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.
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.
Some counterterrorism analysts have suggested that al-Qaeda should now be understood, more than anything else, as an idea. As a 2004 report in the L.A. Times put it, al-Qaeda should perhaps be seen as "more of an ideology than an organization." With its "strategy of a thousand cuts," al-Qaeda the organization is attempting to more effectively harness al-Qaeda the idea by inciting those who share its ideology to lash out on their own. An article in Inspire by Ibrahim al Banna implored in November 2010, for example: "Dear Muslim, hasten to join the ranks of the mujahidin or to form cells to perform operations against the disbelievers in their own land."
Because the key to the success of this strategy is driving up security costs, in this new phase even attacks that do not destroy their target -- such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to bring down a plane with an explosive hidden in his underwear, or a more recent plot in which bombs hidden in ink cartridges were placed on UPS and FedEx planes -- could be considered successes against America. As the radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al Awlaki has written of the ink cartridge plot, which did not blow up the cargo planes on which the bombs were placed, if the plot had destroyed the planes it "would have made us very pleased but according to our plan and specified objectives it was only a plus." If we take him at his word, then in his view the attack succeeded despite the fact that it killed nobody.
This is the kind of strategy that can maintain a quick operational tempo even after the loss of a leader. In the medium term we can probably expect to see a number of terrorist plots with no apparent connection to al-Qaeda's central leadership. And we can further expect the commentariat to conclude that, because these plots have no apparent connection to the group's leadership, al-Qaeda has been either severely degraded or marginalized.
But we've been down this road before. After al-Qaeda lost its safe haven in Afghanistan as a result of the U.S. invasion, al-Qaeda's central leadership was in disarray. The organization's regional nodes, along with other more localized jihadi groups, took the lead in operations. On October 8, 2002, for example, two gunmen linked to al-Qaeda opened fire on U.S. Marines engaged in training exercises on the island of Failaka off Kuwait's coast, killing one. Just four days later, Indonesia's Jemaah Islamiyya executed a series of bomb blasts in the tourist district of Kuta on Indonesia's Bali island, killing 202. And on October 23, Chechen terrorists seized a Moscow theater packed with 850 people. The siege ended only after Russian special forces pumped a fast-acting sleeping gas through holes that had been bored into the theater's auditorium.
Because regional nodes took the lead during that period, many observers concluded that al-Qaeda's central leadership was effectively dead. But this conclusion was flawed. "For too long, we wanted to believe we had really killed off al-Qaeda's central leadership," Bruce Hoffman, the Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, told me. "We believed that al-Qaeda had progressed downward to clones and imitators. We deluded ourselves into thinking that al-Qaeda had been weakened and diluted, and the major threat now came from self-starters." Due in part to this perception that al-Qaeda had been beaten, the U.S. drew its military resources away from Afghanistan and Pakistan for use in Iraq.
Eventually, though, it became impossible to ignore the regeneration of the group's central leadership gathering strength in Pakistan. On July 7, 2005, four UK-born suicide bombers blew themselves up on London's public transit system during rush hour, killing 52. British police reports released the following year described the terror cell as autonomous and self-actuating, rather than tied to al-Qaeda. But the idea that the London bombings were completely unrelated to al-Qaeda was refuted by a commemorative video that al-Qaeda released in July 2006. That video not only included praise by bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri for the attacks, but also footage of a martyrdom tape recorded by Mohammad Sidique Khan, one of the bombers. Al-Qaeda's leadership simply could not have obtained that footage had the plot proceeded completely independent of the group. Underscoring this point, Zawahiri claimed that Khan and fellow plotter Shehzad Tanweer had visited an al-Qaeda camp "seeking martyrdom," an account that has been corroborated by Western intelligence agencies. Bob Ayers, a security expert at London's Chatham House think tank, commented when the new video was released, "It makes the police look pretty bad. It means the investigation was either wrong, or they identified links but were reluctant to reveal them."
A plot disrupted on August 10, 2006, designed to blow up seven planes bound for the U.S. from Britain with liquid explosives, served as another powerful sign that al-Qaeda was back. Though some initial reports hesitated to link the plot to the jihadi group's senior leadership, the evidence soon left little doubt. Pakistani security sources confirmed that the attack was conceived by al-Qaeda's "top hierarchy," while published reports stated that high-level al-Qaeda operative Matiur Rehman had "directed the British terror plot from Pakistan." The operatives charged with carrying out the plot had trained in al-Qaeda's Pakistan camps.
In part because of this plot, the National Intelligence Estimate released in July 2007 conceded that al-Qaeda "has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability." And the plot disrupted late last year that was designed to bring multiple Mumbai-style urban warfare attacks to Europe was yet another reminder that al-Qaeda's central leadership remained operationally relevant even after a decade of pursuit.
So when analysts again begin to argue that al-Qaeda's central leadership has been diminished and supplanted by self-starters, remember that at this point it is al-Qaeda's plan to incite and take advantage of the self-starters and wannabes. The fact that we will see terrorist attacks that don't directly involve al-Qaeda does not mean that the jihadi group has been marginalized or beaten.
Bin Laden, then, may be dead, but if we prematurely infer that al-Qaeda's central leadership is dead, too, we may find ourselves locked in battle with his legacy for longer than necessary.