First Monday

Al Qaeda and its affiliates: A global tribe waging segmental warfare?

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 actors.


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 design.

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 articulated.

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 interlocking.

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 clubs.

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 "different."

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 wartime.



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 Lindh?).

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 council.

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 globalization.

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 branding.

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. End of article


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. 28–29.

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, André, 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 Press.

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. 340–352.

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.178–189.

Bill, James A., 1973. "The plasticity of informal politics: The case of iran," Middle East Journal (Spring), pp. 131–151.

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 models").

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. 103–145.

Hoffman, Bruce, 2004. "Al Qaeda and the war on terrorism: An update," Current History (December), pp. 423–427.

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. 89–98.

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 and 2004-09-Strategic_Communication.pdf.

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 2005.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2005, First Monday

Copyright ©2005, David Ronfeldt

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