Bin Laden's 'War of a Thousand Cuts' Will Live On

Al-Qaeda's strategy of low-level warfare, meant to drain the U.S. economically, will continue to pose an underestimated threat long after its leader's death



Osama bin Laden is dead, but our battle with al-Qaeda is far from over. We may increasingly see affiliates, wannabes, and those who are inspired by -- but not members of -- al-Qaeda coming to the fore in terrorist attacks, and many analysts will conclude that this means al-Qaeda has been significantly operationally degraded by bin Laden's death. But such claims should be treated with caution, as they may be repeating an error that our analysts have made before.

A key facet of bin Laden's anti-American warfare has always been economic. It's a lesson he drew from the Afghan-Soviet war, in which he first served as a financier of mujahidin efforts and then as a fighter. He watched the Soviet Union withdraw from Afghanistan in defeat and then dissolve altogether in 1991. Bin Laden asserted on multiple occasions that the mujahidin were responsible for destroying the Soviet empire. Whether or not he's right, he clearly believed that the high costs imposed by the Afghan-Soviet war prevented the Soviet Union from adapting to other challenges, such as grain shortages and a collapse in world oil prices.
Osama Bin Laden
After declaring war on America, bin Laden compared the U.S. to the Soviet Union on multiple occasions, arguing that al-Qaeda would undermine America in the same way the mujahidin undermined the Soviet economy. His strategy of economic warfare went through several iterations over time, as al-Qaeda responded to external events, seized upon opportunities provided to it, and incorporated lessons learned by the group over time.

Bin Laden's strategy's initial phase linked terrorist attacks directly to economic harm. A prime example of this is the September 11, 2001, attacks, in which a major economic target (the World Trade Center) was destroyed. It's clear that Sept. 11 was intended to create a serious economic setback for the U.S. In a wide-ranging interview conducted by Al Jazeera's Taysir Allouni in the month following the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden spoke at length about the extent of the economic damage the attacks had inflicted. "According to [the Americans'] own admissions," he said, "the share of the losses on the Wall Street market reached 16%. They said that this number is a record." His continued musings reveal how much thought he had devoted to the attack's economic implications. "The gross amount that is traded in that market reaches $4 trillion," he said. "So if we multiply 16% with $4 trillion to find out the loss that affected the stocks, it reaches $640 billion of losses." He knew as well that the damage to America's stock market was not the only economic impact. Factoring in building and construction losses, along with lost productivity, he concluded that the cost to the United States was "no less than $1 trillion." Bin Laden was known for overestimating his group's military prowess and ideological reach, but his overall damage estimates were accurate, and may in fact have been conservative.

In a video he released in October 2004, he emphasized the cost effectiveness of the attacks. "Al-Qaeda spent $500,000 on the event," he said, "while America, in the incident and its aftermath, lost -- according to the lowest estimate -- more than $500 billion, meaning that every dollar of al-Qaeda defeated a million dollars."

A second identifiable phase in this economic warfare strategy, which al-Qaeda pursued even as it continued to attack economic targets directly, might be called its "bleed-until-bankruptcy" plan. Bin Laden first used this phrase in October 2004, in a video he released on the eve of the U.S. presidential election. He made clear that al-Qaeda sought to embroil the U.S. and its allies in draining wars in the Muslim world.

There would be other phases in al-Qaeda's economic warfare strategy as well. In December 2004, bin Laden began to exhort his followers to carry out attacks targeting one of America's greatest vulnerabilities: its reliance on oil. Numerous terrorist attacks thereafter were aimed at oil targets, most critically in Saudi Arabia.

But after the collapse of the U.S. economy in September 2008, jihadi warfare entered a new period, its "strategy of a thousand cuts" phase. According to Inspire, the English-language online magazine of the Yemen-based shoot-off, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the gist of this strategy has been to perpetrate "smaller, but more frequent" attacks.

America's weakened economic position made it seem mortal, and jihadis have since been counting on the U.S. to crumble under the weight of its own security expenditures. "To bring down America we do not need to strike big," Inspire asserted in November 2010. "In such an environment of security phobia that is sweeping America, it is more feasible to stage smaller attacks that involve less players and less time to launch and thus we may circumvent the security barriers America worked so hard to erect." This strategy of smaller yet more frequent attacks is designed precisely to drive up the burden of U.S. security costs.

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Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security-studies program.

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