Al-Qaeda’s Evolving Strategy Five Years after September 11

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 35

Five years after September 11, al-Qaeda is, in its own words, “continuing the policy of bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy,” drawing the United States into a gradually widening conflict until it is no longer sustainable to continue operations against the mujahideen. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have mentioned this “bleed-to-bankruptcy” plan more than once in recent years. It became an integral part of their long-term strategy following the 9/11 attacks since, after the fall of the Taliban government, they understood that they could no longer operate as they did before, but they could inspire fellow Muslims to take up the cause with little or no direct involvement on their part.

“All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without achieving anything of note…this is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahideen, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat,” bin Laden said in a statement issued on November 1, 2004 and printed in al-Jazeera.

This is also consistent with bin Laden and al-Zawahiri’s vision, consolidated in the months after 9/11, that they are the vanguard (al-tali’a) of the mujahideen. They serve to awaken the Muslim nation and incite it to action. Al-Qaeda has presented itself consistently in this light, despite the many changes to its mode of operations since September 11.

Al-Qaeda has gone through major phases during the past five years, the first following the unexpected impact of the Twin Towers’ collapse. Following al-Qaeda’s infamy as a result of the damage that it had inflicted, the organization and its leaders found themselves at the center of the world’s attention. As they lost their safe-haven and roughly 80 percent of their fighters in Afghanistan, they needed to rely more and more on setting into motion a global movement that could sustain itself with or without their oversight.

This phase is exemplified in the online literature that stems from al-Qaeda’s leadership. In late 2005, al-Zawahiri made statements urging the targeting of oil installations in the Gulf; this call was heard by jihadi strategists and ideologues and was then discussed by the mujahideen and their supporters online, where they posted information on vulnerable facilities and discuss various tactics (Terrorism Focus, December 13, 2005). While this may not result in a devastating attack on the oil infrastructure of the Gulf, the strengthening of vulnerable spots around the world bears tremendous costs.

This stage, discussed widely by analysts and the media during the past three years, is marked most prominently by the emergence of al-Qaeda splinter groups and the question of what, if any, relationship they have to bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. The train bombings in Madrid and London demonstrated that those responsible did not have strong ties to al-Qaeda’s leadership. There were, however, ties at some level between the bombers and clerics that did have a relationship to bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and/or camps in Afghanistan. These same clerics, notably Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu Basir al-Tartusi and others, provide ideological weight to the basic ideas set out by al-Qaeda leaders and offer guidance to aspiring mujahideen.

The rise of al-Qaeda in Europe, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Qaedat al-jihad fi bilad al-Rafidayn (al-Qaeda in Iraq) and others has demonstrated that the movement is not directed from the top down, but that these organizations seem to center around local leaders who pledge their allegiance to bin Laden as emir, or commander, and their role is subsequently acknowledged by the al-Qaeda leadership. This is again consistent with their policy of being an inspirational force rather than a formal organization.

Al-Qaeda appears now to be one step closer to realizing its final goal of establishing an Islamic state in the face of U.S. defeat. As al-Zawahiri stated at the end of July, “All the world is a battlefield open in front of us…it is a jihad for the sake of God; we will attack everywhere.” His statements hailed the developments in Lebanon as a step toward their plan of regional war by drawing the United States into an ever expanding battle “from Spain to Iraq.”

Reviewing the developments of the war against al-Qaeda during the last five years, one sees their strategy being carried out in the various stages described above—inspiring Muslims around the globe, the creation of franchise organizations, frequent attacks in countries that support the United States and its allies and the gradual widening of the battlefield to the point that al-Qaeda itself becomes less and less relevant. The most critical issue now, however, is what action the United States will take to weaken the spirit of this now global movement in order to stem the influence and recruiting power that the movement has gained.