We’re Conducting Our War on Terror in the Manner al-Qaeda Hoped We Would.
In 2005, Stephen Ulph of the Jamestown Foundation analyzed an article written earlier that year by Bassam al-Baddarin, entitled “Al-Qaeda has drawn up working strategy lasting until 2020.” Al-Baddarin’s article is a comprehensive review of the writings of Saif al-Adel, who became al-Qaeda’s #3 in 1998, behind bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. Bin Laden named al-Adel as his temporary replacement in the event of his death, until a successor is chosen. According to Ulph, here are some of al-Baddarin’s interpretations of al-Adel’s strategy:
“The first, achieved, step in this strategy was to regionalize the struggle with the United States. In this, the events of September 11 constituted the first step: dragging the United States into the Arab region in preparation for an extended war of attrition. Al-Qaeda knew in advance that the quick and inevitable response would be a comprehensive attack from the super-power against Afghanistan, but that this would play into their hands by provoking another giant — the Islamic Nation — and forcing it to wake up from its slumbers. … ‘[al-Qaeda] sacrificed the Taleban Movement and transferred a large number of its fighting strength outside Afghanistan, to Iran and Iraq.’ This was to keep pace with the shift by Washington of the theatre to an even more comprehensive confrontation in Iraq. ‘Indeed al-Qaeda had seen this in advance … Therefore, al-Zarqawi and his comrades left for Iraq and remained quiet in the north’ until coming to fruition ‘through the well-known declaration of allegiance between al-Zarqawi in Iraq and bin Laden in Afghanistan.’ … The upshot of this costly, dispersed U.S. strategy is the draining of [its] military resources.”
Saif al-Adel didn’t always agree with his murderous colleagues. He opposed the September 11th attacks, and has criticised al-Qaeda for being “random.” Nevertheless, al-Qaeda dragged the U.S. exactly where al-Adel envisioned: a long war of attrition in Afghanistan, followed by Iraq. Granted, our invasion of Iraq had a number of dubious justifications, only one of which was Saddam Hussein’s alleged connection with al-Qaeda, but the Iraq war would not have been supported without 9/11 still etched in our minds.
Al-Adel’s strategy has been quite effective: our soldiers are stretched thin, and over $1.2 trillion has been spent on counterterrorism since 9/11, 98% of which went into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. According to our military logs (released by WikiLeaks), we have lost over 3,700 American lives in Iraq, and over 1,000 in Afghanistan, not to mention all the physically maimed, or the emotionally broken and twisted.
In press conferences we are reassured that progress is being made in the war on terror. Sure, we have indeed dealt a massive blow to al-Qaeda’s operations, but we’re cultivating the next generation of recruits: since 9/11 we have killed over 66,000 civilians in Iraq, and hundreds in Afghanistan, according to our military logs (which provide relatively conservative figures). That’s a lot of family members filled with rage, and we know that al-Qaeda is accomplished at tailoring their recruitment pitch to specific audiences. As James Carroll of the Boston Globe put it, we have become al-Qaeda’s “recruiter-in-chief.”
Al-Qaeda has successfully evolved into an ideological franchise. Even if we managed to eliminate all its leaders, its ideology would survive, and new faces would rise to fill old positions. By occupying Islamic states and killing innocent civilians, no matter how accidentally, we have bolstered al-Qaeda’s ideology: they don’t hate us for our freedom; they hate us for meddling in the Islamic world, and we have outdone ourselves as the quintessential meddlers. Most of our troops genuinely believe that they’re helping Iraqis and Afghanis, which may be the case by some metrics, but al-Qaeda recruits the more radical Islamic fanatics who don’t want our help. From their perspective, America is more oppressive and deserving of punishment now than it was in 2001.
Our war on terror over this past decade might one day prove to be analogous to covering the fire of radical Islamic terrorism with a cardboard box: yes, the flames have died down a great deal in the short term, but eventually they will emerge, stronger.
Osama bin Laden’s unarmed death at the hands of our most elite forces exemplifies our policy of rage and vengeance in this war on guerilla terrorists. With a meticulously crafted operation, lawful Americans might wish that there had been a plan to bring bin Laden in alive if possible. Technically there was, but it was “vaguer than the rest of the operational plan,” and if the SEALs had actually taken him alive, officials would then have had to discuss and decide what to do with him after the fact. In conjunction with anonymous reports by top White House officials that the mission was never to take him alive, I’m convinced that we had no intention of doing so.
Yes, we saved ourselves from the hassle of an epic trial, which bin Laden surely would have used as a platform from which to spew dangerous vitriol and battle cries. But we made a martyr of the man, giving him far more power. Yes, he was technically still the leader of al-Qaeda one month ago, but in his later years he’d become relatively broke, leading al-Qaeda to split into two factions, with al-Zawahiri controlling the larger portion. After the current succession dust settles, al-Zawahiri will in all likelihood become al-Qaeda’s undisputed leader, with bin Laden’s martyrdom resonating as a call to arms.
And what about our values? As Glenn Greenwald noted in his look at the moral and legal ambiguity of the operation: if we could try the Nazis in Nuremberg, shouldn’t we have tried Osama? Wouldn’t that have been a greater, more American victory?
At the very least, we would have avoided further embodying al-Qaeda’s portrayal of us.
Saif al-Adel’s goal is to continue prodding us into more theaters of war in other Islamic states. How will we respond?
Ending the image of America as a blight on the Islamic world in the eyes of fanatic Muslims is out of the question: dropping our support for Israel (which is written into U.S. law), and pulling out entirely from a strategic, oil-rich area are simply not actions that the U.S. will take. So, if we can’t stand back to allow the ideological embers of this fire to die out, how do we react to its well-fueled flames?
Violence may have its place, but should be secondary to intelligence and security. I don’t have the answers, but by now we should be able to agree that revenge and full-blown war are not among them. In fact, they are precisely what al-Qaeda wants from us.