Is Bin Laden Winning?

If Osama bin Laden were alive today to survey the field of battle, he might not feel his movement was so defeated.

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Video grab from an undated footage from the Internet shows Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden making statements from an unknown location. (Reuters)

If in 2001, a few hours after the 9/11 attacks, you had described to Osama bin Laden the world that would exist exactly 11 years later, how would he have reacted?

There's one aspect of the current world we know he would frown on--the part about his bones lying at the bottom of the sea. And he'd probably be disappointed that there have been almost no successful radical Islamist terrorist attacks on American soil since the one he engineered.

Still, there's a lot for him to like, and it's far from clear that America is decisively winning the war he started 11 years ago today.


[1] America launched two wars in response to 9/11, and both have boomeranged, providing enough jihadist propaganda to help fuel what successful and near-successful attacks on American soil there have been. And both countries we invaded remain in turmoil to this day, providing arenas where al Qaeda and other radical Muslim groups can find purpose and build franchises. What's more, the turmoil in one of these countries has helped destabilize Pakistan, raising the specter of nuclear weapons falling into dangerous hands.

[2] Though during the early Obama years America regained some esteem in Muslim countries--esteem that had been eroded partly by those wars--Muslim opinion of America has been dropping lately, something that would please bin Laden. Between 2009 and 2012, in the five Muslim countries included in the Pew Global Attitudes Project, America's favorability rating dropped, on average, from 25 percent to 15 percent. Why? For one thing, while it's true that President Obama has gotten our troops out of Iraq and seems to be getting them out of Afghanistan, it's also true that:

[3] Obama has become the drone strike president--he uses lethal drones in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia--and drone strikes may prove as prized by jihadist recruiters as those two wars were. Look at this graph from Pew, and note which nations are clustered near the bottom:

DroneStrikes.JPG [4] War-by-drone shows signs of becoming a permanent condition. You can see its appeal not just to this president but to pretty much any president: Drone strikes disrupt the activities of enemies and would-be enemies, reducing the chances of a terrorist attack in the short run. Of course, if you want to take a longer view, these strikes are planting the seeds for future blowback by (1) expanding Muslim hatred of America and so expanding the terrain for jihadist recruiters; and (2) taking people who are already jihadists, but whose focus had been on local or regional grievances (in, say, Yemen, Somalia), and turning them into anti-American jihadists. But politicians aren't known for taking the long view.

[5] Also in response to 9/11--or, more precisely, in response to threatening forces nourished by the aforementioned ill-advised responses to 9/11--America has betrayed its values. President Obama claims the prerogative of assassinating American citizens abroad if he deems them threatening--without giving them anything that resembles the due process of law supposedly guaranteed by the U.S. constitution. And American Muslims at home are targeted in a different way; undercover agents, not content to just spot terrorist plots, sometimes create them, posing as jihadists and trying to get young, alienated Muslims to cross the line into actual conspiracy. (In a kind of unintentional tribute to bin Laden, these agents lure their jihadist recruits by using the standard propagandist tropes--American troops in Afghanistan, drone strikes, etc.--that were created by our overreaction to 9/11.) Not all undercover operations are ill-conceived, but enough of them have been--at both the local and federal level--to raise real questions about costs and benefits; the aggressive surveillance of American Muslim communities could, obviously, alienate more Muslims, generating exactly the homegrown terrorism it's supposed to pre-empt.

All told, if bin Laden were alive to survey the field of battle, I think he'd feel far from defeated. He could plausibly imagine a future where America keeps doing what it's done so far: overreact to the (wildly exaggerated) threat of terrorism, doing things that buy short-term security at the expense of long-term security--sustaining if not increasing the terrorist threat, to which it can then overreact again, and so on.

To be sure, things haven't worked out the way they did in bin Laden's dreams, which no doubt featured a more glorious place in world affairs for both him and al Qaeda than either has wound up enjoying. But he'd get some satisfaction from having mired America in a vicious circle of fear and hatred--a circle that could well grow more intense and destructive over time if we don't find a way to break it.