The center of gravity for Al Qaeda affiliates

Essay, 2013

27 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. The center of gravity in warfare

3. Al Qaeda and its overarching ideology

4. Case studies
a. Al Shabaab, Somalia
b. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
c. Jama’atu Ansarul Musilimina fi Biladin Sudan (Ansarul)

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography, readings and sources

1. Introduction

The center of gravity (CoG) paradigm created and published by Carl von Clausewitz in his famous study about the appearance of war is nowadays still widely used to describe the core incitements and driving factors of warring factions, political parties, militias and even terrorist groups. In a short summary this military term of a center of gravity is defined as the one or few main forces where a party in a conflict drives its willpower and its strength from. It is a common element amongst the members and supporters of this group and with reference to Clausewitz’s study, it is this key element the opponent needs to identify and to overcome in order to break the willpower of the party and to finally conquer them1. For that reason various studies have been undertaken und research has been performed with regards to the center of gravity in warfare as well as the center of gravity for terrorist groups and esp. for Al Qaeda.

In the case of Al Qaeda most completed studies and published documents agreed to the point that the ideology preached by the core leaders of the network is the key element2, where their followers draw their support and willpower from. At the same time Al Qaeda these days transformed itself to a loose network with just a common brand name and ideology, but without much central guidance or command3. Numerous groups throughout all parts of world emerge and entitle themselves with the name Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda affiliated. Often there are no or just minor links to the former core leadership of Al Qaeda.

For that reason it seems, that the network called Al Qaeda with most of its global affiliates is not more a strict hierarchical structured group, nor is it a self-contained network anymore with its origin in the mountain region of the Afghan-Pakistan (AfPak) border area. Al Qaeda seems to have many different appearances. Therefore the underlying hypothesis of this essay is that beside the remaining core of Al Qaeda in the AfPak region, the name Al Qaeda is nowadays used as a corporate name of different local or regional acting terrorist groups in order to provide a powerful proof of their willingness and capability.

Their center of gravity differs much from each individual Al Qaeda affiliated group. But what is then their core impetus? Is it still the radical Al Qaeda ideology?

In that line the outcome of the hypothesis argues that the CoG for Al Qaeda affiliates is derived from their own and individual domestic or regional issues and interests as well as their regional supremacy.

The research question of this essay so asks: What are the centers of gravity in regional Al Qaeda affiliates, if the overarching ideology of the former core Al Qaeda leadership is today more or less the interconnecting glue on the strategic level, nothing more than a corporate identity or a brand name, that emphasizes their capability and willingness?

The underlying basis for this essay is for this reason a case study of selected Al Qaeda affiliates with a main focus on their centers of gravity. This requires a closer look into the structure, agenda and demands of the selected Al Qaeda affiliated groups, what then might help to identify their specific driving factors and the connection to the overarching Al Qaeda ideology. But in order to discuss this issue, the essay will start with a short presentation of the theory of the center of gravity as outlined by Carl von Clausewitz in his study ‘On War’. The key of this first part is to emphasize the main elements which determine the center of gravity theory without going too much into detail or following different interpretation approaches, where the identification of critical capabilities and vulnerabilities become an integral part of the CoG construct. For the purpose of this essay it should be adequate to identify the main importance of this theory and to define the used terms in relation to the following examination in different case studies.

In a second step the overarching Al Qaeda ideology will be presented with its main elements in order to differentiate it later on from the local elements and agendas of the regional Al Qaeda affiliates.

The third part of this essay will be then the examination of three regional Al Qaeda groups or affiliated groups with the intention of identify their special features and to highlight their centers of gravity. These groups are certainly not representative for the great amount of terrorist groups around the globe who claim to be affiliated with Al Qaeda, but the examination might provide some universally applicable findings. The randomly selected regional groups for this essay are: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Shabaab in Somalia and Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan in Nigeria (Ansarul).

Then the last part of this essay, the conclusion, will try to work out the differences, the similarities or even the linkages from the examined groups in order to deny or support the hypothesis of this essay and to draw conclusions from it, which might help in the struggle with regional Al Qaeda groups to identify the elements which strengthen or weakens them.

Finally it should be stressed again there is a vast amount of theories out, to describe to driving factors or the main pillars for terrorist groups.

This essay does an examination of Al Qaeda affiliates and the vital elements, which keeps them running in their jihad and makes them attractive for new recruits, in relation to the center of gravity theory by Clausewitz. Therefore other theories will be mainly neglected.

The case study part of this essay claims no completeness in revealing all details and developments in the selected groups. Again the focus remains on the affiliation aspect with Al Qaeda as the source of strength. In addition the examination done in this essay is limited by the resources and material accessible and chosen for this essay.

2. The center of gravity in warfare

The center of gravity concept described and developed by Carl von Clausewitz in his famous study ‘On War’ and here predominantly in the 8th book4, has become a central element in many combat or military planning doctrines all over the world. It has been modified and adjusted to make it applicable to any conflict or war within the last 140 years5. The whole theory of the center of gravity in warfare has never been static; it was changed and adapted countless times. In a military planning process it is vital and an integral part to analyze and to identify the sources of strength or even of weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the opponent. Even for the ‘War on Terror’ (WoT), beside the fact that the opponent is not a regular army and the actual fighting is not exercised on locally separated from the civilian population battlefields, much research has been done to connect this war with the phenomenon of terrorism and to apply general rules or concepts of the center of gravity model6. In that way the term and the theory of the center of gravity moved far away from the original idea by Clausewitz. For the purpose of this essay and the case study examination it is sufficient enough to stick to the original idea and terms used by Clausewitz.

Basically the center of gravity is defined as the source of power, strength, willpower and motivation, which is same for all members of this party:

Research Project, 2004, page 6 – 10, accessed through the internet:, last time accessed: 28. April 2013.

“All that theory can here say is as follows: - That the great point is to keep the overruling relations of both parties in view. Out of them a certain centre of gravity, a centre of power and movement, will form itself, on which everything depends; and against this centre of gravity of the enemy, the concentrated blow of all the forces must be directed.”7.

The definition remains to some extend blurred as it is that entity which embodies the combined and inherent capability to act and to conduct promising strikes, but every fight or battle within a war campaign might have on a tactical level its own CoG. This center of power and action is unique for each party and opponent and for a certain period, and it changes its nature the same way war and warfare changes its nature in different locations at different times.

At the same time on a strategic level the CoG is not just one subject that can be destroyed in one decisive battle, it requires an overall strategy to battle and conquer this phenomenon. All forces and all raids should be finally aligned and aimed in a grand strategy to fight the CoG8. Clausewitz does this distinction between tactical level and strategic level more subliminally and not explicitly, when he applies the CoG construct to individual battles but also to an overall plan of war9. For the original idea and nature of the CoG concept this distinction does not make a difference, as the content and the central question to identify the CoG remains the same.

Clausewitz applied his CoG construct predominantly on wars which have been fought between regular armies and military forces. For such post Westphalian peace treaty battles he identified three main elements where the center of gravity in his experience is primarily located: 1. The fighting army, if they have the potential to dominate with its physical strength the outcome of the battle; 2. The locally site of the leadership or government, if they unite in the same location the ruling power, the center of state authority and the moral leadership of the opposing force; and 3. The allies of the enemy, if they have the greater potential than the actual enemy10.

At the same time Clausewitz does acknowledge that there are other types of war, what he called small wars, national insurrection or populace armament11, which could be transferred to modern terms as guerilla wars or wars with militias.

For this specific type of wars Clausewitz identified and recognized that different centers of gravity might apply. These centers of gravity in such wars were usually accumulated in two main features, the leadership or the individual leader and the public opinion, which is the combined will or spirit of the population12.

Terrorism with its nowadays definition was neither a term used at the time when Clausewitz wrote his study nor was it distinguished from insurrection or guerilla.

The more or less clear distinction between the terms guerilla and terrorist used in the midtwenties century was at this time similar as it is used today in most intrastate conflicts or in the public perception, more blurred and vague13.

For this reason it will be useful to extract and summarize the main features of the center of gravity construct and to apply this to the phenomena of transnational terrorism represented by Al Qaeda.

In summary the CoG theory describes the main feature, which constitutes the strength of a party in warfare. By counteracting this or these features, the strength of the party will be smashed to pieces.

The identified center of strategy does not necessarily be a physical or kinetic element, something obviously powerful; it could also be something less energetic or forceful, something that supports or facilitates the strength, but without it the whole system would not be able to sustain. Having discussed the discourse of the center of gravity by Clausewitz, five key elements can be extracted, which Clausewitz identified and which could act as a CoG. These five key elements are: a strong army; the leadership; the location or geographical origin, the support by allies and finally the attitude or ideology. All five elements constitute and contribute in different ways to the strength of warring parties. In a first step these five elements will be analyzed towards their possible applicability for terrorist groups, before entering the investigation for a CoG in Al Qaeda and its affiliates:

The first element identified by Clausewitz is the weight of a strong army, dominating its enemies. By the nature of terrorism, that it is a strategy and a tactic used by more or less unorganized and less structured groups aiming as well on governmental as on civilian targets14, this element for the center of gravity can therefore be ruled out.

Terrorism is the choice for groups who are weaker in their numbers as well as in their equipment against a superior power. They do not appear overt as a self-contained force and they do not dominate with their fighters the opposing power.

Terrorism is nowadays a method to use violence against enemies, who have a huge advantage in military power, in order to achieve desired aims by taking the advantage of psychological effects of physical violence15. Tactics of terrorism are designed to install fear and to demotivate the enemy.

A second element can be described as the leadership of the group. As the leaders and the leadership play a central role for regular armies as well as for militias in guerilla wars, it might have a central role for terrorist groups as they are often shaped and inspired by their leaders. Additionally sometimes the appearance of the group is summed up under the name of their leaders. The key questions to ask with regards to the leadership in order to identify if they might be part of the center of gravity therefore are:

- Who are the leaders?
- Are they replaceable?
- Have they been replaced and what happened afterwards to the group?
- Did it result in a significant change of the appearance and the acting of the group?
- Do they unite the ideological and the operational leadership, or is it separated?
- Are they in command of all the members?

With reference to original concept of the CoG by Clausewitz a third element is posed by the geographical origin of the group and its locational deployment. Parallel as it applies for regular armies, the local origin might be the source of the strength and the determination for the terrorist group. For that reason the following key questions should help to identify the contribution of the area to the CoG:

- Does this geographical area display the provenance and the retreat as well as the shelter for the group?
- Are the central leaders and the potential recruits located and enlisted in that area?
- Does the group has the freedom to act as they like there?
- Do they enjoy a lasting protection and support in this area?
- Is the occurrence limited to that area?
- Are the leaders restricted to a narrowed down area?

The fourth element mentioned by Clausewitz is the support by allies, what eventually provides the required strength to fight and to succeed. For regular armies the allies are usually known, acting in public and rarely supporting the warring party covertly. For that reason it is easy to identify the allies and to assess the impact of their support or engagement on the confrontation. With regards to terrorism it becomes more difficult as the supporters mostly try to hide their activities, deny any relation to the terrorist group or use a third party for their support. The range of the provided support can be wide, starting with funding of any activities, providing shelter, delivering arms and ending with conducting training or contributing to the dissemination of the ideology. Therefore the key questions to identify the role in the center of gravity construct are:

- Is the group dependent from the support source?
- Is there just one support source?
- Are there more than just one support source?
- Are there allies who appear in public as such?
- What types of support (financial, physical, technical, etc.) are provided?
- Is the support linked to the ideology, to the leadership or to the activities of the group? Finally Clausewitz listed especially for the case of a guerilla war the public opinion as the sum of the will and the spirit of the members of a population or warring party as a key element that might constitute the CoG. The affinity of this description to what is called nowadays ideology seems to be very close:

“Ideology is a rigid set of beliefs – a system of beliefs – that constraints and compels people to behave in a particular way…It offers members of the group a set of basic rules, easy to follow and easy to teach others, along with a strong sense of belonging and purpose 16”.

Therefore what is defined as the will and the spirit of a population for guerilla groups can be described as the ideology for terrorist groups as the ideology constitutes a densified set of extreme beliefs, aims and justifications, which acts as a driving factor for the members will to act. It is the extreme expression of opinion in a group that acts extreme.

Again the distinction between terrorism and guerrilla becomes very difficult and sometimes blurred as they are both by the modus operandi very similar. The difference between both, the guerilla warfare and terrorism, is defined by the aims, the means and the targeted group17.


1 See Davis, Lt Col Stephen W., Center of Gravity and the War on Terrorism, U.S. Army War College Research Project, 2003, page 12, accessed through:, last time accessed: 14. April 2013.

2 See Davis, Lt Col Stephen W., Center of Gravity and the War on Terrorism, U.S. Army War College Research Project, 2003, page 18/19.

3 See Cronin, Audrey Kurth, How Terrorism ends – Understanding the decline and demise of terrorist campaigns, Princeton University Press, 2009, page 170 – 171.

4 See Clausewitz, Carl von, On War (Complete) and Principles of War, E-Book version published by the Library of Alexandria, 2009, page 2054 – 2079.

5 Ethridge Jr., Joe E. Lt. Col., Center of Gravity Determination in the Global War on Terrorism, USAWC Strategic Research Project, 2004, page 2- 5, accessed through the internet:, last time accessed: 15. April 2013.

6 See Haberkern, John L., The global war on terrorism: Ideology as its strategic center of gravity, USAWC Strategic

7 Cited by: Clausewitz, Carl von, On War (Complete) and Principles of War, E-Book version published by the Library of Alexandria, 2009, page 2058.

8 Aron, Raymond, Clausewitz – Den Krieg denken, Propyläen Verlag, Berlin, 1980, page 233 – 234.

9 Strange; Joseph L. / Iron, Richard, Center of Gravity – What Clausewitz really meant, published in Joint Forces Quarterly, issue 35, 2004, page 21 – 24, accessed through the internet:, last

time accessed: 20. April 2013.

10 See Clausewitz, Carl von, Sämtliche Schriften „Vom Kriege“, edit by Seidlitz, Wolfgang von, published at Mundus Verlag, 1999, page 604.

11 Ibid. page 603.

12 See Clausewitz, Carl von, On War (Complete) and Principles of War, E-Book version published by the Library of Alexandria, 2009, page 492 in combination with page 2059.

13 Winkler, Theodor H., The Shifting Face of Violence, in World Policy Journal, Fall 2008, pp. 29-35, 2008.

14 The basic and underlying definition used for this essay is the one proposed by the UN High Level Panel on Terrorism: An act “…intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.” See for more information:

15 Münkler, Herfried, Die Strategie des Terrorismus und die Abwehrmöglichkeiten des demokratischen Rechtsstaates, Abdruck einer Akademielesung Juni 2006, page 1, 2006, accessed through the internet:, last time accessed: 26. April 2013.

16 Cited by Shemella, Paul, Fighting back – What governments can do about terrorism, Stanford University Press, 2011, page 180-181.

17 Münkler, Herfried, Die Strategie des Terrorismus und die Abwehrmöglichkeiten des demokratischen Rechtsstaates, page 2, 2006.

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The center of gravity for Al Qaeda affiliates
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