December 3, 2010


Bin Laden’s Lonely Crusade: A decade after White House aide Richard Clarke’s famous memo warning against al-Qaeda, it’s time for a reality check: the 9/11 attacks did not achieve what Osama bin Laden had hoped, and the list of his enemies is growing. Keeping the threat in perspective is the surest way to prevail. (Peter Bergen, January 2011, Vanity Fair)

The first thing to recognize is that, despite the carnage and the shock, the 9/11 attacks represented a strategic blunder by al-Qaeda. When news of the first plane’s hitting the World Trade Center reached them, bin Laden’s followers exploded with joy. But shrewder members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan realized that the attacks might not be the stunning victory that bin Laden, and many in the West, took them to be. Vahid Mojdeh, a Taliban foreign-ministry official, immediately understood that the game was up: “As soon as I heard the news,” he recalled, “I realized that the Taliban were going to be terminated.” Abu al-Walid al-Masri, an Egyptian who was an early bin Laden associate, explained that, in the years before 9/11, bin Laden had come increasingly to the view that America was weak: “As evidence he referred to what happened to the United States in Beirut when the bombing of the Marines headquarters led them to flee from Lebanon.” Bin Laden also cited the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia, following the “Black Hawk Down” incident, and the pullout from Vietnam in the 1970s. When I traveled with Peter Arnett to meet with bin Laden in Afghanistan, in 1997, he stated as if it were a self-evident fact that “the U.S. still thinks and brags that it still has this kind of power even after all these successive defeats.” Bin Laden had come to the delusional conclusion that the United States was as weak as the Soviet Union had once been.

Several of those in al-Qaeda’s inner circle had argued that large-scale attacks on American targets would be unwise. Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian army officer, and Abu Hafs, a Mauritanian religious adviser, opposed the attacks either because they feared the American response or because they were worried that such operations would alienate the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, whose sanctuary al-Qaeda enjoyed. Noman Benotman, a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, traveled from London in the summer of 2000 to meet with bin Laden in Kandahar. He stated bluntly that attacking America would be disastrous. “But they laughed,” he recalls, “when I told them that America would attack the whole region if they launched another attack against it.”

There is not a shred of evidence that, in the weeks before 9/11, al-Qaeda’s leaders anticipated or made any plans for an American invasion of Afghanistan. They prepared instead only for possible U.S. cruise-missile attacks and bombing sorties. A letter written by an al-Qaeda insider in 2002 gives a sense of just how demoralized the group was following the American overthrow of their Taliban allies: “Today we are experiencing one setback after another and have gone from misfortune to disaster.”

Members of al-Qaeda were right to be dispirited: Before 9/11, the group had acted freely in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda conducted its own foreign policy independent from the Taliban, taking the form, beginning in 1998, of multiple strikes on American government, military, and civilian targets. Before 9/11, al-Qaeda was an organization of global reach. The 9/11 attack itself played out around the world, with planning meetings in Malaysia, operatives taking flight lessons in the United States, coordination by plot leaders based in Hamburg, and money transfers from Dubai—activities overseen by al-Qaeda’s senior command from secure bases in Afghanistan. Almost all of this infrastructure was smashed after 9/11.

One of bin Laden’s key goals is to bring about regime change in the Middle East and to replace the House of Saud and the Mubarak family of Egypt with Taliban-style rule. He believes that the way to accomplish this is to attack the “far enemy” (the United States and its Western allies), then watch as America recoils and the U.S.-backed Muslim regimes regarded as the “near enemy” collapse. The attacks on Washington and New York resulted in the direct opposite of his hopes. After 9/11, American troops occupied two Muslim countries and established new bases in several others. Relations between the United States and the authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes became stronger than ever, based on a shared goal of defeating violent Islamists.

After 9/11, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s number two, acknowledged in a polemical political memoir that the most important strategic goal of al-Qaeda was to seize control of a state somewhere in the Muslim world, explaining that “without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.” But after 9/11, al-Qaeda lost its safe base in Afghanistan, and its attempt in Iraq to set up a sympathetic Sunni-dominated state dramatically backfired. Iraq today may be dysfunctional, but it is a country where the Sunnis are marginalized. The country’s ties with the Shiite government of Iran are close. A decade after 9/11, by Zawahiri’s own standard, al-Qaeda has achieved “nothing.”

The fundamental effect of 9-11 was to liberate and empower the Shi'a, whom the Qaedists consider heretics.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 3, 2010 6:11 AM
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