THE EVISCERATION, AT least temporarily, of Al Qaeda in Iraq was only one of many setbacks suffered by the jihadists after 9/11. The most momentous of these was the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, in a gutsy raid by U.S. Special Operations Forces on his compound in Pakistan that was ordered by President Obama over the objections of some of his advisers. Popular protests and insurrections proved to be far more potent instruments of change than terrorist operations. In 2011 uprisings shook regimes from Libya to Bahrain in ways that Al Qaeda never did. Far from toppling any Muslim governments, the Islamists managed to turn much of the umma against them. The Pew Global Attitudes Project recorded a sharp drop in those expressing “confidence” in Bin Laden between 2003 and 2010—in Pakistan from 46 percent to 18 percent, in Indonesia from 59 percent to 25 percent, in Jordan from 56 percent to 14 percent.90
Yet even a small minority is enough to sustain a terrorist group, and Al Qaeda had shown an impressive capacity to regenerate itself. Its affiliates continued to operate from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. There was a particularly close connection between Al Qaeda central and its “branded” franchises, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia and Yemen) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (North Africa). Meanwhile other Islamist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Tehrik-i-Taliban (Pakistani Taliban), the Afghan Taliban, and the Haqqani Network—sympathetic to Al Qaeda but not formally affiliated with it—continued to show considerable strength in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while Hamas controlled the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah held sway in Lebanon, and the Shabab bid for power in Somalia. The turmoil that swept the Middle East during the Arab Spring of 2011 offered fresh opportunities for extreme Islamists, including some sympathetic to Al Qaeda, to take power. Based on their record as of 2012, Islamist groups were considerably more successful in seizing power than the anarchists but considerably less successful than the liberal nationalists of the nineteenth century or the communists of the twentieth century.
The best bet for Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group to have a big impact would be to acquire nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, which Osama bin Laden had said was a “religious duty” for all Muslims.91 Even without such apocalyptic weapons, terrorist groups have the capacity to drag nation-states into fresh wars as Al Qaeda did with the 9/11 attacks, which led to the American invasion of Afghanistan. Hezbollah and the PLO have also caused interstate conflicts by leading Israel to intervene in Lebanon, while Pakistan-based jihadist networks have almost sparked a war between India and Pakistan on several occasions with their attacks on Indian soil. The possibility of terrorists’ setting off a war between nuclear-armed states is not all that far-fetched, considering that a terrorist act was the proximate cause of World War I.
To defend itself against such calamitous possibilities, America and its allies sought to erect a variety of defenses. Mostly it was a matter of improved security, police work, and intelligence gathering. The military played an important role, too, though seldom as central as in Iraq and Afghanistan—countries whose previous governments had been toppled by an American invasion. In states with a functioning or semi-functioning government the American role was limited to providing training, weapons, intelligence, and other assistance. Emblematic of this “low footprint” approach was the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force sent to the Philippines in 2002 to neutralize jihadist groups such as Abu Sayyaf. Comprising fewer than six hundred American personnel, it engaged in no direct combat. Rather it helped train and support the Philippine armed forces while carrying out civil-action projects such as building medical clinics and schools.92
Barack Obama came to office critical of many aspects of the Bush-era war on terror. However the practices he had most strongly criticized, such as the use of “stress techniques” in interrogations, already had been stopped in Bush’s second term. Other policies, such as holding detainees indefinitely at Guantánamo and trying them via military tribunals, Obama had to accept because of congressional opposition to ending them. In still other areas—such as drone strikes in Pakistan—Obama actually authorized more attacks than his predecessor had done. He also showed more willingness than his predecessor to order potentially risky commando missions such as the one that killed Osama bin Laden. Many liberals were disappointed that Obama had not gone far enough in rolling back Bush policies; many conservatives were equally upset because they thought he had gone too far. But most Americans appeared satisfied with a robust counterterrorism approach that had won bipartisan support in Congress—and kept them safe in the decade after 9/11.
Yet there was no guarantee that this streak of counterterrorist success would continue. As the “planes operation” showed, defeats in a struggle against an “invisible army” could materialize with shocking suddenness and not just on a distant battlefront but on the home front itself. This was not a threat that Britain, France, Russia, and other Western powers that had battled Islamic insurgents in previous centuries had had to grapple with—Chechens did not attack Moscow in the nineteenth century, any more than Pashtuns attacked London or Moroccans Paris—but it was an inescapable reality of war in the globalized world of the twenty-first century.