Al Qaeda is the most successful terrorist organization in history. By destroying the World Trade Centre in New York on 9/11 it provoked the US into launching wars damaging to itself in Afghanistan and Iraq. Al Qaeda aimed to destroy the status quo in the Middle East and it succeeded beyond its wildest dreams.
Its success has not been all its own doing. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s number two and chief strategist, wrote at the time of 9/11 that the aim of the group was to lure the US into an over-reaction in which it would “wage battle against the Muslims.” Once the US was committed to a ground war, and no longer exercised its power primarily through local surrogates, the way would be open for Muslims to launch a jihad against America. By over-reacting, President Bush, aided by Tony Blair, responded to 9/11 very much as al-Qaeda would have wished.
In the decade since the attack on the Twin Towers “terrorist experts” and governments have frequently portrayed al-Qaeda as a tightly organized group located in north-west Pakistan. From some secret headquarters its tentacles reach out across the world, feeding recruits, expertise and money to different battlefronts.
Al-Qaeda has never operated like that. The closest it ever came to being a sort of Islamic Comintern was when it had several hundred militants based in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan in 1996-2001. Even at that time, when it could operate more or less freely in the Afghan mountains, its numbers were so small that it would hire local tribesmen by the day to be filmed for al-Qaeda propaganda videos, showing its men marching and training.
Many of the most important al-Qaeda leaders from that era have since been detained or killed. But al-Qaeda has proved so hard to eradicate because it exists primarily as a set of ideas and methods for fighting holy war. Osama bin Laden’s target was primarily the US and its western allies, though this has not always been true of local franchises. Civilians were fair game because they had chosen or tolerated evil rulers. In its fundamentalist religious beliefs al-Qaeda is little different from Wahhabism, the puritanical and intolerant version of Sunni Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia.
Suicide bombing became the preferred method for al-Qaeda to wage war. It was tactically effective because it meant that untrained but fanatical recruits willing to die could be deployed as a lethal weapon capable of killing many enemies. Moreover, the public-self sacrifice of the bomber as a demonstration of Islamic faith was an important part of a successful operation.
The CIA and other intelligence agencies were criticized after 9/11 for failing to pick up on the threat posed by al-Qaeda early in the 1990s. But in practice it barely existed before 1996 when bin Laden moved to Afghanistan from Sudan and, even then, he was only one among several players leading Islamic Jihadi groups.
Since 2001 al-Qaeda has continued to exist organizationally mainly as a series of local franchises. In Iraq, for instance, al ?Qaeda in Mesopotamia was led by a Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who had previously opposed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Expanding rapidly among the defeated Iraqi Sunni after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, it launched a ferocious war of suicide bombings, though these were primarily directed against the newly dominant Shia Iraqis rather than Americans.
The US itself played a role in the expansion of al-Qaeda. In Iraq the US army spokesman in Baghdad attributed all armed attacks to al-Qaeda regardless of who carried them out. He hoped thereby to discredit the insurgents in the eyes of Shia Iraqis and the outside world. But within Iraq this only added to the high profile of the organization among those hostile to the new order of things, while abroad it made it much easier for al-Qaeda to raise money. The wave of anti-Americanism that swept the Muslim world after the invasion of Iraq also benefited the group.
One vicious aspect of al-Qaeda activities is always under-reported in the western media: It has always killed more Shia Muslims than it ever did Americans. The US occupation of Iraq benefited the group, but it was sectarian before it was nationalist. The Shia were seen as heretics as worthy of death as an American or British soldier. Again and again its suicide bombers would target Shia day laborers as they waited for work in public squares in the early morning in Baghdad or massive bombs would be detonated as Shia worshippers left their mosques. Likewise in Pakistan the Pakistan Taliban, ideologically linked to al- Qaeda, has shown equal enthusiasm for slaughtering Shia where ever they can be targeted.
Al-Qaeda had the advantage post 9/11 that it did not have to do much to have an impact in the US. It had entered US demonology to a degree that any action by it, however ineffectual or trivial, had an effect out of all proportion to its size or success: a Nigerian student, who had received training from al-Qaeda in Yemen, failed to blow up a plane over Detroit using explosives hidden in his underpants; a Pakistani man living in the US was unable to detonate explosives in a car in Times Square in New York. But as al-Qaeda in Yemen gleefully pointed out in a statement such failures had almost the same effect as a successful bombing in terms of the disruption and dismay caused.
No US government can afford to have another 9/11 take place without devastating retaliation from the voters. Washington had to be seen to be doing something successful to restore American confidence in its own strength. One of the reasons why George Bush’s administration had invaded Afghanistan and Iraq rather than devoting all efforts to hunting down bin Laden, was that the first two options seemed easy and the third was not.
Saddam Hussein was easy to puff up as a threat and eliminate in a way that was not true of the leader of al-Qaeda.
Bush set up a special cell to find bin Laden and Zawahiri. At his morning briefings during his final months in office he would ask plaintively: “How are you getting on getting number one and number two?” In the presidential election of 2008 the Democrats made the damaging, though somewhat spurious charge, that the White House had taken its eye off the ball in the pursuit of bin Laden in Afghanistan in order to invade Iraq.
Some US foreign policy specialists argued that bin Laden no longer mattered and, if he was alive, was cut off in a cave somewhere in the mountains on Pakistan’s north-west frontier. The argument was always dubious since it was not known where he was or how far, if at all, he was in operational control. In the event it turned out that bin Laden, at least in recent years, had moved far into the interior of Pakistan and was living in a house in Abbottabad, an hour’s drive north of the capital Islamabad.
The claim that bin Laden was operationally ineffective also missed the point that he remained a potent symbol. This had been true ever since 9/11 and all he had to do was to go on surviving for his survival to be a further sign that the US will could be frustrated. This is why bin Laden’s killing by US forces has importance, regardless of how far he master-minded different plots or was behind more recent attacks on the US.
His demise will have some impact on al-Qaeda itself, in so far as it exists as an organization but its main impact will be on American self-confidence. Of course, there will be Jihadi groups who will want to restore the balance of terror by making new attacks, but none are likely to have the same impact as 9/11. The psychological effect was so great not just because so many were killed but because of the uniquely public nature of the attack: the planes crashing into the World Trade Centre and the crumbling of the two towers.
Will al-Qaeda attacks be easier to carry out this year than in the past because of the fall or disruption of so many police states such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya? The “strongmen” in the Arab world, like Hosni Mubarak or Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, had post 9/11 been swift to manipulate Washington to support their despotic regimes in return for them clamping down on Islamic fundamentalists. Sometimes the repression, as in Yemen, was less effective than it looked, but in Pakistan the authorities were prepared to locate and hand-over al-Qaeda members to the US while being careful to shield the Afghan Taliban.
But the collapse of the old order in the Arab world may play against al-Qaeda: it will no longer be the beneficiary to the extent it was in the past of the hatred felt towards local dictators allied to or tolerated by the US. Other ways of ending an intolerable political and social status quo have been demonstrated. Mr Mubarak effectively allied himself with Israel and the US during Israel’s war in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2006. This created anger among many Egyptians which benefited fundamentalist Islamic groups but it is difficult to envisage future more democratic Egyptian governments being on such friendly terms with Israel. Al-Qaeda’s appeal will be diluted. But already its significance was mainly confined to the world of perceptions rather than real threats. This is why it is of such real importance that bin Laden, the symbol of so many American fears, is dead.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq