Summary: US counterinsurgency experts have declared al Qaeda down for the count many times. Their #3 executive assassinated, repeatedly. Defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet in the 13th year after 9-11 we have been ejected from Iraq, which has burst into flames again. We face almost certain defeat in Afghanistan. Our special operations forces fight shadowy jihadists in dozens of nations. Our strategy of lavish killing, often in support of corrupt tyrants, doesn’t seem to be working. Perhaps we should go back to step one, and learn about the organization that initiated the Long War. Owen Bennett-Jones walks us through two new books helping us do so.
by Owen Bennett-Jones
Published in the London Review of Books
19 December 2013
Red emphasis added
Reprinted with the permission of the author and LRB.
A review of these books:
- Decoding al-Qaida’s Strategy: The Deep Battle against America by Michael Ryan
- The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organisations by Jacob Shapiro
As they fled Afghanistan after 9/11 some of bin Laden’s followers wondered whether the attacks on the US had been a mistake. Among them was one of al-Qaida’s most acerbic writers, Abu Musab al-Suri. In public he backed bin Laden: privately he described him as an obstinate egotist. And he was scathing about the consequences of 9/11: ‘The outcome, as I see it, was to put a catastrophic end to the jihadi current which started in the early 1960s.’ Al-Suri believed that the Afghan Taliban regime, the most religiously correct Islamic emirate in centuries, had been destroyed for the sake of a provocative attack on a country al-Qaida could not defeat.
Before 9/11, the organisation’s training camps had processed a steady stream of highly motivated recruits. After the attacks it was on the run. Another senior al-Qaida figure, Abu al Walid al-Masri, put it even more bluntly. Bin Laden, he said, had led his followers to ‘the abyss’.
A decade later those concerns seemed to have been vindicated. By 2011 al-Qaida had been reduced to a few bands of men hiding in the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Distracted by the need to evade death or capture they were capable of mounting only puny attacks. Their allies in the Afghan Taliban were a shadow of their former selves: they may have been fighting US forces with increasing vigour, but they were nowhere near conquering Kabul for a second time.
It was much the same story in North Africa, where the local al-Qaida branch, al Shabab, was thrown out of Mogadishu by African Union forces fighting in support of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. In Saudi Arabia, al-Qaida had suffered an even more devastating reverse. In 2003 the royal family had to be persuaded that al-Qaida was a genuine threat, but once that was done the state was running a concerted and well-resourced security and propaganda campaign. Senior clerics were seen on TV denouncing the organisation.
At the same time, many of al-Qaida’s most capable leaders, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who put together the 9/11 attack, were languishing in Guantánamo. Those who were still in Pakistan faced drone strikes of such accuracy that they had to be continually on the move and could not risk meeting up for more than a few minutes. The West’s assault on al-Qaida’s finances had left bin Laden, the son of one of the wealthiest families on earth, worrying about money for the first time in his life. Then in May 2011 the US located and killed him.
All of which makes plain how remarkable al-Qaida’s resurgence over the last three years has been.