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.
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.