Although al-Qaeda was unvanquished it was also unable to repeat its startling triumph. America was sinking ever more deeply into unpromising, fantastically expensive wars in the Muslim world—following the script that had been written by bin Laden. Repeatedly, he had outlined his goal of drawing America into such conflicts with the goal of bleeding the U.S. economically and turning the War on Terror into a genuine clash of civilizations. His attacks, from the twin U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998, to the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, and ultimately to 9/11, were designed to goad the United States into Afghanistan, where he expected that America would experience the same catastrophe that befell the Soviet Union in 1989, when it withdrew in defeat and then simply fell apart. Bin Laden’s plan was that the sole remaining superpower would dissolve, the United States would become disunited states, and the way would be open for Islam to regain its natural place as the dominant force in the world.
Ten years after 9/11, al-Qaeda is not defeated. It has shown itself to be an adaptable, flexible, evolutionary organization, one that has outlasted most terrorist enterprises in history. One day, al-Qaeda will disappear, as all terrorist movements eventually do. But the template of asymmetrical warfare and mass murder that bin Laden and his confederates have created will inspire future terrorists flying other banners. The legacy of bin Laden is a future of suspicion, grief, and the loss of certain liberties that are already disappearing from memory.
Wright, Lawrence. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Vintage Books, 2007, 2011. p. 428–9
4 thoughts on “The success of bin Laden’s strategy”
The last two decades have revealed the folly of this hubris. With the declaration of its global “war on terror” after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States went abroad in search of monsters and ended up midwifing new ones—from terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (or ISIS), born in the prisons of U.S.-occupied Iraq; to destabilization and deepening sectarianism across the Middle East; to racist authoritarian movements in Europe and in the United States that feed—and feed off of—the fear of refugees fleeing those regional conflicts. Advocates of the war on terror believed that nationalist chauvinism, which sometimes travels under the name “American exceptionalism,” could be stoked at a controlled burn to sustain American hegemony. Instead, and predictably, toxic ultranationalism burned out of control. Today, the greatest security threat to the United States comes not from any terrorist group, or from any great power, but from domestic political dysfunction. The election of Donald Trump as president was a product and accelerant of that dysfunction—but not its cause. The environment for his political rise was prepared over a decade and a half of xenophobic, messianic Washington warmongering, with roots going back into centuries of white supremacist politics.
The United States has been on permanent war footing since September 11, 2001. Its military interventions, most notably the 2003 invasion of Iraq, have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. The United States has conducted combat operations in 24 different countries since 2001 and remains officially at war in at least seven. It is still fighting the longest war in its history in Afghanistan. Millions have been displaced as a consequence of these interventions. And yet the war on terror has failed even on its own terms: according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the number of Sunni Islamist militants around the world almost quadrupled between 2001 and 2018.
Osama bin Laden once boasted that, with just a few jihadists, he could draw the United States military to the ends of the Earth, and drag the superpower into suffering economic, political and human losses with no lasting achievements to show for it.
Now, two decades later, the United States is pulling out of Afghanistan.
America treats its generals as revered proxies for its ordinary soldiers, loving them even though the wars they’ve presided over have been catastrophic. There has been more than $14 trillion in defense spending since 9/11, more than 7,000 U.S. soldiers dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at least several hundred thousand civilians killed (which is a conservative estimate). Throughout these calamities, the generals lied about what was happening, telling Congress and the American public that things were going well when they knew it wasn’t true. The breathtaking scale of their deceit was revealed in classified documents that the Washington Post published in an award-winning 2019 series titled “At War With the Truth.”