Brian Fishman’s The Master Plan provides a comprehensive history of the Islamic State’s (IS) strategic evolution, covering the personalities and events that shaped one of the most feared terrorist-insurgent groups that has ever existed. Eminently readable, in places even amusing—no small feat in a book about IS—Fishman flips with ease between the overview and the granular to demonstrate his points, using new sources that will allow as much supplementary research as a reader could wish for, and ties it together in a narrative that will be of use to both specialists and generalists.
Fishman’s title refers to a seven-stage framework, which prescribes key objectives and a timeline toward the establishment of a caliphate in Iraq that can then expand across the region. The plan was drawn up by Sayf al-Adl, the Egyptian military deputy to Osama bin Ladin, in the months after the fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001.
The founder of the IS movement, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had not had an easy first meeting with Bin Ladin. Al-Zarqawi agreed with al-Qaeda that most Muslims weren’t true believers and that an Islamic state must be formed; yet there was no agreement on what to do with these wayward Muslims or when to establish a religious state. It was al-Adl who convinced Bin Ladin to provide al-Zarqawi with resources and space for a terrorist training camp in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, in no small part because al-Qaeda needed to offset the power of other Arab jihadists present in the country.
In the aftermath of the Taliban, al-Adl tried to create a more formal alliance between jihadis by bridging the gap in strategic visions between the IS movement and al-Qaeda. He wrote a full history of al-Qaeda’s engagement with al-Zarqawi and the master plan on 42 pages of “yellow, greaseproof paper, each of which had been folded so tightly that it was no larger than a cigarette,” and had it smuggled to Jordanian journalist Fuad Husayn.
Fishman acknowledges that “there is no conclusive evidence that jihadi leaders consulted the master plan in their own decision making,” but “prominent jihadi theorists did use it … to assess al-Qaeda’s ‘progress’ in Iraq”—IS being a formal branch of al-Qaeda between 2004 and 2006 (or until 2014, according to al-Qaeda). Irrespective, the plan remains “a trenchant framework for understanding the processes that led to the Islamic State’s declaration of the caliphate in 2014”. As it happens, the plan predicted—in stage five—the correct timing of the caliphate’s declaration, though this again was likely not a conscious following. It was an operationalisation of the plan’s key insight.
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