The Al Qaeda attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, what Al Qaeda calls the Manhattan raid, changed the course of global history in a morning. The decade that followed would see America engage in two costly wars abroad, change its national security structures profoundly, and pursue Al Qaeda around the world. The decade ahead also promises to be dangerous. Although wounded by the killing of founder Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda is still an active global terror group with an ideology that has attracted a small but committed band of murderers. It aspires to change global history again by provoking more conflict and war to set the stage for its new caliphate. The strategy is insane, but Al Qaeda is determined to pursue it.
The 9/11 attack cost Al Qaeda about a half million dollars to organize and execute, according to the US 9/11 Commission report. The property damage in New York and Washington alone cost about $100 billion. The cumulative economic cost to the global economy has been estimated as high as $2 trillion. The attack led directly to the war in Afghanistan and indirectly to the war in Iraq. Brown University recently estimated the cost of those two wars at $4 trillion. So 9/11 was not only traumatic, it was a cheap investment that cost America dearly in lives and treasure.
It also transformed the national security infrastructure of the United States more profoundly than any event since the start of the Cold War at the end of the 1940s. Whole new bureaucracies have been created in its wake including the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counter Terrorism Center. The entire intelligence community was reorganized and a new position, director of national intelligence, created because the 9/11 attack revealed serious lack of coordination among the agencies. It also encouraged America to use torture and secret prisons to fight back. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are 9/11’s legacy and will forever tarnish America.
For more than a decade Al Qaeda has sought to provoke wars. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri assumed from the start of their self-proclaimed jihad that the more chaos and violence they could provoke between the Islamic world and the West on the one hand and with India on the other, the more likely they would achieve their goal of creating a caliphate that would restore the apposition Islam once held as a world power. In the decade ahead, the global jihad has great expectations that it can provoke more wars and will do all it can to make this decade more dangerous than the last.
Al Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, to provoke America into what it calls a “bleeding war” in Afghanistan. Bin Laden’s goal was to recreate the quagmire that bled dry the Soviet Union in the 1980s with America as the victim. George Bush gave him a bonus – bleeding war in Iraq and bin Laden’s protégé Abu Musaib Zarqawi quickly turned it into a civil war. President Barack Obama is still trying to find a way to extricate America from these two wars that do not leave chaos behind.
Al Qaeda’s December 25, 2009, attack on Detroit, which failed only because the suicide bomber misfired his bomb, was also intended to provoke America into another war, this time in Yemen. Al Qaeda proudly said its goal was to snare America into “the final trap.” It tried again with the parcel-bomb attempt last October in Chicago. After the bombs were discovered, thanks to Saudi intelligence help, Al Qaeda announced that the plot cost only $4200 to pull off and promised more to come to “hemorrhage” the American economy.
The global jihad has had more success in Pakistan where it has fomented unprecedented terror and violence from Karachi to Indian Kashmir, murdered Benazir Bhutto and created the Pakistani Taliban as a new arm of Al Qaeda. America now carries out routine bombing strikes in northwest Pakistan and will probably do so for the foreseeable future, along with rare commando raids like the one that killed bin Laden in Abbottabad. Zawahiri places a high priority on Pakistan. Al Qaeda has more links to terror groups in Pakistan than anywhere else; it swims with a syndicate of likeminded jihadists. It was this syndicate of terror that helped hide bin Laden for a decade and is hiding Zawahiri today.
At least twice the jihadists have tried to provoke war between India and Pakistan. The first was in December 2001 with the attack on the Indian Parliament and then again on “26/11” 2008 with the attack on Mumbai. Two Indian prime ministers have been too smart to take the bait.
Under Zawahiri we can expect Al Qaeda and its allies like Lashkar-e-Taiba, or LeT, to try to provoke more conflict in the decade ahead. War between the nuclear powers India and Pakistan is at the top of their agenda. Research by Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, including exclusive interviews with key Al Qaeda officials shows this is a high priority objective. Shahzad was murdered for his efforts, probably by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) which maintains its own shadowy links to many of these jihadists in the syndicate, as described by Syed Saleem Shahzad in his book published by Pluto Press, Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11.
A South Asia war would ease the pressure on Al Qaeda’s core team in Pakistan; vastly complicate if not imperil NATO’s logistics in Afghanistan, benefiting the Taliban; and could set in motion a jihadist coup in Pakistan depending on how the war came out. A jihadist takeover of Pakistan has long been on Zawahiri’s wish list, he has even written a book about it. He knows it would be a global game-changer like nothing else. Zawahiri worked closely with the late Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri, killed in a drone attack this year, to start a war in the subcontinent to hasten what Al Qaeda calls “the end of times.”
Al Qaeda will try to set traps elsewhere. Its franchise in Iraq is making a comeback and has often said it would welcome a war between America and Iran, pitting the Crusaders against the Shia. It does not want America to leave the “trap” in Mesopotamia.
Now Al Qaeda also sees opportunity in Zawahiri’s own Egypt. The Arab revolution has opened Cairo’s prisons and released many of his old comrades who have regrouped in the Sinai where they have already begun attacking Israeli targets. Zawahiri began his life in terror helping to kill Anwar Sadat for the crime of making peace with Israel. He now hopes he can finally kill the peace.
At the end of the day, however, we must keep Al Qaeda in perspective. It is a relatively small band of fanatics who have alienated the vast majority of Muslims with their mindless violence. The demonstrators in Cairo, Sana’a, Benghazi, Hamah and Tunis are not calling for Al Qaeda’s caliphate. Al Qaeda is not Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. Today it is under unprecedented stress from the strategy Obama has developed. We should be vigilant but not panic. We don’t need torture to defeat Al Qaeda; we need respect for Islam and a determined effort to resolve the conflicts like Palestine that give it so many recruits.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center in the Brookings Institution and adjunct professor at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book, Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad, came out in March. Rights: Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online