Al-Qaeda's opportunity to hurt the US
By Michael Scheuer
When Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States in al-Qaeda's name in
the late summer of 1996, he outlined ambitious worldwide Islamist goals but
noted that al-Qaeda could not accomplish them on its own.
He said that al-Qaeda could, at best, serve as the vanguard that would attack
the United States, assist Muslim insurgencies around the world and generally
try to incite Muslims to join the jihad against the United States, Israel and
the police states that govern much of the Arab and Muslim world.
At the time, Bin Laden was very clear in saying that the ultimate fate of the
ummah (Islamic community) was in the hands of all Muslims and not solely in
al-Qaeda's. Those in the West who
have seen al-Qaeda at any stage of its existence as a hierarchical
organization, bent on controlling the jihad it was trying to incite, have
either not read Bin Laden's words or have sought to cram this national security
threat into the kind of nation-state problem with which they are comfortable.
Good news abounds for al-Qaeda
Muslims should rejoice over the fact that they have the United States as their
priority enemy, al-Qaeda strategy analyst Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi wrote in 2002:
"The mujahideen enjoy an edge," he argued, "because the US leadership is facing
enormous strategic, political and economic challenges in various directions,
whereas the mujahideen are focusing their entire efforts on America and have
nothing else to worry about."
What was true then is even truer now. By any reasonable standard of evaluation,
al-Qaeda's self-appointed role as the inciter of jihad has contributed to a
world that is much more afflicted with jihadism today than it was in 1996.
Moreover, most locations experiencing rising jihadi activities are states that
Washington views as important to US national-security interests. The current
problem is so widespread - including locales where there was, at most, limited
jihad-related activity in 1996 - that the failure of major US and Western
leaders and media to see the reality, let alone the ardent belief of some that
the threat is receding, is inexplicable.
In Afghanistan, the Sunni Islamist movement is stronger and more coherent than
at any time since the late 1980s, when the Red Army was still occupying the
country. While the Taliban are the dominant insurgent group there, many of the
so-called "old mujahideen" - such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani
- have rejoined the fight against the US-led coalition. In addition, the
Taliban have re-emerged from their 2001 defeat and eviction from power as a
much-improved military organization, flush with manpower and external funding.
They are armed as well with an increasingly effective information-warfare
The Islamist insurgency in southern Thailand has intensified to a point
unprecedented in the Thai state's modern history. Some of the Thai Islamists
have openly affiliated with al-Qaeda and the insurgency as a whole has achieved
enough political legitimacy to apparently be engaged in direct negotiations
with the Thai government - something Bangkok not long ago said was
The pace of the Sunni Islamist insurgency in Iraq has slowed as the Sunnis
stand down to ensure the withdrawal of the first 8,000-man tranche of US troops
proceeds unhindered. At the same time, the Sunnis are organizing, absorbing new
funds and arms from Iraq's Sunni neighbors, and training for the coming civil
war with Iraq's Shi'ite rulers, a war whose arrival may be accelerated by the
Shi'ite-dominated government's retributive policy toward the Sunnis who sided
with US forces.
In India, the years since al-Qaeda declared jihad have seen an extraordinary
growth in Islamist attacks on Hindu targets, both in terms of casualties and
the level of economic destruction and disruption. Perhaps more dangerous for
New Delhi, these years have seen the "indigenization" of Islamist violence to
the point that most attacks are now being conducted by Indian Muslims, not
Pakistanis or Bangladeshi sent to India to stage terrorist operations.
The Islamist insurgency in Mindanao is poised to re-intensify as peace talks
between the Moro Islamist organizations and the Manila government have broken
down - some pundits say irretrievably - and Philippine forces and their US
advisers campaign more aggressively on the island.
The North Caucasus has experienced a reorganization and redirection of the
Islamist insurgency there. The leaders of the formerly Chechnya-centric
Islamist insurgency are trying to meld an assortment of North Caucasus groups
into a united front that will carry the fight against the Russians to all the
region's states. The Islamist chiefs have imposed tighter discipline on their
fighters, effectively limiting the number of innocent Muslim civilians killed
in attacks and thereby encouraging a gradual increase in public support for the
insurgents. Their targets are now overwhelmingly Russian officials, soldiers,
and security personnel and local government and military-security personnel
allied with the Russians.
The bleed-through of Islamist fighters westward from Iraq is creating a growing
and increasingly violent Sunni Islamist movement in northern Lebanon. The
Israelis have repeatedly claimed that al-Qaeda has built a presence in
Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps, gained a toehold in Gaza, and exerted
influence among Muslims in Israel proper. Additionally, Hamas's control of Gaza
is no small achievement for the wider Sunni Islamist movement.
Islamists in Somalia have regrouped and rearmed since the December 2006,
US-backed Ethiopian invasion of the country and are now again contesting with
the Ethiopians for control of Mogadishu. The ongoing war and increasing hunger
in the country is, according to a Horn of Africa expert affiliated with the
Brussels-based International Crisis Group, creating "a population radically
angry at us [the United States] and [a] very fertile ground for al-Qaeda".
In Pakistan, where Islamabad confronted no domestic Islamist insurgency in
1996, several such insurgencies are now raging. Pakistani military and security
forces are fighting the forces of the Pakistani Taliban and the separate forces
of the Pashtun tribes who began attacking after ex-president Pervez Musharraf
sent Pakistan's army into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to try to
root out al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.
In North Africa, al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist insurgents are increasingly
active in Algeria, Mauritania, and Mali, with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
(AQIM) recently announcing its intention to expand the group's operations into
In addition to these militarily active regions, the rise of Islamist militancy
clearly must be inferred on the basis of the media's regular reporting of
repeated and increasingly harsh police crackdowns on Islamists in Morocco,
Yemen, Kenya, Turkey, Bangladesh, Jordan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, China,
Nigeria, Uzbekistan, and several states in Western Europe.
Al-Qaeda's unexpected opportunity
Beyond this geographic expansion of jihad, al-Qaeda's own achievements have
been substantial. Bin Laden has long described a three-fold strategy for
driving the United States out of the Muslim world: (1) contribute to the forces
creating domestic political disunity in America; (2) act and encourage other
Islamists to act in a way that spreads US military and intelligence forces to
the point where they lack reserves and flexibility; and (3) bleed America to
bankruptcy. Obviously, al-Qaeda has been successful on the first two points and
today Bin Laden is staring into the face of an entirely serendipitous
opportunity to contribute to economic disaster in the United States.
Having been responsible for much of the economic bleeding America has done in
Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda now has a chance to significantly advance its
bleed-to-bankruptcy strategy. While al-Qaeda had no hand in creating the
ongoing, self-inflicted unraveling of the US financial system, al-Qaeda could
accelerate that unraveling with a 9/11-like or larger attack in the continental
The US political class has often scoffed at or ridiculed Bin Laden's goal of
driving America to bankruptcy, assuming that al-Qaeda irrationally assumed it
could bring down the US economy through its actions alone. This analysis is
inaccurate. Just as Bin Laden saw al-Qaeda as the inspirer of jihad and not the
jihad itself, he saw that his group's attacks on the US economy could not cause
bankruptcy, but might do so if they worsened other US economic problems. Thus
the main economic damage done by the 9/11 attacks resulted from the Iraq and
Afghan wars, not from the raids on Manhattan and Washington.
Today, Bin Laden and al-Qaeda have a chance to deal the United States an
enormous economic blow if they can stage a near-term attack in America. Such an
attack would serve as a devastating force-multiplier and perhaps push the
current economic disaster into the category of a financial catastrophe. Whether
al-Qaeda is positioned to stage such an attack is an open question.
What is unquestionable, however, is its intention to do so; the US intelligence
community's conclusion that al-Qaeda poses a "clear and present danger" to the
continental United States rests on the fact that US borders remain almost
entirely open and the weapons of mass destruction arsenal of the former Soviet
states and other sources of nuclear-bomb-making material have yet to be fully
Michael Scheuer served in the CIA for 22 years before resigning in 2004.
He served as the chief of the bin Laden Unit at the Counterterrorist Center
from 1996 to 1999. He is the once anonymous author of Imperial Hubris:
Why the West is Losing the War on Terror; his most recent book is Marching
Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq. Dr Scheuer is a senior fellow with
The Jamestown Foundation.