Thursday, July 06, 2006


iRAQ iNSURGENCY. Colonel McAllister should be saluted
for his grasp.

(article begins)

Al Qaeda and its affiliates are operating much like a
global tribe waging segmental warfare. This paper
describes the dynamics of classic tribes: what drives
them, how they organize, how they fight. Al Qaeda fits
the tribal paradigm quite well. Thus, continuing to
view Al Qaeda mainly as a cutting–edge, post–modern
phenomenon of the information age misses a crucial
point: Al Qaeda and affiliates are using the
information age to reiterate ancient patterns of
tribalism on a global scale. The war they are waging
is more about virulent tribalism than religion. The
tribal paradigm should be added to the network and
other prevailing paradigms to help figure out the best
policies and strategies for countering these violent

Basic dynamics of classic tribes
War and religion in tribal settings
Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and global jihad
Overlap with the network paradigm
Preliminary implications for policy and strategy


According to the latest thinking, Al Qaeda is now more
important as an ideology than an organization, a
network than a hierarchy, and a movement than a group.
It is increasingly amorphous, though initially it
seemed tightly formed. Osama bin Laden’s core group
may even be too weakened to matter very much.

This spells a considerable evolution for Al Qaeda, as
well as for expert thinking about it. Initially
?before and after the September 11 attacks ?analysts
wondered whether this mysterious organization was
structured like a corporation, venture–capital firm,
franchise operation, foundation, social or
organizational network ?or all of the above. Today,
now that Al Qaeda has more affiliates, the network and
franchise concepts remain in play, but the emphasis is
on Al Qaeda’s evolution into a decentralized,
amorphous ideological movement for global jihad.

Since so little about Al Qaeda’s organization is
fixed, counterterrorism analysts and strategists have
to be ready to adapt their views to shifting realities
and prospects. For example, a major new strike on
American soil directed by Bin Laden might jar analysts
back to a belief that Al Qaeda’s core remains (or has
recovered as) a strong, central unit with an effective
capacity for command–and–control. Also, while Al Qaeda
may look amorphous (i.e., shapeless), the deeper
reality may be that it is polymorphous, deliberately
shifting its shape and style to suit changing
circumstances, including the addition of new,
semi–autonomous affiliates to the broader network. And
that raises a further reason for analysts to remain
flexible: Clear as it may be that Al Qaeda and its
affiliates are organized as a network, evidence is
still lacking about many design details.

It is not enough to say something is a network.
According to one model, a network may start out as a
set of scattered, barely connected clusters, then grow
interconnections to form a single hub–and–spoke
design, then become more complex and disperse into a
multi–hub "small world" network, finally to grow so
extensive, inclusive and sprawling as to become a
complex core/periphery network. For a while, the
pressures put on the Al Qaeda network evidently
decreased it from a hub–and–spoke back to a
scattered–cluster design. But now it is growing again,
apparently into a multi–hub design. Which design is
it? Do the pieces consist of chain, hub (i.e., star),
or all–channel subnets? And where are the bridges and
holes that may connect to outside actors? The answers
matter, for each design has different strengths,
weaknesses, and implications. Some designs may be
vulnerable to leadership targeting, others not. As
research proceeds on how best to disrupt, destabilize,
and dismantle networks, analysts are finding that in
some cases it may be best to focus on key nodes and in
other cases on key links, in some cases on middling
rather than central nodes or links, and in other cases
on peripheral nodes or links. But this is tentative.
And much less is known about how to analyze the
capacity of networks to recover and reassemble after a
disruption, possibly by morphing into a different

Continuing to view Al Qaeda mainly as a cutting–edge,
post–modern phenomenon of the information age misses a
crucial point: Al Qaeda is using the information age
to revitalize and project ancient patterns of
tribalism on a global scale.In short, analysts and
strategists have adopted a basic set of organizational
views to work with. But they still face a lack of
knowledge about Al Qaeda and its affiliates,
particularly as to how they may combine and shift
among network, franchise, hierarchical, and possibly
other design elements. Thus, it is advisable not to
get fixed on any one view, but instead to work with
"multiple models" whose content and probability may
continue to vary. It is also advisable to keep looking
for additional views that are not yet fully

Here is a viewpoint worth adding to the mix: Al Qaeda
and its far–flung affiliates are organized and
behaving much like a classic tribe, one that wages
segmental warfare. This view overlaps with the network
view, but has its own implications. It shows that Al
Qaeda’s vaunted, violent fundamentalism is more a
tribal than a religious phenomenon. It also shows that
continuing to view Al Qaeda mainly as a cutting–edge,
post–modern phenomenon of the information age misses a
crucial point: Al Qaeda is using the information age
to revitalize and project ancient patterns of
tribalism on a global scale.

The main purpose of this essay is to urge thinking
more deeply about the tribal paradigm and its
applicability to Al Qaeda. The tribal paradigm may
have useful implications for U.S. policy and strategy
?especially for conducting the ideological "war of
ideas" ?but these are given only a little preliminary
attention at the end.

Basic dynamics of classic tribes
As people banded together to constitute primitive
societies thousands of years ago, the first major form
of organization to emerge was the tribe. Its key
organizing principle was kinship, as expressed through
nuclear and extended family ties, lineage segments
(notably, clans) that spanned various families and
villages, and claims of descent from a common, often
mythologized, even god–like ancestor. The tribe’s key
purpose (or function) was to infuse a distinct sense
of social identity and belonging, thereby
strengthening a people’s ability to bond and survive
as individuals and as a collective.

A classic tribe may be tied to a specific territory
and the exploitation of resources found there. It may
spell an evolution from the hunter–gatherer life of
nomadic bands to a more settled, agrarian, village
lifestyle. It may span various villages and hamlets,
and its size may grow to several thousand people. It
may harden its identity as a tribe, as a result of
conflicts with outsiders. And it may lack the formal
institutional hierarchies that characterize chiefdoms
and states ?the two types of societies that come next
in evolutionary theory. Yet even if these or other
observations made by scholars are added to the
definition of the tribe, kinship remains its essence.

As tribes grow, clans usually coalesce inside them
?clans being clusters of families and individuals who
claim a particular lineage and, because of this, act
conjointly in a corporate manner. Typically, a clan
has its own legends, rituals and ceremonies, its own
lands, households and other properties, a "Big Man" or
an elder to represent (but not rule) it, and perhaps a
particular function, such as progeny who often serve
as priests or warriors. Mutual defense and aid are
keenly important in clan systems; indeed, an insult or
threat to any one member is received as an insult or
threat to all ?as is also the case for a tribe as a
whole vis–à–vis other tribes and outsiders.

While lineage and marriage ties can keep small tribes
together, they alone do not suffice to keep large
tribes and clans integrated. This eventually requires
the rise of a variant on the kinship principle:
fraternal associations and corporate orders based more
on a sense of brotherhood than blood ?what
anthropologists call "fictive kinship." Such
associations may combine individuals from various
families and villages for a specific, corporate
purpose. Examples include secret brotherhoods as well
as age–grade, warrior, healing, ceremonial, and
religious associations. While some may derive directly
from lineage (e.g., a clan), others do not ?yet all
emulate kin–like relations. The larger and more
complex a tribe becomes, the more important such
brotherhoods become. (In modern times, these are often
called clubs, gangs, and secret societies.)

Kinship considerations permeate everything ?all
thought and action ?in a tribe and its constituent
segments. One’s identity is less about one’s self than
one’s lineage ?lineage determines most of one’s
identity as an individual and submerges it in the
tribal whole. This applies also to one of the most
important activities in a tribe: arranged marriage ?it
too is about the linking of families, not individuals.
From our distant remove, varied economic, political,
and cultural activities may appear to occur in a
tribe; but seen in their own light, tribes lack such
differentiation ?everything one does in a tribe is
done as a kinsman of one kind or another. In tribal
milieus, strategy and tactics revolve around what
might be called kinpolitik, far more than realpolitik.

Without going into details about just how complicated
kinship charts and calculations can get, individual
identities and possibilities in tribal/clan societies
are both fixed and fluid at the same time. Lineage
positions mean they are fixed, because of to whom an
individual is born, and when. Moreover, as a rule,
tribe trumps clan, trumps family, trumps individuals
?binding all into a nested social (but not political)
hierarchy. Yet, kin and their associates operate off
lateral as much as vertical ties; for example, a
person can choose which relative (say, which distant
cousin) to ally with on which issues and under what
circumstances. This can make for very flexible social
possibilities that resemble not only circles within
circles, but also circles across circles. This offers
extensive room for maneuver, which can be used for
promoting rivalries as well as alliances.

As individuals, families, clans, and tribes as a whole
assert their place and maneuver for position,
maximizing honor ?not power or profit ?is normally
their paramount motivation. This emphasis is often
thought to flow from the fact that tribes arose in
subsistence times, way too early for power or profit
to matter. But there must be more to the explanation,
for the pattern persists in modern sorts of tribes and
clans. Wherever people, even powerful rich people,
turn tribal and clannish, honor ?as well as its
concomitants: respect, pride, and dignity ?come into
serious play in social interactions. Thus, warlords
and warriors fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other
tribal zones are renowned for the value they place on
upholding codes of honor and avoiding shameful
humiliation. Everybody wants to gain honor for
themselves and their lineage, clan, and tribe; no one
can afford to lose face, for that would reflect badly
not only on them as individuals but also on all their
kin. (If the word were in a dictionary, it might be
said that tribes and clans are deeply "honoritarian.")

Tribes behave more like balance–of–honor than
balance–of–power systems.Let us turn next to
organizational principles. Reflecting the primacy of
kinship bonds, tribes are resolutely egalitarian,
segmental, and acephalous ?to use terms favored by
anthropologists. These three principles are

First, in being egalitarian, a tribe’s members are
deemed roughly equal to each other. The aim is not so
much absolute equality as respect for individual
autonomy ?and especially the autonomy of individual
households. In this spirit, members emphasize communal
sharing, as in sharing food, giving gifts, and doing
favors. This obliges recipients to reciprocate ?for
honorable reciprocity, not exchange, is the underlying
ethic. Elitism is avoided, and domination efforts are
not tolerated for long. Upstarts, such as alpha–type
bullies and despotic self–aggrandizers, are eventually
restrained, as are overly selfish free–riders and
odd–ball deviants. Indeed, classic tribes are so
egalitarian that no fixed rank or status system exists
in them. There are tendencies for elders to receive
more respect than the young, men more than the women,
and a "Big Man" more than others. Also, family heads
may lord it over others inside their own households;
and some lineages and clans may compete for status.
But overall, the egalitarian ethos limits hierarchical
and competitive tendencies. Whoever shows leadership
has to be modest, generous, self–effacing, and treat
others as peers. There is constant group–wide
vigilance to keep anyone from gaining sway for long.
If necessary, coalitions form to assure leveling. In
tribal systems rent by feuds and rivalries,
egalitarianism becomes more an ideal than a reality
?but it is still the desired ethos. In short, tribes
behave more like balance–of–honor than
balance–of–power systems.

Second, the classic tribe is segmental, in that every
part resembles every other ?there is no
specialization. Tribes have no distinct central
nervous system, and all households and villages are
essentially alike: resolutely self–sufficient and
autonomous. Because tribes are so segmental and
undifferentiated, their constituent parts ?e.g.,
families, lineages, clans ?tend to oscillate between
fusion and fission. Fusion occurs, for example, when
clan intermarriages foster unity across villages and
other segments; when segments, even ones that were
feuding, ally against an enemy; and when a tribe
absorbs an outside band or tribe. Fission occurs when
shortages or feuds so beset a tribe that a segment
(e.g., a few related households, an entire clan) hives
off and goes its own way, forming a new tribe that
immediately replicates the design of the old. Whether
in a state of fusion or fission, each segment guards
its autonomy.

Thirdly, the classic tribe is acephalous (or
headless). The earliest form of social organization
was not hierarchy; egalitarian tribes were the norm
before hierarchical societies ?first chiefdoms, then
states ?emerged. Classic tribes had no formal leaders,
not even chiefs. Informal status differences that
arose (e.g., deference to elders) were kept muted.
Political hierarchies, dominant groups, class
structures, and other status systems are absent at
this stage. The title of chief, if there was one,
meant little; he was a man of influence, an adviser, a
facilitator, a broker ?but he could not give orders
that had to be obeyed. Thus, leadership, as in hunting
for big game or conducting a ceremony, was transient
and low–profile; it kept shifting and depended more on
the situation than the person. One day’s "Big Man" was
not necessarily tomorrow’s. Major decisions, such as
whether to go to war or where to migrate, were made in
tribal councils open to all, where anyone (at least
all households heads) could speak. Indeed,
consultative consensus–seeking in tribal councils was
the first form democracy took.

What matters for maintaining order and peace in such
tribal milieus are not leadership, hierarchy, force,
and law ?it is too early a form for that ?but the
customs and codes of etiquette that flow from revering
kinship bonds. Kinship systems place high value on
principled, praise–worthy displays of respect, honor,
trust, obligation, sharing, reciprocity, and an
acceptance of one’s place. Rituals and ceremonies ?and
later, religion ?reinforce this. In the event of
wrong–doing, sanctions run the gamut from public
blame, shame, shunning, ostracism, and a withdrawal of
reciprocity, to expulsion or execution if a group
consensus exists.

Principles of respect, dignity, pride, and honor are
so important in a tribal society that humiliating
insults may upset peace and order more than anything
else. An insult to one individual is normally taken as
an insult to all who belong to that lineage. Then,
there are only two ways to relieve the sense of
injury: one is compensation, the other revenge. And a
call for compensation or revenge may apply not just to
the offending individual but to his or her entire
lineage. Responsibility is collective. And justice is
less about punishment for a crime than about gaining
adequate compensation or revenge to restore honor. It
is not unusual to find clans and tribes engaged in
prolonged cycles of revenge and reconciliation ?i.e.,
fission and fusion ?deriving from insults that
happened long ago.

These, in summary fashion and skipping many
intricacies, are the basic dynamics of classic tribes.
They took shape more than 5,000 years ago during
Neolithic times. They characterize many bands, tribes,
and some chiefdoms that social and cultural
anthropologists have studied in recent eras, such as
the Nuer (Africa), the Trobrianders (Melanesia), the
!Kung (Africa), the Iroquois (North America), and the
Yanomama (Brazil), not to mention examples from
European history. Some examples may look ancient,
primitive, or backward. But the tribal form is not
ancient history; it endures today ?indeed, one
manifestation or another makes media headlines almost
ever day. This is true for events in Africa, the
Middle East, and South Asia. But it also applies to
fully modern societies in North America and Europe,
where the tribal paradigm is constantly reiterated in
small but significant ways: as in the often clannish
organization and behavior of civic clubs, fellowships,
fraternities, sports clubs (e.g., soccer hooligans),
car clubs, and ethnic urban gangs, to note a few
examples. All such organizations reflect the tribal
paradigm, for they are normally more about ancient
desires for identity, honor and pride, than about
modern proclivities for power and profit.

War and religion in tribal settings
At its best, the tribal way of life imparts a vibrant
sense of solidarity. It fills a people’s life with
pride, dignity, honor, and respect. It motivates
families to protect, welcome, encourage, shelter, and
care for each other (and for guest outsiders), and to
give gifts and hold ceremonies that affirm their
connections to each other and to the ancestors, lands,
and god(s) that define the tribe’s identity. This
kinship creates a stable realm of trust and loyalty in
which one knows (and must uphold) one’s rights,
duties, and obligations. Many people around the world
still prefer this ancient way of life over the ways of
modern, impersonal hierarchical and market systems.
Even advanced societies that lack explicit tribes and
clans still have tribe–like sensibilities at their
core; it shows up in nationalism, cultural
festivities, civic interest groups, and sports and fan

But tribalism can make for a mean–spirited exclusivity
and partiality too. Tribes and clans can be terribly
sensitive about boundaries and barriers ?about who is
in the tribe and who outside, about differences
between "us" and "them." One’s tribe (assuming it is
not riven with feuds and rivalries) may seem a realm
of virtue, where reciprocal altruism rules kin
relations. But virtuous behavior toward kin does not
have to extend, in tribal logic, to outsiders ?they
can be treated differently, especially if they are

Sometimes this spells war. When a tribe does go to
war, it tries to do so as a whole, but it fights as
segments. Internal feuds, rivalries, and other
differences are set aside in order to unite against
the outside enemy. Strategic agreement on the broad
outlines of war may be reached in consultative
councils. But each segment guards its own autonomy;
not even in battle do they organize under a central
command. If a war is based on alliances among groups
within a tribe or between tribes, then that may be
another reason to guard autonomy. For in tribal
milieus, one day’s ally may turn into another day’s
betrayer, and a group that takes shape one day may not
be able to form anew later.

Classic tribal warfare emphasizes raids, ambushes and
skirmishes ?attacks followed by withdrawals, without
holding ground. Pitched battles are not the norm, for
tribes lack the organizational and logistical
capacities for campaigns and sieges. Sometimes the
aims are limited, but tribal warfare often turns into
total warfare, aimed at massacring an entire people,
mercilessly. Killing women and children, taking women
captive, torturing and mutilating downed males,
scalping and beheading are common practices. So is
treachery, as in mounting surprise attacks at dawn, or
inviting people to a feast then slaughtering them on
the spot. Tribal fighters do not hold prisoners.
Enemies who are not massacred are put to flight, and
their lands and homes seized. Bargaining in good faith
to end a conflict becomes nigh impossible, for the
attackers have denied legitimacy to those whom they
are attacking. In ancient times, this brutal way of
war did not ease until the rise of chiefdoms and
states, when leaders began preferring to subjugate
rather than annihilate people. In today’s world,
examples are still easy to find ?the Hutu massacres of
Tutsis in Rwanda come readily to mind, as do episodes
in the Balkans.

Tribes that go to war normally do so in the name of
their god(s). Indeed, many (though not all) religions,
from ancient totemism onwards, have their deepest
roots in tribal societies. The major monotheistic
religions ?Judaism, Christianity, and Islam ?each
arose from a tense tribal time in the Middle East. And
each, in its oldest texts, contains passages that,
true to traditional tribal ethics, advocate reciprocal
altruism toward kin, yet allow for terrible
retribution against outside tribes deemed guilty of
insult or injury. Today, centuries later, tribal and
religious concepts remain fused in much of the world,
notably Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

The more a religion commends the kinship of all
peoples, the more it may lead to ecumenical caring
across boundaries (as Islam often does). But the more
a religion’s adherents delineate sharply between "us"
and "them," demonize the latter, view their every kin
(man, woman, child, combatant or non–combatant) as
innately guilty, revel in codes of revenge for touted
wrongs, and seek territorial or spiritual conquests,
all the while claiming to act on behalf of a deity,
then the more their religious orientation is utterly
tribal, prone to violence of the darkest kind. This is
as evident in the medieval Christian Crusades as in
today’s Islamic jihads, to mention only two examples.

All religious hatred ?whether Christian, Jewish,
Islamic, Buddhist, or Hindu ?is sure to speak the
language of tribe and clan. And that language is sure
to be loaded with sensitivities about respect, honor,
pride, and dignity, along with allocutions to the
sacred, purifying nature of violence. This is a normal
ethic of tribes and clans, no matter the religion.
Indeed, as Amin Maalouf [1] says about today’s world:

"[I]f the men of all countries, of all conditions and
faiths can so easily be transformed into butchers, if
fanatics of all kinds manage so easily to pass
themselves off as defenders of identity, it’s because
the ‘tribal?concept of identity still prevalent all
over the world facilitates such a distortion."
Savagery may worsen when tribal elements are led by a
sectarian chieftain who is also a grandiose, ruthless
warlord, like Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al–Zarqawi,
the Taliban’s Mullah Mohammed Omar, or Chechnya’s
Shamil Basayev. If the outsiders they target
(including Americans) react with a tribalism (or
extreme nationalism) of their own, then fights over
whose religion should win become inseparable from
whose tribe should win. While the modern idea of
separating state and church is difficult enough, any
notion of separating tribe and religion is
inconceivable for many a people, especially in

Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and global jihad
Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda match the tribal paradigm
quite well. There is ample evidence that Bin Laden
thinks and operates in tribal/clan terms, as seen in
his selection of wives, his aptitude for forming
secretive brotherhoods, and his rhetoric about Islam,
the Arab world, and jihad. The regions where Al Qaeda
has been based are notoriously tribal: Afghanistan
under the Taliban, and now allegedly along the
Afghan–Pakistan border. Also, Al Qaeda’s main targets
include Saudi Arabia, a tribal kingdom, and Iraq,
where much of the population has reverted to tribal
and clan ways since the collapse of Iraq’s state.

Al Qaeda’s design looks backward more than it looks
forward; it reiterates as much as it innovates ?and
that’s because of its enduring tribalness.This is not
the dominant way to view Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
Analysts have preferred to keep looking for central
decisionmaking nodes and specialized structures ?even
committees ?for matters like targeting, recruitment,
financing, logistics, and communications, as though
they might reveal a corporate pyramid. Or they have
treated the creation of affiliates as though they were
franchises that took the initiative to become
affiliates or were concocted at Al Qaeda’s behest. Or
analysts have emphasized the sprawling network designs
that Al Qaeda and its affiliates increasingly exhibit.
Or they have applied social movement theory. All these
analytical approaches make sense and should continue.
But they end up making Al Qaeda look like a work of
dauntless, modern, forward–looking genius, when it
isn’t. Its design looks backward more than it looks
forward; it reiterates as much as it innovates ?and
that’s because of its enduring tribalness.

The tribal paradigm ?and a case that Al Qaeda is like
a global tribe waging segmental warfare ?shows up
across five analytic dimensions: narrative content,
social appeal, leadership style, organizational
design, doctrine and strategy, and the use of
information technology. Below is a look at each.

Narrative content

Many themes in Bin Laden’s and other jihadist
statements fit the tribal paradigm. The world is
divided between good–hearted believers ?the worldwide
umma (kindred community) of Muslim brothers and
sisters ?and evil non–believers (infidels, apostates,
heretics). Arab lands and peoples have suffered far
too much injury, insult, and humiliation ?their honor
has been trampled, their families disrespected ?by
arrogant, self–aggrandizing intruders (America,
Israel). Muslims have a sacred duty to defend
themselves: to fight back, wreak vengeance, seek
retribution, and oust the foreign invaders. They must
be made to pay; no mercy should be shown ?no matter if
civilians die, even women and children. They deserve
every punishment, every catastrophe, every tit–for–tat
that can be heaped upon them. Defensive warfare is a
necessary duty to restore honor and pride. This
story–line is made to sound Islamic, and it has
Islamic aspects that are not necessarily tribal ?for
example, requiring that an enemy be warned. But
overall, it is tribal to the core. Indeed, similar
story–lines have cropped up among virulently tribal
Jewish, Christian, and other religious extremists as
well, all across history.

Social appeal

Among Muslims, the jihad narrative is not alien,
academic, or bizarre. It requires little
indoctrination, for it arouses both the heart and
mind. Recruits willingly come from militants who
fought in Afghanistan, Chechnya, or the Balkans;
immigrants in Europe and refugees in Jordan and
Palestine who are leading alienated, unsettled lives;
youths leading comfortable but constricted lives in
Saudi Arabia; and Sunnis whose lives have been
shattered by the warring in Iraq. What drives them,
according to many analyses, are shared sensibilities
about loss, alienation, humiliation, powerlessness,
and disaster. Such analyses may also note, more in
passing than in depth, that joining Al Qaeda or an
affiliate provides a family–like fellowship. However,
this should not be given short shrift; participation
may appeal largely because it binds members in such a
fellowship ?in mosques, training camps, militant
cells, etc. And it may do so not simply because many
members share the social–psychological sensibilities
noted above, but because they come from cultures that
are deeply, longingly tribal and clannish. For the
lost and the adrift, joining Al Qaeda recreates the
tribal milieu. This may even apply to the attraction
of nomadic loners from faraway cultures who convert to
Islam while seeking a more meaningful identity and
sense of belonging for themselves (e.g., a John Walker

Leadership style

Bin Laden’s stylized demeanor is in the tradition of a
modest, self–effacing, pious tribal sheik. He
espouses, interprets, advises, facilitates, brokers,
and blesses. His ideas are embedded in Islamic
tradition ?he does not concoct them to express his
ego. He radiates a commanding presence, but he does
not give orders or demand submission to his leadership
(though he may well be chief of his own cell, i.e.,
household). He is generous with funds. His co–leader
of Al Qaeda, Ayman al–Zawahiri, conveys a similar
though edgier image. In contrast, their fellow warrior
in Iraq, al–Zarqawi, acts like a ferocious alpha–male
bully who would just as soon create fissions between
Sunni and Shia tribes in Iraq. Yet he is so respectful
of Bin Laden, who takes a more ecumenical approach to
pan–tribal fusion, that the latter has declared him to
be his emissary in Iraq. Information is lacking on how
these and other chieftains make decisions affecting Al
Qaeda, but the process appears to involve mutual
communication, consultation, and accommodation to
reach a consensus that does not smack of hierarchy or
imposition ?much as might occur in a classic tribal

Organizational design

Al Qaeda and its affiliates are organized as a
(multi–hub? core/periphery?) network of dispersed
nodes, cells, and units, all campaigning in a similar
direction without a precise central command. This
looks like an information–age network, but it is
equally a tribal–age network. It is bound together by
kinship ties of blood and especially brotherhood. What
look like nodes and cells from a modern perspective
correspond to segments from a tribal perspective. Some
segments come from true tribes and families; others
are patched together in terms of "fictive kinship" by
jihadist clerics, recruiters, and trainers. Yet all
who join get to feel like they belong to segments of
an extended family/tribe that reaches around the
world. Al Qaeda had a segmentary quality even before
September 11; for example, some training camps in
Taliban Afghanistan were divided along ethnic lines
(e.g., here for Algerians, there for Chechens), and
the cells that struck on September 11 consisted of a
Saudi segment. Furthermore, this jihadist network is
vaguely acephalous (or polycephalous), as a tribe
should be. It is held together not by
command–and–control structures ?tribes are not
command–and–control systems ?but by a gripping sense
of shared belonging, principles of fusion against an
outside enemy, and a jihadist narrative so compelling
that it amounts to both an ideology and a doctrine.

Doctrine and strategy

Al Qaeda and its affiliates fight in the field much
like tribes and clans: as decentralized, dispersed,
semi–autonomous segments that engage in hit–and–run
(and hit–and–die) tactics. These segments vary in size
and make–up. Some are small, and fit the notion of
terrorist cells. Others (as in Afghanistan and Iraq)
are larger, more like platoons with commanders (so it
might be more accurate to refer to Baathist segments
than Baathist cells). Some may resemble close–knit,
exclusive brotherhoods; others may keep shifting in
membership. Meanwhile, they fight like modern
terrorists and insurgents, but do so in the tradition
of tribal warriors, relying on stealth, surprise,
treachery, and savagery, while avoiding pitched
battles. And they are comfortable with temporary
marriages of convenience, as in Iraq where Baathist
and Islamist units cooperate on tactical missions, but
keep separate organizations and strategies. The
absence of a central hierarchy is not a sign of
disorganization or weakness ?it is the tribal way.
Thus, while Al Qaeda’s underlying doctrine and
strategy have been acquiring the sophistication of
modern notions of asymmetrical warfare (e.g., for
netwar and swarming), its tribalness endures within
that modern frame.

Technology usage

Al Qaeda and its affiliates have an extensive, growing
presence on the Internet. Their statements, speeches,
and videos are posted on myriad Web sites around the
world that advocate, sympathize with, and report on
jihad. As many analysts have noted, the new
information media are enabling terrorists and
insurgents to augment their own communication and
coordination, as well as reach outside audiences. The
online media also suit the oral traditions that tribal
peoples prefer. What merits pointing out here is that
the jihadis are using the Internet and the Web to
inspire the creation of a virtual global tribe of
Islamic radicals ?an online umma with kinship segments
around the world. This can help a member keep in touch
with a segment, or re–attach to a new segment in
another part of the world as he or she moves around.
Thus the information revolution, not to mention
broader aspects of globalization, can facilitate a
resurgence of intractable tribalism around the world.
Al Qaeda and its ilk are a leading example of this.

Jihadis are using the Internet and the Web to inspire
the creation of a virtual global tribe of Islamic
radicals ?an online umma with kinship segments around
the world.In other words, Al Qaeda is like a global
tribe, waging a modernized kind of segmental (or
segmented) warfare. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we are
fighting against virulent tribalism as much as Islamic
fundamentalism. Salafi and Wahhabi teachings urging
jihad against infidels, fatwas issued by Islamic
sheiks to justify murdering even non–combatants, and
stony ultimatums from Sunni insurgents who behead
captives are all manifestations of extreme tribalism,
more than of Islam. In Islam, jihad is a religious
duty. But the interpretation of jihad that Al Qaeda
practices is rooted less in religion than in the
(narcissistic?) appeal of virulent tribalism in some
highly disturbed contexts.

Overlap with the network paradigm
American analysts and strategists should be treating
Al Qaeda more as a tribal than a religious phenomenon.
They should be viewing Al Qaeda from the classic
tribal as well as the modern network perspective. It
is often pointed out (including by me) that Al Qaeda
represents a post–modern, information–age phenomenon.
But it is time to balance this with a recognition that
Al Qaeda also represents a resurgence of tribalism
that is both reacting to and taking advantage of the
information revolution and other aspects of

The tribal view overlaps with the invaluable network
view of Al Qaeda, particularly the one that John
Arquilla and I have called "netwar" [2] in which the
protagonists use network forms of organization and
related doctrines, strategies, and technologies
attuned to the information age. Netwar protagonists
?like Al Qaeda and its affiliates ?tend to consist of
dispersed groups and individuals who communicate,
coordinate, and act conjointly in an internetted
manner, often without a central command. Their optimal
mode of attack is stealthy swarming. In many respects,
the netwar design ?like Al Qaeda’s ?resembles the
"segmented, polycentric, ideologically integrated
network" (or SPIN) that Luther Gerlach spotted in his
1960s studies of social movements.

But tribes and networks are not the same. For one
matter, tribes are ruled by kin relations,
information–age networks by mainly modern criteria.
Take an issue like information sharing. In tribal
systems, this may proceed after checking a recipient’s
lineage. In networks, the decision criteria are not
about lineage but the professional nature of the role
or person who may receive the information. Also, in
tribal and clan systems where members are maneuvering
for influence, fluid alliances often arise that look
odd and contradictory to outsiders from an ideological
or other modern perspective, but are sensible from a
tribal or clan perspective. For example, it may
behoove a tribal or clannish elite circle (as in the
old Iranian dowreh or Mexican camarilla systems) to
stealthily include elites from right and left,
military and religious, business and criminal sectors,
so that the circle is plugged into all circuits vying
for position in a society. In contrast, modern
networks, for example in the area of civil–society
activism, generally aim for ideological and
professional coherence. Finally, if tribes and
networks were similar concepts (as some social network
analysts might argue), then modern corporations might
as well be advised to adapt to the information
revolution by becoming more tribal instead of
networked ?but that is patently not sensible, except
for particular issues like employee morale or product

In short, Al Qaeda and its affiliates have formed a
hybrid of the tribal and network designs: a tribalized
network or networked tribe, so to speak, with bits of
hierarchy and market–like dynamics too. The tribal
paradigm has a striking advantage over the network,
hierarchy, and other organizational paradigms. The
latter point to organizational design first, and then
to leadership, doctrine, and strategy matters. But
they have nothing clearly embedded in them about
religion. As voiced in terrorism discussions, they are
secular paradigms; religion is grafted on, as a
separate matter. In contrast, the tribal paradigm is
inherently fraught with dynamics that turn into
religious matters, such as altruism toward kin,
delineations between "us" and "them," and codes of
revenge. And that is another valuable reason to
include it.

Preliminary implications for policy and strategy
Americans comfort themselves by thinking that no other
nation will be able to match our power for decades to
come. But from ancient times to the present, great
powers that expand globally often run into subnational
tribes or clans who resist fiercely, even
unfathomably. Sometimes this has dire, wasting
consequences (e.g., the Roman Empire), although a
great power can extemporize by playing segments
against each other (e.g., Britain, during the Pax
Britannica). Also from ancient times onward, the more
tribal or clannish a society, the more resistant it is
to change ?and the more often pressures for
modernizing reforms must come largely from outside or
above (e.g., Meiji Japan). Americans still have much
to learn about dealing with tribalized and clannish
societies and devising programs that work in them
(remember Somalia).

The United States is not at war with Islam. Our fight
is with terrorists and insurgents who are operating in
the manner of networked tribes and clans. U.S.
military forces are learning this the hard way ?on the
ground. But policymakers and strategists in Washington
still lag in catching on. For example, the Report of
the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic
Communication recognizes quite sensibly that "the
United States is engaged in a generational and global
struggle about ideas, not a war between the West and
Islam" [3]. It notes the role of tribalism, but only
barely. A RAND report entitled The Muslim World After
9/11 goes further in saying that "extremist tendencies
seem to find fertile ground in areas with segmentary
lineal tribal societies," but it mainly laments that
"the literature on the relationship between tribalism
and radicalism is not yet well developed" [4].

U.S. counterinsurgency and counterterrorism methods
?for interrogations, intelligence assessments,
information operations, strategic communications, and
public diplomacy, indeed for the whole "war of ideas"
?would benefit from our upgrading our understanding of
tribal and clan dynamics. Identifying exactly what
reconsiderations should take hold is beyond the scope
of this paper. But, generally speaking, we must learn
to separate better our strategies toward Islam from
our strategies toward tribalized extremists who
ultimately cannot endure such a separation. Whose
story wins may well depend largely on just that.

The tribal paradigm may be useful for rethinking not
only how to counter Al Qaeda, but also what may lie
ahead if Al Qaeda or an affiliate ever succeeds in
seizing power and installing an Islamic caliphate
somewhere. Then, neither the tribal nor network
paradigms would continue to be so central. Hierarchy
would move to the fore, as a caliphate is imposed.
Over the ages, people have come up with four major
forms of organization for constructing their
societies: tribes, hierarchical institutions, markets,
and networks. How people use and combine these forms,
both their bright and dark sides, pretty much
determines what kind of society they have. Were an Al
Qaeda–inspired caliphate to take root, we can be
pretty sure that it would combine hyper–hierarchy and
hyper–tribalism, while leaving marginal, subordinate
spaces for economic markets and little if any space
for autonomous civil–society networks. When this has
occurred in the past, the result is normally fascism.

About the author
David F. Ronfeldt is a senior political scientist at
the RAND Corporation, a non–profit research
organization. He has worked on ideas about
information–age modes of conflict (cyberwar, netwar)
and cooperation (noöpolitik). He is now working on a
theoretical framework about the four forms of
organization ?tribes, hierarchies, markets, and
networks ?that lie behind the evolution of all
societies. He is on leave, and wrote this essay
independently of any RAND project. The essay expresses
his own thinking; it does not reflect the views of
RAND or any of its sponsors. He has published twice
before in First Monday. Comments on this essay may be
e–mailed to ronfeldt [at] rand [dot] org.

The author thanks the following colleagues and
contacts for their helpful, pointed comments on
various drafts: John Arquilla, Bruce Berkowitz, Edward
Gonzalez, Bruce Hoffman, Ted Karasik, William
McCallister, Kevin McCarthy, Richard O’Neill, Anna
Simons, and Lionel Tiger. I am particularly grateful
to William McCallister and Anna Simons for showing me
their own draft papers on tribal and clan dynamics in
conflict zones. They helped greatly in my thinking
about final revisions; and if their writings were
published, they would make fine additions to the
sources cited. It should be said, finally, that none
of the people acknowledged above agrees entirely with
this essay.

1. Maalouf, Amin, 2001. In the name of identity:
Violence and the need to belong. Translation of
Identités meurtrières by Barbara Bray. New York:
Arcade, pp. 28?9.

2. Ronfeldt, David, and John Arquilla, 2001.
"Networks, netwars, and the fight for the future,"
First Monday, volume 6, number 10 (October), at

3. U.S. Department of Defense. Office of the under
Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and
Logistics, 2004. Report of the Defense Science Board
Task Force on Strategic Communication. (September), at
2004-09-Strategic_Communication.pdf, p. 2.

4. Rabasa,Angel M., Cheryl Benard, Peter Chalk, C.
Christine Fair, Theodore Karasik, Rollie Lal, Ian
Lesser, and David Thaler, 2004. The Muslim world after
9/11. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corp., at

Sources on classic tribes

Boehm, Christopher, 1999. Hierarchy in the forest: The
evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press.

Burguière, Andr? Christiane Klapisch–Zuber, Martine
Segalen, and Françoise Zonabend (editors), 1996. A
history of the family. Translated by Sarah
Hanbury–Tenison, Rosemary Morris, and Andrew Wilson.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Carneiro, Robert L., 2003. Evolutionism in cultural
anthropology: A critical history. Boulder, Colo.:
Westview Press.

Earle, Timothy, 1997. How chiefs come to power: The
political economy in prehistory. Stanford, Calif.:
Stanford University Press.

Evans–Pritchard, E.E., 1940. The Nuer: A description
of the modes of livelihood and political institutions
of a Nilotic people. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fox, Robin, 1967. Kinship and marriage: An
anthropological perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Fried, Morton H., 1967. The evolution of political
society: An essay in political anthropology. New York:
Random House.

Harris, Marvin, 1977. Cannibals and kings: The origin
of cultures. New York: Random House.

Johnson, Allen W., and Timothy Earle, 1987. The
evolution of human societies: From foraging group to
agrarian state. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University

Sahlins, Marshall D., 1968. Tribesmen. Englewood
Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Sanderson, Stephen K., 2001. The evolution of human
sociality: A Darwinian conflict perspective. New York:
Rowman & Littlefield.

Schneider, David M., 1980. American kinship: A
cultural account. Second edition. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press.

Service, Elman R., 1975. Origins of the state and
civilization: The process of cultural evolution. New
York: Norton.

Service, Elman R., 1971. Primitive social
organization: An evolutionary perspective. Second
edition. New York: Random House.

Shermer, Michael, 2004. The science of good and evil:
Why people cheat, gossip, care, share, and follow the
golden rule. New York: Henry Holt.

Sources on tribal and clan warfare

Galeotti, Mark, 2002. "‘Brotherhoods?and ‘associates?
Chechen networks of crime and resistance," Low
Intensity Conflict & Law Enforcement, volume 11,
numbers 2/3 (Winter), pp. 340?52.

Keeley, Lawrence H., 1996. War before civilization:
The myth of the peaceful savage. New York: Oxford
University Press.

LeBlanc, Steven A., with Katherine E. Register, 2003.
Constant battles: The myth of the peaceful, noble
savage. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

McCallister, William S., 2005. "The Iraq insurgency:
Anatomy of a tribal rebellion," First Monday, volume
10, number 3 (March), at

Simons, Anna, 1995. Networks of dissolution: Somalia
undone. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Other sources

Anonymous, 2002. Through our enemies?eyes: Osama bin
Laden, radical Islam, and the future of America.
Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s.

Arquilla, John, and David Ronfeldt, 2001. Networks and
netwars: The future of terror, crime, and militancy.
Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND.

Arquilla, John, and David Ronfeldt, 2002. "Netwar
revisited: The fight for the future continues," Low
Intensity Conflict & Law Enforcement, volume 11,
numbers 2/3 (Winter), pp.178?89.

Bill, James A., 1973. "The plasticity of informal
politics: The case of iran," Middle East Journal
(Spring), pp. 131?51.

Carley, Kathleen M., Jeffrey Reminga, and Natasha
Kanmeva, 2003. "Destabilizing terrorist networks,"
NAACSOS Conference Proceedings (Pittsburgh), at

Davis, Paul K., and John Arquilla, 1991. Thinking
about opponent behavior in crisis and conflict: A
generic model for analysis and group discussion. Santa
Monica, Calif.: RAND. (source on concept of "multiple

Gerlach, Luther P., 1987. "Protest movements and the
construction of risk," In: B.B. Johnson and V.T.
Covello (editors). The social and cultural
construction of risk. Boston: Reidel, pp. 103?45.

Hoffman, Bruce, 2004. "Al Qaeda and the war on
terrorism: An update," Current History (December), pp.

Juergensmeyer, Mark, 2003. Terror in the mind of God:
The global rise of religious violence. Third edition,
revised and updated. Berkeley: University of
California Press.

Krebs, Valdis, and June Holley, 2002. "Building
sustainable communities through network building," at

Maalouf, Amin, 2001. In the name of identity: Violence
and the need to belong. Translation of Identités
meurtrières by Barbara Bray. New York: Arcade.

Paxton, Robert O., 2004. The anatomy of fascism. New
York: Knopf.

Rabasa, Angel M., Cheryl Benard, Peter Chalk, C.
Christine Fair, Theodore Karasik, Rollie Lal, Ian
Lesser, and David Thaler, 2004. The Muslim world After
9/11. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND.

Ronfeldt, David, 2005. "A long look ahead: NGOs,
networks, and future social evolution," In: Robert
Olson and David Rejeski (editors). Environmentalism
and the technologies of tomorrow: Shaping the next
industrial revolution. Washington, D.C.: Island Press,
pp. 89?8.

Ronfeldt, David, 1996. Tribes, institutions, markets,
networks: A framework about societal evolution. Santa
Monica, Calif.: RAND, and at

Ronfeldt, David, and John Arquilla, 2001. "Networks,
netwars, and the fight for the future," First Monday,
volume 6, number 10 (October), at

Stern, Jessica, 2003. Terror in the name of God: Why
religious militants kill. New York: HarperCollins.

U.S. Defense Science Board, 2004. Report of the
Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic
Communication. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Under
Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and
Logistics, at

About the sources

To enhance readability among non-academic audiences,
the author chose not to place footnotes and citations
in the text. However, the sections on classic tribal
dynamics and tribal warfare draw heavily on the
sources cited above. Many points are condensed and
paraphrased from them; and there is hardly an idea or
observation in those sections that does not come from
those sources. Sentence?and paragraph–level footnotes
and citations will appear in a chapter on tribes that
the author is preparing for a book–length manuscript
on social evolution. This essay is a spin–off from
that endeavor. In addition to the sources listed
above, some points come from articles in the New York
Times and Los Angeles Times, and from a C–SPAN 2
broadcast of the conference on "Al Qaeda 2.0:
Transnational terrorism after 9/11," convened by the
New America Foundation and the New York University
Center on Law and Security, Washington, D.C., on 2
December 2004, which provided presentations by many
top experts in the field of terrorism (see


Editorial history
Paper received 20 February 2005; accepted 25 February


Copyright ?005, First Monday

Copyright ?005, David Ronfeldt

Al Qaeda and its affiliates: A global tribe waging
segmental warfare? by David Ronfeldt
First Monday, volume 10, number 3 (March 2005),


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