attack that would actually have overwhelmingly more factual legitimacy. Clark instead enumerates a multi-point topical attack on Al-Qa'ida's standing in the Muslim world, including how its presence increases violence while dissuading international aid and development.

Despite its slimness, Clark's book addresses the dynamics of rhetorical warfare more fully than can be described here, and he responds to more criticisms than could be addressed here. While the format of a policy paper might seem staid and hidebound, the author's created a document that is self-aware and responsive to anticipated criticism and multiple factors of asymmetrical warfare. Lastly, it's a surprisingly accessible and engaging read.

What Revolt Against Al-Qa'ida offers is a blueprint for just that: a program for undermining Al-Qa'ida within the Muslim world and within its recruitment base, by attacking their legitimacy as Muslim scholars, condemning their actions, illustrating the negative outcomes people face for embracing them and highlighting the positive outcomes that Al-Qa'ida affiliation inhibits. Such an approach could drastically cut American military expenditures and loss of life and address a permanent solution to the Al-Qa'ida problem that cannot be found in simply picking off leaders one by one in a rhetorical vacuum.

It's an unusual book. For something that proposes counter-radicalism, it is itself somewhat radical, but it's well worth considering going forward.


0 Kudos
About Unabashedly Bookish: The BN Community Blog
Unabashedly Bookish features new articles every day from the Book Clubs staff, guest authors, and friends on hot topics in the world of books, language, writing, and publishing. From trends in the publishing business to updates on genre fiction fan communities, from fun lessons on grammar to reflections on literature in our personal lives, this blog is the best source for your daily dose of all things bookish.


Since 1997, you’ve been coming to to discuss everything from Stephen King to writing to Harry Potter. You’ve made our site more than a place to discover your next book: you’ve made it a community. But like all things internet, is growing and changing. We've said goodbye to our community message boards—but that doesn’t mean we won’t still be a place for adventurous readers to connect and discover.

Now, you can explore the most exciting new titles (and remember the classics) at the Barnes & Noble Book Blog. Check out conversations with authors like Jeff VanderMeer and Gary Shteyngart at the B&N Review, and browse write-ups of the best in literary fiction. Come to our Facebook page to weigh in on what it means to be a book nerd. Browse digital deals on the NOOK blog, tweet about books with us,or self-publish your latest novella with NOOK Press. And for those of you looking for support for your NOOK, the NOOK Support Forums will still be here.

We will continue to provide you with books that make you turn pages well past midnight, discover new worlds, and reunite with old friends. And we hope that you’ll continue to tell us how you’re doing, what you’re reading, and what books mean to you.