Al-Qaida at 20: From Obscurity to Infamy

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

August 11, 2008

It is hard to dispute al-Qaida’s operational successes. On Aug. 7, 1998, just short of 10 years after its founding, the organization launched two near-simultaneous bombings on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 200 people, among them 12 Americans. Three years later, on Sept. 11, the organization showed itself to be exponentially more dangerous, killing almost three times as many Americans in one day as had been killed in all international terrorist attacks to that day. Since 9/11, nothing the organization has done has matched that level of carnage, but it remains the premier terrorist threat to the United States.

Al-Qaida has also funded, trained, and otherwise backed local jihadist insurgents and would-be insurgents in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Egypt, Kashmir, Indonesia, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere. Although these activities received less attention than spectacular acts of terrorism, they are often far bloodier, contributing to the deaths of tens of thousands as civil war and strife consume these countries. In addition, in several notable cases, the violence has posed a political danger, threatening to topple or undermine governments.

Credit for these bloody successes must be given to Osama Bin Laden’s leadership. In contrast to many terrorist leaders, he is not megalomaniacal. Like a good executive, he has empowered a wide range of junior leaders. When local fighters do well, he supports them as comrades in the cause rather than as potential rivals. He and his organization have trained thousands of militants and indoctrinated even more, even though they allow only a select few to join al-Qaida itself. The result is a broad cadre of committed and skilled fighters tied to al-Qaida in a multitude of ways and supportive of the broader cause Bin Laden champions.

Ironically, U.S. counterterrorism successes reveal the depth of Bin Laden’s organization. Do a Google search for “al-Qaida’s number three,” and it reveals some good news: We got him. He was Mohammed Atef, killed during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Then he was Abu Zubaydah and then Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, both of whom were captured in Pakistan. Then he was Abu Faraj al-Libbi, who was also captured in Pakistan, and then Abu Hamza Rabia, killed in 2006. These deaths and arrests can correctly be seen as a series of impressive achievements by U.S. military and intelligence officials. But it is an even more impressive accomplishment for Bin Laden: All active terrorist groups lose leaders, but only a select few can repeatedly lose senior leaders and survive. And as the plot to bomb 10 planes over the Atlantic that was disrupted on Aug. 10, 2006, showed, al-Qaida’s ambitions remained vast and its capabilities considerable.

One of the reasons for al-Qaida’s success is that Bin Laden has found supportive patrons and carved out niches in which to operate freely. Hassan al-Turabi’s Sudan was the first regime to back Bin Laden, and when Turabi turned his back on al-Qaida in 1996, Bin Laden quickly found a new patron in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan before 9/11, the ruling Taliban allowed Bin Laden and his supporters to organize, recruit, train, plan, and even relax while they built a small army.

When the Taliban fell from power in late 2001, it looked like al-Qaida would forever be on the run. Perhaps Bin Laden’s biggest accomplishment in recent years is the reconstitution of a sanctuary in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan. Al-Qaida is more harried in Pakistan today than it was when the Taliban was its host, but it is rapidly re-establishing its sanctuary. Large swaths of Pakistan are no-go areas for the Pakistani army, and recent news reports indicate that Pakistan, not Iraq, is now the destination of choice for would-be jihadists. Many of the post-9/11 terrorist attacks that have plagued Western Europe appear to have been organized from Pakistan.

Perhaps the biggest problem Bin Laden confronted in the organization’s early years had nothing to do with operations. Few Muslims shared his belief that the United States was the source of the Muslim world’s problems and that jihad was the answer. Even most self-identified jihadists rejected this idea. No one liked the United States, but for them, local governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and so on were the most immediate oppressors, and if they could pick an external enemy, Israel would head the list. Not until around 1994 did Bin Laden himself begin to fixate on the United States as his primary target.

Successful terrorist attacks in the ’90s and on 9/11 cemented the organization’s reputation for derring-do, but the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was a key factor in helping vindicate Bin Laden’s narrative. Before the war, some, including many extremists, believed he had overreached himself on 9/11 and had squandered the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan by taking on the United States so directly. For these Muslims, even such a spectacular operation as 9/11 was a poor trade-off for the loss of a true Islamic government. In addition, even puritanical Muslims whose worldview Bin Laden claimed to share criticized his demand for jihad, believing that his arguments had little merit and that he did not have the credentials to issue the call. The Iraq war “proved” to most Muslims (and many non-Muslims around the world) that the United States was an aggressive power bent on dominating the Islamic world. What’s more, having a large Christian power militarily invade and occupy the heart of the Islamic world would indeed qualify for jihad, according to religious scholars who not only were unsympathetic to Bin Laden, but whose salaries were often paid by pro-U.S. governments.

Perhaps this shift in narrative is Bin Laden’s biggest success. Powerful jihadist cadres from Algeria, Egypt, and elsewhere now focus as much activity on Americans and other Westerners as on their local problems. In making this shift, they are playing to a sympathetic public. Popular opinion of the United States in the Muslim world, even though slightly recovered since its nadir at the beginning of the Iraq war, is abysmal.

Al-Qaida’s media operations both reflect and drive this success. Even before he founded al-Qaida, Bin Laden believed that propaganda and proselytizing were vital. In the years before 9/11, he occasionally gave interviews, and al-Qaida videotaped operations and statements by would-be martyrs for future use. Since 9/11, al-Qaida’s information operations have exploded in scope. A new statement from Osama Bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri hardly merits attention in most newspapers today, in contrast to the days after 9/11 when every word was parsed for its political and operational significance. However, al-Qaida has made good use of the Internet to bypass Western media and reach key audiences directly.

Al-Qaida has used its media operations to impress a key audience: young Muslim males. Jihad is cool. In contrast to many other political organizations, to say nothing of feckless Arab leaders, al-Qaida acts and sacrifices—at times successfully—in the name of Islam. This may at times horrify moderate Muslims, but they wouldn’t join the fight anyway.

Even as al-Qaida and its allies have suffered reverses in several key countries in recent years, they have expanded operations elsewhere. In Western Europe, the Muslim population is increasingly radicalized, with young men in particular finding Bin Laden’s message attractive. Afghanistan, for several years touted as a major U.S. success in the war against al-Qaida, faces an insurgency that controls parts of the country and is steadily gaining strength. Most worrisome, Pakistan itself is under siege. Every few months, it seems that the Pakistani army is shut out of a new part of Pakistan, and areas like Swat—once a peaceful tourist destination—are now hotbeds for the insurgency. Pakistan has a large, powerful army; nuclear weapons; and an ongoing border dispute with India. Unrest there is perhaps more terrifying than in any other country in the world.

Finally, it is hard to talk about al-Qaida’s strength without juxtaposing it with several problematic U.S. policies. The bad news is that Washington still remains confused in much of its approach toward counterterrorism. Homeland security in particular suffers, not because of a lack of money or effort, but because there is still confusion about how to defend the U.S. homeland best and how to prioritize and rationalize programs.

More troubling, some of the measures the United States has used to fight terrorism have backfired. Highly publicized abuses of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and, to a lesser extent, Guantanamo have tarnished the United States’ good name. To its credit, the Bush administration has repeatedly tried to reach out to moderate Muslims at home and abroad, but statements by some U.S. evangelists like Pat Robertson declaring Muslims to be “satanic”—and pictures that show such preachers shaking hands with U.S. officials—undo the administration’s good efforts. The United States has also had to cozy up to scuzzy regimes in the Middle East—fighting terrorists requires daily coordination of security services, but in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, and other U.S. regional allies, the security services imprison and harass not only terrorists, but also human rights campaigners and democracy advocates.

None of these blunders is fatal, but all give Bin Laden opportunities to exploit.