Military history



Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, 1988–2011

AL QUDS AL ARABI, an Arabic-language newspaper in London, published on February 23, 1998, a statement it had received by fax. It was headlined, “Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders,” and it was signed by five men—two Egyptians, including a physician named Ayman al-Zawahiri, one Pakistani, one Bangladeshi, and, above them all, a Saudi styled as “Shaykh Usamah Bin-Muhammad Bin-Ladin.” In rich, almost poetic Arabic interspersed with quotations from the Koran and Muslim scholars, the authors laid out what would become a familiar litany of grievances against the “crusader-Zionist alliance,” which, in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, they held responsible for “occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.” Since the Americans had declared “war on God, his messenger, and Muslims.” the authors declared, they were issuing a fatwa, a legal ruling, that “to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim.”49

Even then, Osama bin Laden was hardly unknown in the West. The CIA had already formed a unit to track him: Alec Station. He had already been mentioned sixteen times in the New York Times, beginning in 1994.50 No stranger to American television, he had even been interviewed by CNN the preceding year, and he would do an interview with ABC News that year. But he was invariably described as a bankroller rather than a practitioner of terrorism. His organization, Al Qaeda, which had been formed in 1988, was still obscure. In 1998 Bin Laden was living in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. He was known to harbor a grudge against the United States, which he held responsible for expelling him from Saudi Arabia, but he was hardly seen as being in a position to do much about it. His declaration of war against the world’s mightiest nation was judged so inconsequential that it was not covered in a single American newspaper or magazine. It was as if a wild-eyed street-corner preacher had declared his intention to fight city hall.

Just six months later the world would have cause to reassess its opinion of Bin Laden. On August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda suicide bombers detonated explosives-filled trucks in front of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 213 people, including 12 Americans. The Clinton administration now took Bin Laden seriously enough that on August 20, American warships fired dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles against Al Qaeda training camps in eastern Afghanistan as well as against a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan wrongly suspected of manufacturing chemical weapons for Al Qaeda. The missiles, however, killed few fighters. Bin Laden escaped unscathed with his stature enhanced. This only increased his contempt for the United States (“too cowardly and too fearful to meet the young people of Islam face to face”) and confirmed to him the wisdom of the strategic choice he had made. In a fatwa released two years earlier, in 1996, he had written that, “due to the imbalance of power between our armed forces and the enemy forces,” the most “suitable means of fighting” was to use “fast moving, light forces that work under complete secrecy”—“in other words to initiate a guerrilla warfare.”51

Bin Laden was hardly novel in his determination to use asymmetric means to fight a more powerful foe: this was, as we have seen, an impulse as old as the state itself. Nor was his religious fanaticism rare among irregular warriors: the first terrorist groups, after all, were the Jewish Zealots and the Muslim Assassins. However, most guerrilla and terrorist groups in the past had confined their attacks to a single country or group of countries adjacent to one another and had generally modulated their violence to avoid a devastating backlash. Bin Laden had grander ambitions—he aimed at nothing less than “destroying” the United States as a prelude to toppling its allied states throughout the Middle East and ultimately making the “word of Allah . . . supreme” throughout the world.52 By 1998 Bin Laden’s organization had already been associated with attacks in Algeria, Bosnia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Tanzania, and it was just getting started. In years to come few corners of the world would be spared the predations of jihadists inspired, trained, funded, directed, or armed—sometimes all of the above—by Al Qaeda.

The trend toward transnational terrorism had already been evident among the anarchist groups of the late nineteenth century and the leftist groups of the 1970s, but Al Qaeda took this tendency to new heights thanks to its skill in utilizing common yet sophisticated technologies. The passenger aircraft made it easy to travel the world. The telephone, fax, satellite television, and eventually the cell phone and Internet made it easy to raise funds, spread propaganda, recruit and deploy followers. The computer made it easy to run a complex organization. And cheap, reliable, mass-produced weapons such as the AK-47, rocket-propelled grenade, and, above all, explosives made it easy to kill. Bin Laden may have advocated a return to a medieval brand of Islam, but he showed a genius for using sophisticated technology and management techniques to marshal the first truly global insurgency. And he brought to his side many similar men who, like him, had little religious training but were well versed in technical subjects and familiar with the ways of the modern world. Like drug traffickers, computer hackers, and other international criminals, they represented the dark side of globalization in the twenty-first century.

OSAMA BIN LADEN’S rise to become the global face of terror—eclipsing earlier celebrities such as Carlos the Jackal, Abu Nidal, and even Yasser Arafat—was, to say the least, improbable. He was a shy child, soft-spoken and polite, forever in the shadow of his more dynamic and outgoing older brothers—and there were lots of them. Osama’s father, Muhammad, was a one-eyed Yemeni immigrant who had come to Saudi Arabia with nothing and built the kingdom’s largest construction company with the patronage of the royal family. He had no fewer than fifty-four children from twenty-two wives. Osama was the eighteenth son, born in 1957 to a simple Syrian girl. Muhammad divorced her two years later and conveniently married her off, as was his wont, to one of his executives. Osama grew up in awe of his father, whom he seldom saw. After the patriarch’s death in an airplane crash in 1967, leadership of the clan fell to Osama’s oldest brother, Salem, who was everything he was not—an irreligious, fun-loving, guitar-playing jokester who liked to spend time in Europe and America.

Osama grew up far removed from this jet-setter lifestyle. He lived in a staid middle-class household with his mother and stepfather in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. Even as a youngster Osama was religious but not to an outlandish degree by Saudi standards. He prayed five times a day but also watched television, loved to ride horses, and played soccer. As he grew older he became more puritanical, refusing to watch movies, listen to music, or take pictures: all activities he deemed “un-Islamic.” Unlike many of his siblings who were educated abroad, Osama attended the private Al Thagr School in Jeddah, where he was an average student, followed by economics studies at Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz University, from which he never graduated. In college he was influenced by the radical writings of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian apostle of Islamism who had been executed by the secular regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966, and whose brother was on the faculty.

In 1974, at seventeen, Bin Laden married a fifteen-year-old Syrian cousin. In subsequent years he would, in emulation of his father and in accordance with the teachings of the Koran, take more wives, including two teachers with doctorates. (He told wife number one that he was acting altruistically so that he could “have many children for Islam.”) In all he would produce at least twenty children. His family lived in a bizarre household where air conditioners and refrigerators were forbidden. The abstemious Bin Laden was happy to eat meager fare and wear drab clothes and expected his family to do likewise. They were forbidden American soft drinks, indeed all cold beverages, along with toys, sweets, and even prescription drugs, forcing his asthmatic children to sneak inhalers. Long hikes through the desert with little or no water were mandatory for the boys to toughen them up for the jihad. The girls were secluded at home with their mothers and not allowed to venture out without a male guardian. In this joyless household even jokes and laughter were forbidden; children caught laughing could expect a caning from the stern paterfamilias.

The major turning point in Bin Laden’s life occurred in 1979 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His first wife recalled that her “husband’s heart was burned to a crisp” by the suffering inflicted by the Red Army. He began to travel to Pakistan to provide funding and support to the mujahideen. At the time he was active in his family’s construction business; like his father, he was known for getting his hands dirty alongside his men. But in the 1980s he began to carve out a separate identity in the anti-Soviet jihad.

In Pakistan he met Abdullah Azzam, an older Palestinian cleric who was one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch, Hamas. No doubt eager to gain access to the Saudi’s fortune, Azzam became a mentor to Bin Laden. Together in 1985 they created the Services Office, the precursor to Al Qaeda, to help Arab volunteers fight the Soviets. The Services Office published a slick magazine, Jihad, and raised funds all over the world, including in the United States, thus creating the networks Al Qaeda would later utilize. There is no evidence that Bin Laden got any support from the U.S. government, but he did have connections with Saudi intelligence, which apparently used him to funnel aid to the muj.

Not content to be simply a fund-raiser or an armchair philosopher such as Prince Kropotkin, the anarchist sage, Bin Laden began to venture into Afghanistan. In 1986 he established a base for fifty or sixty Arab fighters near the village of Jaji in eastern Afghanistan. This became known as al Masada (the Lions’ Den). The following year he participated in a weeklong battle, avidly covered by the Arabic press, in which the Arabs fought bravely before retreating. In 1989 he took to the field again to lead his Arab volunteers to capture Jalalabad from Najibullah’s forces. This attack was a costly fiasco that demonstrated Bin Laden’s limitations as a battlefield commander. But it did not dent his carefully nurtured reputation as a fearless warrior for the faith who had voluntarily abandoned the easy life of a wealthy Saudi. Like Arafat, Bin Laden knew how to turn battlefield defeats into propaganda victories.

As the decade progressed Azzam and Bin Laden drifted apart. Azzam opposed the idea of a separate Arab fighting force, and he admired Ahmad Shah Massoud; Bin Laden hated Massoud and was close to his fundamentalist enemies. Azzam was active in the founding of Al Qaeda al-Askariya (“the military base”) in Bin Laden’s Peshawar home in 1988; its goal was to keep “the flame of jihad” alive after the end of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. But in 1989 Azzam was blown up in Peshawar by unknown assailants.

By then Bin Laden had come under the influence of a new father figure—Ayman al-Zawahiri, a brilliant surgeon from a prominent Egyptian family who in 1973 had founded a group called Islamic Jihad. He had been imprisoned for three years following Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, which his group had helped to orchestrate. The torture he experienced behind bars further embittered and radicalized him. Whereas Azzam opposed killing civilians and wanted to concentrate on expelling foreign invaders from Muslim lands, Zawahiri sought to overthrow moderate Muslim regimes and to kill Muslim “apostates.” Azzam’s death, in which Zawahiri was widely suspected, removed a major moderating element from Bin Laden’s life. So did the death of Salem, Osama’s older brother and head of the Bin Laden family. He perished in an accident in Texas in 1988 while piloting his own ultralight airplane.

With Azzam and Salem out of the way, Bin Laden became for the first time a leader in his own right—not just the financier but the absolute boss of Al Qaeda. At six feet five, he towered literally and figuratively above his growing entourage. All Al Qaeda members had to swear personal loyalty to the Saudi. Even Zawahiri, who has been described as the real brains of the operation, showed him deference, if only because he was dependent on Bin Laden’s financial largesse.

BY 1989 BIN LADEN was back in Saudi Arabia, where he was feted by the government as a military hero. The following year he went from idol to outcast. He turned against the royal family after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the king rebuffed his offer to deploy his “Afghan Arabs” to defend the kingdom. Instead the Saudis turned to U.S. troops. The presence of so many “unbelievers” on holy soil was anathema to Bin Laden even though his family company received lucrative contracts to support the U.S. military. His growing public criticism of the royals forced him to relocate in 1992 to Sudan, which was ruled by an Islamist regime. Here he combined his jihadism with business, setting up paramilitary training camps along with companies to grow sunflowers, build roads, and make leather jackets, among other enterprises.

The first terrorist attack ever attributed to Al Qaeda occurred in, of all places, Italy in 1991 when one of Bin Laden’s followers stabbed the exiled, seventy-seven-year-old king of Afghanistan but failed to kill him. Another Al Qaeda plot the following year was not much more successful—bombs were set off in two Aden hotels frequented by U.S. troops, but the only victims were a tourist and a hotel worker. Other schemes worked better. Bin Laden was later to brag of sending his men to help train and support Somali tribesmen who in 1993 ambushed a U.S. Special Operations force in Mogadishu, bringing down two Black Hawk helicopters and killing nineteen Americans. In 1995 Bin Laden’s followers were linked to a car bomb that exploded in front of a Saudi National Guard office in Riyadh, killing seven people, including five Americans. There was also suspicion of Al Qaeda involvement in the 1996 bombing at the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia that killed nineteen Americans. (Bin Laden praised both attacks in his homeland but denied responsibility.) Egypt was another major target: in 1995 Islamists bombed the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan and tried to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak while he was visiting Ethiopia.

As a result of these high-profile attacks, Bin Laden acquired such a notorious reputation that Saudi Arabia stripped him of his citizenship and Sudan expelled him in 1996. The only country that would accept him was Afghanistan, then being taken over by the Taliban. Al Qaeda did not require the same sort of state support that other terrorist groups, ranging from the PLO to Hezbollah, had received. Rather than seeking out strong states that could support it, Al Qaeda looked for weak states that could not resist its encroachments. By the late 1990s no state in the world was weaker than Afghanistan, which had been devastated by almost constant warfare since 1978.

HERE, IN ONE of the world’s most primitive places, Bin Laden had to rebuild his organization. The task was made all the more difficult because he had lost millions of dollars in Sudan and his own family had cut him off. Never as rich as publicly rumored, he had received roughly a million dollars a year from his family since 1970, but after 1993 or 1994 he was on his own. From then on he would have to raise funds from wealthy Gulf businessmen and Muslim charities. Sometimes he and his family did not have enough to eat (they would subsist on a diet of eggs, bread, and pomegranates “caked with sand”), but he would ensure that the jihad was funded.

The FBI later estimated that Al Qaeda raised $30 million a year prior to 9/11. While defending against terrorism is costly, carrying it out is not; the entire 9/11 operation was said to cost less than half a million dollars. Other operations were even cheaper—the estimated cost of the USS Coleattack in 2000 was $50,000; the 2004 Madrid bombings, only $10,000.

Most of Al Qaeda’s funds went to support training camps in Afghanistan where thousands of jihadists came for instruction. Bin Laden provided his recruits with lodging, food, salaries, weapons, vehicles, training manuals. He even produced an Encyclopedia of Jihad with thousands of pages of advice on how to carry out effective attacks. To manage this growing enterprise—Jihad Inc.—Bin Laden appointed managers and set up computerized personnel and payroll systems reminiscent of any other start-up company. Journalist Peter Bergen has called Al Qaeda “the most bureaucratic terrorist organization in history.”

Jihadists eager for induction into Al Qaeda camps had to fill out lengthy questionnaires, as if they were applying for college, asking them not only standard background questions (“Have you worked previously in a military field?” “What are your hobbies?”) but also “How much of the Koran have you memorized?” The training curriculum, set up with the aid of an Egyptian-born former sergeant in the U.S. Army, covered a wide variety of weapons—from Soviet DShK machine guns to Israeli-made Uzi submachine guns. Recruits even learned to drive tanks. But, although some Al Qaeda fighters took part in quasi-conventional operations against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, most would fight in ways far removed from conventional tank battles.

Al Qaeda came to specialize in spectacular “martyrdom” operations such as the small-boat attack that killed seventeen sailors aboard the USS Cole in Aden harbor in 2000. This, like the 1998 Africa embassy bombings and the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, was an operation planned and executed by “Al Qaeda central.” Many more attacks were carried out more or less independently by jihadist operatives inspired or trained but not directed by Bin Laden. This trend became especially pronounced after 9/11, when Al Qaeda leaders were put on the run, but even before then most graduates of its camps never joined Al Qaeda. That was a privilege accorded only to a few hundred carefully screened “brothers.” Most of the jihadists who trained in the camps signed on with loosely affiliated organizations such as Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, Harakat ul-Mujahideen in Kashmir, or the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria.

To foster a worldwide campaign, Bin Laden mounted an ambitious propaganda effort, even sitting down for interviews with ABC, CNN, and Al Jazeera. He would distribute video and audio messages through his in-house production arm, Al Sahab (the Clouds), while his followers set up thousands of jihadist websites. Bin Laden, who obsessively monitored the BBC even from remote hideouts, was convinced that “the media war” was one of the “strongest methods” of promoting jihadism—“its ratio may reach 90 percent of the total preparation for the battles.” Few if any previous insurgents, save perhaps for Yasser Arafat, had put quite so much emphasis on the propaganda battle. This may be explained by the growing ubiquity of the Internet, cellular phones, and satellite television, whose potential Bin Laden intuitively grasped, and also by Al Qaeda’s relative lack of conventional military capabilities, which meant that it had no choice but to emphasize the “information war” to fill the space between its relatively infrequent attacks.

Al Qaeda’s foot soldiers tended to be middle-class but often felt alienated from their society. Some were Muslim immigrants, or children of immigrants, living in Europe. Others lived in stultifying dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria. Like most terrorists, they were motivated by what the researcher Louise Richardson calls the “Three R’s”—revenge, renown, reaction. They were seeking revenge for the wrongs the West had supposedly inflicted on Muslims stretching back to the Crusades; renown for themselves in an attempt to give meaning to an otherwise insignificant existence; and to provoke a reaction from their adversaries.

Many believed that the best way to achieve all three goals would be to carry out a “martyrdom operation.” There was keen competition within the ranks for the honor of becoming a shaheed. Al Qaeda leaders did not, however, voluntarily sacrifice themselves or their children. They believed that they had to remain alive to secure victory over God’s enemies. To achieve this goal, influential jihadist thinkers, little known in the West, such as Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi, Yusuf al-Ayiri, and Abu Musab al-Suri, made a close study of military strategy and history. Their writings were sprinkled with references not only to Clausewitz and Sun Tzu but also to Mao, Giap, Guevara, Marighella, Taber, and other leftist proponents of irregular warfare. They were enthralled by the success of insurgents in expelling superpowers from Vietnam and Afghanistan, Lebanon and Somalia. This gave them an exaggerated regard for guerrilla and terrorist tactics, which over the years have failed far more than not.

Bin Laden became convinced that the United States was a “paper tiger,” effeminate and cowardly, a foe that could be brought low with a few sharp blows. He decided to make the “far enemy”—the United States—the focus of Al Qaeda attacks, sure that once its power had been broken, “all the components of the existing Arab and Islamic regimes will fall as well,” and then he would be able to establish a fundamentalist caliphate across the Middle East. This turned out to be a gross strategic miscalculation. Bin Laden exaggerated the extent to which the United States propped up “apostate” regimes in the Middle East; they were kept in power more by their secret police than by their alliances with the United States. Notwithstanding the failure of earlier Islamist uprisings, he would have been better advised to fight Arab regimes directly without provoking the United States. That approach worked for the Islamists who took over Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan in violent upheavals and, via the electoral process, Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt. But Bin Laden had bigger horizons and less awareness of his own limits. A combination of shrewdness and hubris led him to stage the most deadly terrorist attack of all time.53

THE IDEA FOR the “planes operation” originated with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of numerous terrorist entrepreneurs drawn by Bin Laden’s charisma and resources. He was an engineer of Pakistani origin who grew up in Kuwait and was educated in the United States. He had joined the Muslim Brotherhood at sixteen and became active in the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He would later fight in Bosnia in 1992. He was tangentially linked to the truck bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, which was masterminded by his nephew Ramzi Yousef, who had trained in an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan. That attack killed six people but failed to topple the Twin Towers. In 1994, while they were living in Manila, he and Yousef talked about blowing up twelve American airliners over the Pacific. Two years later he wound up in Afghanistan where he presented Bin Laden with a plan to hijack ten American passenger aircraft, crash nine of them into prominent buildings, and land the tenth plane at an airport where, after having killed all of the adult male passengers, he would emerge to deliver an anti-American diatribe to the television cameras.

Like a good CEO, Bin Laden refined his subordinate’s overly ambitious proposal into a more practical plot: one that incidentally would not allow Mohammed to usurp Bin Laden’s self-appointed role as the face of global jihad. He then supplied money and men to carry out the scheme. So it was that on September 11, 2001, nineteen men hijacked four aircraft using box cutters—a particularly inventive touch that showed the meticulous surveillance and planning behind the operation. By then airplane hijackings had lost their shock value, but crashing the hijacked airliners into their targets, rather than landing, as at Entebbe, to open negotiations, was a savage twist that riveted the entire world in a way that no act of terrorism had done since the 1972 Munich Olympics.54

The immediate results of the operation exceeded even Bin Laden’s expectations. He had envisaged at most the destruction of three or four floors, not of the entire Twin Towers. The death toll of nearly three thousand exceeded that inflicted in the last major enemy attack on American soil, at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which had been undertaken by a major nation-state not by a small nongovernmental organization. Bin Laden was particularly gleeful about the financial costs of the attack, estimated at $500 billion; the former economics major imagined that he could bankrupt the world’s wealthiest country.55

Bin Laden was soon to learn that the United States was not as weak as he had imagined. Although he occasionally had said that he welcomed an invasion of Afghanistan as a way to bleed the United States in a “long guerrilla war . . . like we did against the Soviets,”56 he had done little to prepare for what actually occurred. Within weeks of 9/11 a small number of CIA operatives and Special Forces arrived in Afghanistan with suitcases full of cash and high-tech communications equipment to galvanize the Northern Alliance. By early December the Taliban had fallen and Al Qaeda had been routed by Northern Alliance attacks backed by American airpower. Bin Laden and Zawahiri were able to escape into Pakistan thanks to the blunders of American military commanders and their bosses in Washington who did not send enough troops to trap them in the Tora Bora mountains outside Jalalabad in November–December 2001. Still, many of their colleagues were caught or killed. Many more would be hunted down in the years ahead, including eventually Bin Laden himself.

To say that the Bush administration had been caught off guard by the 9/11 attacks was an understatement. Still focused on great-power rivalries and rogue states such as Iran and Iraq, the president and his aides had discounted intelligence that suggested that the greatest danger to America was posed by a stateless terrorist network. In a sense, Bush and his advisers were victims of conventional historiography, which emphasized conventional conflicts among states while neglecting the ubiquitous and important role of guerrilla warfare in the unfolding of history.

After 9/11 Bush desperately played catch-up. As part of the “global war on terror,” the president and Congress created new domestic-security agencies and knocked down many of the bureaucratic barriers that had prevented cooperation between law enforcement and intelligence. More controversially Bush authorized a number of steps that went well beyond the bounds of traditional law enforcement, including the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on high-value detainees such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times after being arrested in Pakistan in 2003; the warrantless wiretapping of those who might have terrorist connections in the United States; the “rendition” of detainees back to their countries of origins even though some of those countries (e.g., Egypt, Algeria, and Jordan) were notorious for their use of torture; the indefinite detention without trial of eight hundred suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay and at CIA-operated “black sites”; the creation of military tribunals to try terrorist suspects; and the targeted assassination of Al Qaeda leaders with Predator drones in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen.57

Such measures were denounced by civil libertarians and, once the immediate post-9/11 fear had abated, many of them were curtailed through a combination of congressional and court action. But, for all the criticism of Bush’s policies, his actions were actually restrained by comparison with steps taken by other countries, even democracies such as Britain, France, and Israel, when they had faced their own terrorist threats. They were restrained, too, by comparison with the curtailments of civil liberties by Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson in World War I, and Franklin D. Roosevelt in World War II. Even if one assumes that all “stress techniques” were torture, as many undoubtedly were, they were utilized on only twenty-eight detainees in carefully monitored circumstances to ensure no lasting physical harm. Compare that with the thousands tortured far more savagely by the French in Algeria and often killed afterward. Rightly or wrongly, the United States was held in the court of global opinion to a standard attained by few other states that had battled large-scale terrorism. The inarticulate Bush, unfortunately, did a poor job of explaining and defending American actions. For all its faults, however, the Bush administration also did serious damage to the jihadists. The Al Qaeda strategist Abu Musab al-Suri lamented in 2004, “The Americans have eliminated the majority of the armed jihadist movement’s leadership, infrastructure, supporters and friends.”58

Jihadists were able to stage further attacks after 9/11 on a smaller if still horrific scale. Some of the more prominent examples included the 2002 bombing of a Bali nightclub (202 dead), the 2004 bombing of the Madrid train system (191 dead), the 2005 bombing of the London subway system (52 dead), and the 2008 shootings in Mumbai (163 dead). But with some minor exceptions (the Madrid attack contributed to Spain’s exit from Iraq), such attacks did nothing to advance the agenda of Al Qaeda and its associated groups. Quite the contrary. By slaughtering so many innocents—including so many Muslims—jihadists turned Muslim opinion against them and spurred a global crackdown against them. Even Saudi Arabia, which had hitherto been apathetic in the struggle against the Islamists, got tough following the 2003 bombings in Riyadh that killed 35 people. The United States was able to knit together an effective global coalition to counter Al Qaeda because it was seen as a threat to a growing number of countries. International cooperation foiled numerous plots, including an ambitious attempt to bring down seven airliners over the Atlantic in the summer of 2006 using liquid explosives. Many other schemes, such as the attempted shoe bombing of a flight from Paris to Miami in 2001 or the attempted car bombing of Times Square in 2010, were undone by sheer incompetence or bad luck.

Before 9/11 terrorists had generally refrained from inflicting massive civilian casualties because they realized that such attacks could backfire. As the terrorism analyst Brian Jenkins wrote in the 1970s, “Terrorism is theater, terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.”59 Al Qaeda and other Islamist organizations violated that dictum and paid the price in lost support. The Chechen rebels offered a case in point: they forfeited all sympathy after their 2002 hostage taking in a Moscow theater, which left 169 dead, and their 2004 hostage taking at a school in Beslan, in North Ossetia, which left 331 dead, more than half of them children.

The same phenomenon—nihilistic violence turning counterproductive—was evident in Algeria and Egypt in the 1990s and in Iraq in the 2000s. In Algeria and Egypt, Islamist uprisings were suppressed by homegrown military regimes. In Iraq, however, the post-Saddam state was too weak to respond effectively. The job of battling insurgents was left to the “infidel” army of a foreign superpower that had done little to prepare for guerrilla warfare since its humiliating defeat in Vietnam.

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