Al-Qaeda’s Golden Opportunity to Deal a Devastating Blow to the United States

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 34

Attacks by insurgents in Thailand (above) are just one part of a much larger rise in jihadism that the world has witnessed since 1996

When Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States in al-Qaeda’s name in the late summer of 1996, he outlined ambitious worldwide Islamist goals, but noted that al-Qaeda could not accomplish them on its own. He said that al-Qaeda could, at best, serve as the vanguard which would attack the United States, assist Muslim insurgencies around the world and generally try to incite Muslims to join the jihad against the United States, Israel, and the police states that govern much of the Arab and Muslim world. At the time, Bin Laden was very clear in saying that the ummah’s ultimate fate was in the hands of all Muslims and not solely in al-Qaeda’s. [1] Those in the West who have seen al-Qaeda at any stage of its existence as a hierarchical organization, bent on controlling the jihad it was trying to incite, have either not read bin Laden’s words or have sought to cram this national security threat into the kind of nation-state problem with which they are comfortable.

Good News Abounds for al-Qaeda

Muslims should rejoice over the fact that they have the United States as their priority enemy, al-Qaeda strategy analyst Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi wrote in 2002: “The mujahedeen enjoy an edge,” he argued, “because the U.S. leadership is facing enormous strategic, political, and economic challenges in various directions, whereas the mujahedeen are focusing their entire efforts on America and have nothing else to worry about” (, September 22, 2002). What was true then is even truer now. By any reasonable standard of evaluation, al-Qaeda’s self-appointed role as the inciter of jihad has contributed to a world that is much more afflicted with jihadism today than it was in 1996. Moreover, most locations experiencing rising jihadist activities are states that Washington views as important to U.S. national-security interests. The current problem is so widespread – including locales where there was, at most, limited jihad-related activity in 1996 – that the failure of major U.S. and Western leaders and media to see the reality, let alone the ardent belief of some that the threat is receding, is inexplicable.

• In Afghanistan the Sunni Islamist movement is stronger and more coherent than at any time since the late 1980s, when the Red Army was still occupying the country. While the Taliban is the dominant insurgent group there, many of the so-called “old mujahedeen” – like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani – have rejoined the fight against the U.S-led coalition. In addition, the Taliban has reemerged from its 2001 defeat and eviction from power as a much-improved military organization, flush with manpower and external funding. It is armed as well with an increasingly effective information-warfare capability (Telegraph, September 17;, July 24).

• The Islamist insurgency in southern Thailand has intensified to a point unprecedented in the Thai state’s modern history. Some of the Thai Islamists have openly affiliated with al-Qaeda and the insurgency as a whole has achieved enough political legitimacy to be currently engaged in direct negotiations with the Thai government – something Bangkok not long ago said was unacceptable (Antara, September 20). [2]

• The pace of the Sunni Islamist insurgency in Iraq has slowed as the Sunnis stand down to ensure the withdrawal of the first 8,000-man tranche of U.S. troops proceeds unhindered. At the same time, the Sunnis are organizing, absorbing new funds and arms from Iraq’s Sunni neighbors, and training for the coming civil war with Iraq’s Shia rulers, a war whose arrival may be accelerated by the Shia-dominated government’s retributive policy toward the Sunnis who sided with U.S. forces.

• In India, the years since al-Qaeda declared jihad have seen an extraordinary growth in Islamist attacks on Hindu targets, both in terms of casualties and the level of economic destruction and disruption. Perhaps more dangerous for New Delhi, these years have seen the “indigenization” of Islamist violence to the point that most attacks are now being conducted by Indian Muslims, not Pakistanis or Bangladeshi sent to India to stage terrorist operations (Reuters, July 27).

• The Islamist insurgency in Mindanao is poised to re-intensify as peace talks between the Moro Islamist organizations and the Manila government have broken down – some pundits say irretrievably – and Philippine forces and their U.S. advisers campaign more aggressively on the island (al-Jazeera, September 18;, July 26).

• The North Caucasus has experienced a reorganization and redirection of the Islamist insurgency there. The leaders of the formerly Chechnya-centric Islamist insurgency are trying to meld an assortment of North Caucasus groups into a united front that will carry the fight against the Russians to all the region’s states. The Islamist chiefs have imposed tighter discipline on their fighters, effectively limiting the number of innocent Muslim civilians killed in attacks and thereby encouraging a gradual increase in public support for the insurgents. Their targets are now overwhelmingly Russian officials, soldiers, and security personnel and local government and military-security personnel allied with the Russians (Independent, July 30).

• The bleed-through of Islamist fighters westward from Iraq is creating a growing and increasingly violent Sunni Islamist movement in northern Lebanon. The Israelis have repeatedly claimed that al-Qaeda has built a presence in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, gained a toehold in Gaza, and exerted influence among Muslims in Israel proper. Additionally, Hamas’s control of Gaza is no small achievement for the wider Sunni Islamist movement (Independent, August 15; Haaretz, July 20).

• Islamists in Somalia have regrouped and rearmed since the December 2006, U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of the country and are now again contesting with the Ethiopians for control of Mogadishu. The ongoing war and increasing hunger in the country is, according to a Horn of Africa expert affiliated with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, creating “a population radically angry at us [the United States] and [a] very fertile ground for al-Qaeda” (, September 22).

• In Pakistan, where Islamabad confronted no domestic Islamist insurgency in 1996, several such insurgencies are now raging. Pakistani military and security forces are now fighting the forces of the Pakistani Taliban and the separate forces of the Pashtun tribes who began attacking after ex-President Pervez Musharraf sent Pakistan’s army into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to try to root out al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.

• In North Africa, al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist insurgents are increasingly active in Algeria, Mauritania, and Mali, with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) recently announcing its intention to expand the group’s operations into Europe (The Times, July 20).

In addition to these militarily active regions, the rise of Islamist militancy clearly must be inferred on the basis of the media’s regular reporting of repeated and increasingly harsh police crackdowns on Islamists in Morocco, Yemen, Kenya, Turkey, Bangladesh, Jordan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, China, Nigeria, Uzbekistan, and several states in Western Europe.

Al-Qaeda’s Unexpected Opportunity

Beyond this geographic expansion of jihad, al-Qaeda’s own achievements have been substantial. Bin Laden has long described a three-fold strategy for driving the United States out of the Muslim world: (1) contribute to the forces creating domestic political disunity in America; (2) act and encourage other Islamists to act in a way that spreads U.S. military and intelligence forces to the point where they lack reserves and flexibility; and (3) bleed America to bankruptcy. Obviously, al-Qaeda has been successful on the first two points and today bin Laden is staring into the face of an entirely serendipitous opportunity to contribute to economic disaster in the United States.

Having been responsible for much of the economic bleeding America has done in Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda now has a chance to significantly advance its bleed-to-bankruptcy strategy. While al-Qaeda had no hand in creating the ongoing, self-inflicted unraveling of the U.S. financial system, al-Qaeda could accelerate that unraveling with a 9/11-like or larger attack in the continental United States. The U.S. political class has often scoffed at or ridiculed bin Laden’s goal of driving America to bankruptcy, assuming that al-Qaeda irrationally assumed it could bring down the U.S. economy through its actions alone. This analysis is inaccurate. Just as bin Laden saw al-Qaeda as the inspirer of jihad and not the jihad itself, he saw that his group’s attacks on the U.S. economy could not cause bankruptcy, but might do so if they worsened other U.S. economic problems. Thus the main economic damage done by the 9/11 attacks resulted from the Iraq and Afghan wars, not from the raids on Manhattan and Washington.

Today, bin Laden and al-Qaeda have a chance to deal the United States an enormous economic blow if they can stage a near-term attack in America. Such an attack would serve as a devastating force-multiplier and perhaps push the current economic disaster into the category of a financial catastrophe. Whether al-Qaeda is positioned to stage such an attack is an open question. What is unquestionable, however, is its intention to do so; the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that al-Qaeda poses a “clear and present danger” to the continental United States rests on the fact that U.S. borders remain almost entirely open and the weapons of mass destruction arsenal of the former Soviet states and other sources of nuclear-bomb-making material have yet to be fully secured.