Osama bin Laden: Stategic Genius

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Ottawa Citizen
January 3, 2013

In his book Osama bin Laden, Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA unit that pursued the terrorist mastermind, notes that “virtually none” of the many works written about bin Laden emphasize his “strategic ability.”

Since bin Laden’s passing, we have largely continued to overlook his acuity as a strategist — even though the plans he forged for combating the West have severely weakened his foes, and even though we still contend with them today.

When bin Laden declared war on the United States in 1996, it surely seemed quixotic — if anybody were paying attention — that a man sheltering in the backwater of Afghanistan had the audacity to believe he could challenge the world’s undisputed military, economic and cultural superpower.

Fifteen years later, having spent a decade embroiled in a bloody fight against bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization, the U.S. remains the world’s only superpower, but is weakened in so many ways.

America is emerging from conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that can at best be described as Pyrrhic victories, is shackled by an unsustainable debt and its intelligence community anticipates — as we can see in the newly released report Global Trends 2030 — an emerging world without “any hegemonic power,” where instead “power will shift to networks and coalitions in a multipolar world.”

Though al-Qaida was the U.S.’s top national-security priority during the past decade of conflict, clearly not all the damage inflicted upon the country can be attributed to bin Laden or al-Qaida. For example, neither bin Laden nor Ayman al-Zawahri had a hand in America’s subprime mortgage policy. Yet if one examines the strategic principles bin Laden articulated while commanding his side, it is obvious that he experienced a striking amount of success.

Even as American bombs fell on Afghan soil in October 2001, bin Laden patiently explained to Al-Jazeera’s Taysir Allouni that the primary accomplishment of the Sept. 11 attacks was the economic damage they inflicted on the United States. And in October 2004, in an address that played around the clock just before the U.S. elections, bin Laden told the American public that his “bleed-until-bankruptcy” plan for defeating the U.S. was working, as America found itself embroiled in draining wars in the Muslim world.

In other words, bin Laden saw his foes’ economy as their key point of vulnerability, and al-Qaida consequently focused on driving up the adversaries’ costs wherever possible. Further, as Scheuer writes, “the American government and most of its European peers are running the war against al-Qaida and its allies in a manner best designed to help the Islamists achieve victory.” This is true not only of the blundering invasion of Iraq, one of Scheuer’s overarching criticisms, but is also reflected in the erection of inefficient security bureaucracies that ensured defence against terrorism would come only at maximum cost.

Al-Qaida has employed several means of attacking the West. One method is terrorist attacks, which not only inflict direct economic damage but also have the second-order consequence of forcing defensive measures that are frequently expensive and intrusive. Witness the ripple effect of one 23-year-old Nigerian sneaking a bomb past airport security in his underpants in December 2009: ever since, airline passengers have been forced to submit to either electronic full-body scans (cost of one scanner: up to $170,000) or overly intimate manual “pat-down” searches.

Another means of attack is the “bleed-until-bankruptcy” plan that bin Laden described in October 2004. Like terrorist attacks, the wars the U.S. has fought overseas carry second-order consequences that make them more costly than their official price tags suggest. Columbia University’s Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard University’s Linda Bilmes have argued, for example, that the Iraq war cost more than $3 trillion when one takes into account such factors as its role in driving up oil prices by producing regional instability, and how the conflict left the U.S. fewer resources to respond to the subprime mortgage crisis.

Indeed, al-Qaida’s strategy has undergone further adaptations in recent years, one of which was prompted by the subprime crisis. Thereafter, jihadis have moved toward what Inspire, the English-language online magazine of al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate, dubbed a “strategy of a thousand cuts.” As Inspire noted, in this phase jihadi groups are attempting to perpetrate “smaller, but more frequent” attacks.

The basic philosophy underlying this shift was that America had been so weakened by the collapse of its financial sector that, as Inspire asserted in November 2010, “to bring down America we do not need to strike big.” Displaying a keen awareness of how attacks — even failed ones — can drive up security expenditures, Inspire referred to the “environment of security phobia that is sweeping America.”

Another shift for al-Qaida was prompted by the revolutionary events of the Arab Spring. Bin Laden lived to see the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes fall. On April 26, 2011 — five days before the raid that took his life — he wrote a letter describing the uprisings as “a great and glorious event” that shows “things are strongly heading toward the exit of Muslims from being under the control of America.”

And with these events, al-Qaida’s focus will likely turn back to the Arab world.

With these new opportunities, al-Qaida will likely be more focused on the region for the foreseeable future. This does not preclude deadly strikes against Western targets: the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks illustrates how groups with significant regional interests can also hit Western targets.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the author or volume editor of 11 books and monographs, including Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011), and is a PhD candidate in world politics at the Catholic University of America.

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