Let’s not overestimate Al-Qaeda’s might

The 9/11 attacks, 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, 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 to set the stage for its new caliphate. The strategy is insane, but Al-Qaeda is determined to pursue it.

The 9/11 attacks cost about a half-million dollars to organize and execute, according to the U.S. 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 in Iraq. Brown University recently estimated their costs 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. Whole new bureaucracies have been created, including the Department of Homeland Security and the National Counter Terrorism Center. The intelligence community was reorganized and a new position, director of national intelligence, created because 9/11 revealed a serious lack of coordination among the agencies. It also encouraged America to use torture and secret prisons to fight back.

For more than a decade Al-Qaeda has sought to provoke wars. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri 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.

Al-Qaeda attacked the United States on Sept. 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 W. Bush gave him a bonus – a war in Iraq that bin Laden’s protege Abu Musab Zarqawi turned into a civil war.

Al-Qaeda’s December 2009, attack on a Detroit-bound airliner, which failed 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 a plane bound for Chicago. After the bombs were discovered, thanks to Saudi intelligence help, Al-Qaeda announced that the plot cost only $4,200 to pull off and promised more to come.

The global jihad has had more success in Pakistan where it has fomented unprecedented terror and violence from Karachi to Indian-held 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. Zawahri 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 that helped hide bin Laden for a decade and is hiding Zawahri today.

At least twice jihadists have tried to provoke war between India and Pakistan. The first time was in December 2001 with the attack on the Indian Parliament; then on Nov. 26, 2008, with the attack on Mumbai. Two Indian prime ministers were too smart to take the bait.

Under Zawahri we can expect Al-Qaeda and its allies like Lashkar-e-Taiba to try to provoke more conflict in the decade ahead. War between nuclear 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. Shahzad was murdered for his efforts, probably by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence which maintains its own shadowy links to many of the jihadists in the syndicate, as described by Shahzad in his book “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 and vastly complicate, if not imperil, NATO’s logistics in Afghanistan, benefiting the Taliban. It could also set in motion a jihadist coup in Pakistan depending on how the war comes out. A jihadist takeover has long been on Zawahri’s wish list. He has even written a book about it. He knows it would be a global game-changer like nothing else. Zawahri worked closely with the late Muhammad Elias 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 Shiites. It does not want America to leave the “trap” in Mesopotamia.

Now Al-Qaeda also sees an opportunity in Zawahri’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. Zawahri began his life in terror helping to kill President Anwar Sadat for the crime of making peace with Israel. He now hopes he can finally kill the peace.

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, Sanaa, Benghazi, Hama 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 at the Brookings Institution and an adjunct professor at the School for Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is “Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad.” This commentary is reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (, Copyright © 2011, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 26, 2011, on page 7.




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