America did Al Qaeda’s job for her
The United States today does not have so much of an embassy in Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Syria or Yemen. He clearly has little influence over nominal allies such as Pakistan, which has assisted the Taliban for decades, and Saudi Arabia, which has prolonged the conflict in Yemen. In Iraq, where nearly 5,000 American and Allied troops have died since 2003, the United States has to endure the spectacle of political leaders flaunting their membership in Iran-backed groups, some of whom are considered by the United States to be terrorist organizations.
Twenty years after the September 11 attacks, with billions of dollars spent and countless lives lost, American influence has been systematically dismantled in much of the Muslim world, a process encouraged by America’s own mistakes. Sadly, much of this was predicted by the very terrorists who carried out these attacks.
In 2004, al-Qaida published a treatise titled Wilderness management. The book codified al Qaeda’s existing strategy, breaking it down into three phases, the first of using violence to create adjacent “regions of savagery” where the mandate of traditional governments does not extend.
We are now seeing the success of this strategy. It is surprising to realize how much the Muslim world is in the hands of non-state actors. In Libya, armed factions are fighting for supremacy. Iranian-backed militias rule over Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, often fighting rival Sunni groups, some of which are affiliated with al-Qaeda. Somalia shows little sign of breaking out of the grip of the local al-Qaeda faction, al-Shabaab. And of course, the Taliban are in control of Afghanistan again. Together, this creates an arc of chaos from North Africa to Central Asia.
Afghanistan presents the worst tragedy to date. Long before the US withdrawal last month, al-Qaeda had begun to recreate the network of training camps it operated in the country before 9/11. As of 2015, one of these camps near the Pakistani border required 63 coalition airstrikes and a ground force of 200 US troops to dismantle it. Al-Qaeda is not alone in Afghanistan either. Today’s Taliban seek shelter from various foreign terrorist groups, just as they did in the 1990s. In May 2021, a United Nations monitoring team estimated the number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan at 8,000 and 10,000, including Arabs, Central Asians and Uyghurs. The main objective of these fighters is the same as in the 90s: to train in Afghanistan for deployment around the world. The surveillance of my intelligence and security consultancy, the Soufan group, is already picking up “chatter” on social networks suggesting that jihadist groups in Syria and Southeast Asia are redirecting potential recruits to Afghanistan for a initial training.
This combination – a hands-off approach by the United States plus a proliferation of jihadist groups in Afghanistan – should sound the alarm bells for anyone familiar with the story of Al Qaeda’s campaign of killings against America. Except now, Afghanistan is not the only region of “savagery”.
When Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States in 1996, a few months after his return to Afghanistan, one of the main factors that drove him to do so was intense competition for recruits. His group at the time was well funded from its own fortune, but al Qaeda needed to distinguish itself from the many other terrorist groups based in Afghanistan. Attack America and provoke a retaliation, bin Laden reasoned, and he would become even more of a hero among the jihadists.
But the US response to the first major al Qaeda attacks disappointed bin Laden. Following the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, in which more than 200 people died, the United States launched some 66 cruise missiles against al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Without specific information to guide them, however, they only destroyed a kitchen, a mosque and a toilet block. None of the Al Qaeda leaders were killed or injured. The suicide bombing attack on the USS Cole in 2000 elicited no reaction; The attention of the American public was focused on the presidential election that year. When I questioned Bin Laden’s driver and confidant, Salim Hamdan, at the end of 2001, he said to me: “You brought 9/11 on yourselves. You didn’t answer the Cole, so Bin Laden must have hit harder.
“Operation Planes,” as it was called within Al Qaeda, was devised by an independent terrorist facilitator named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who happened to be the uncle of the first World Trade Center suicide bomber in 1993, Ramzi Yousef. KSM, as it is known in American law enforcement and intelligence circles, visited Afghanistan in 1996, around the same time Bin Laden returned to the country. KSM explained to Bin Laden his plan as it was then: buy small Cessna planes, load them with explosives and fly them to American landmarks.
Bin Laden thought the seemingly bizarre plan was not ambitious enough, and instead suggested using fuel-laden commercial airliners as missiles. “Why wage war with an ax,” he asked, “when you can use a bulldozer? “
Over the next several years, the plans were crafted by a handful of senior al Qaeda leaders, able to coordinate closely and maintain secrecy due to the organization’s secure base in Afghanistan. The 19 would-be hijackers were selected from among the many foreign recruits being trained in Al-Qaeda’s Afghan training camps. All 19 received valid US visas. (It helped that 15 of them were Saudis, and therefore unlikely to be suspected of intending to become undocumented workers.) Some entered the United States, left, and returned. One of them was able to make no less than five trips to see his girlfriend in Germany in the roughly 14 months between his initial arrival and September 11, 2001, when he crashed United Airlines Flight 93 in a rural Pennsylvania field.
Twenty years later, Afghanistan is more attractive than ever as a launching pad for global jihad. The Taliban are orders of magnitude more sophisticated and are expected to outlast the five years they last handled. It is, for example, already in talks with China, a potential benefactor who has a right of veto over any proposed Security Council sanctions. The United States’ longest war has flooded Afghanistan with advanced weapons, much of which is now in the hands of the Taliban. And the West has spent billions to modernize Afghanistan’s infrastructure. Meanwhile, American influence in the country and its more important neighbors, Pakistan and Iran, is virtually non-existent. With America seemingly withdrawn from the Muslim world, Afghanistan could become the hub of groups with a networked presence in many of the resulting power vacuum.
When Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan, al-Qaeda was close to defeat. The Sudanese government not only expelled him, but confiscated almost all of his assets in the country. His supporters were no more than a few dozen. Over the next five years, al Qaeda trained thousands of recruits in its Afghan camps, sent them to destabilize regimes across the region, and planned the worst terrorist attack in history.
Al-Qaeda today has a much stronger base to build on. Its constituent groups are integrated as combatants in conflicts in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere. Collectively, these franchises have thousands of fighters. Al-Qaeda has long been known for its “strategic patience,” its ability to wait until the time is right before resuming its attacks on the West. Today, few barriers remain to such renewal. Indeed, as the competition for recruits intensifies, al-Qaeda may once again see it as an existential necessity.
With the first phase of Wilderness management plan more or less completed, al-Qaida will move on to phase two: to extort the voids created by these conflicts to eventually build “Islamic” regimes like that of the Taliban, aided by the American withdrawal from the Muslim world. As long as this goes well, instability and anti-Westernism will worsen. To the extent that this is not the case, there is a high risk that Al Qaeda will resume direct attacks on the West. Of course, he can pursue both strategies simultaneously. To guard against either scenario, the United States must urgently work to rebuild its diplomatic influence and intelligence networks throughout the region in order to effectively counter the threat and help achieve political resolutions for the various ongoing conflicts.
Otherwise, he faces the prospect of phase three: areas controlled by al-Qaeda and its supporters are declared a caliphate. The last time such a thing happened was in 2014 in Iraq and Syria, and its consequences were dire.