Eight Years After 9/11: Why Osama bin Laden Failed

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Gary Hershorn / Reuters

The moon rises over lower Manhattan as the "Tribute in Lights" illuminates the sky on the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2008

He may have eluded justice and the long reach of the world's most powerful military force; his followers may (and probably will) strike again at some point in the future, near or distant; but history's verdict on Osama bin Laden has been in for some time now: al-Qaeda failed.

The 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington — like those that preceded them in East Africa in 1998 and those that followed in London, Madrid, Bali and other places — were tactical successes in that they managed to kill hundreds of innocent people, grab the world's headlines and briefly dominate the nightmares of Western policymakers. But the strategy those attacks were a part of has proved to be fundamentally flawed. Terrorism departs from the rules of war by deliberately targeting the innocent, but it shares the basic motivational force of conventional warfare — "the pursuit of politics by other means," as Clausewitz wrote.

The purpose of the 9/11 attacks was not simply to kill Americans. Rather, the attacks formed part of bin Laden's strategy to launch a global Islamist revolution aimed at ending U.S. influence in Muslim countries, overthrowing regimes there allied with Washington and putting al-Qaeda at the head of a global Islamist insurgency whose objective was to restore the caliphate that had once ruled territory stretching from Moorish Spain through much of Asia.

Today, however, al-Qaeda is believed to comprise a couple of hundred desperate men, their core leaders hiding out in Pakistan's tribal wilds and under constant threat of attack by ever present U.S. drone aircraft, their place in Western nightmares and security determinations long since eclipsed by such longtime rivals as Iran, Hizballah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. This year's official threat assessment by the U.S. Directorate of National Intelligence cited the global economic downturn as the primary security challenge facing the U.S. The report found "notable progress in Muslim public opinion turning against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda" and said no country was at risk of falling to al-Qaeda-inspired extremists. It argued that sustained pressure against the movement's surviving core in the Pakistani tribal wilds was degrading its organizational cohesion and diminishing the threat it poses.

Sure, al-Qaeda continues to issue vituperative missives by video from its hideouts, many of them directed at the likes of Iran and Hamas. But Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan seemed to sum up al-Qaeda's plight two years ago, when responding to a particularly rabid attack from bin Laden's No. 2. Ayman al-Zawahiri had accused Hamas of "joining the surrender train" by participating in elections and agreeing to form a unity government with Fatah. Hamas, sneered Hamdan in response, had no need of advice from a "fugitive in the Afghan mountains" and did not accept criticism from "those who do not know what is going on."

Even among those who share much of bin Laden's animus toward the U.S. and Israel, al-Qaeda has remained largely irrelevant, its strategy of global jihad rejected in favor of an Islamist radicalism focused on more limited national goals.

The flaw in bin Laden's strategy of trying to capture the imagination of the Muslim masses through spectacular acts of terrorism was obvious even in the immediate wake of 9/11. In much of the Arab and Muslim world, there was a pervasive refusal to believe that Muslims had been responsible for the attacks, even after bin Laden claimed responsibility. The denial inherent in the tendency common from Egypt to Indonesia to blame Mossad or the CIA for 9/11 reveals a damning negation of al-Qaeda's tactics. So repulsive was the mass murder of innocents to ordinary Muslims that most refused to celebrate the attacks, as bin Laden had hoped they might, but instead sought to blame them on those deemed enemies of Islam.

Even in countries where al-Qaeda had hoped to capitalize on resentment against American influence, its networks were largely rolled up by security services as the population looked on indifferently. By invading Iraq, the Bush Administration probably did a far more effective job than bin Laden of weakening U.S. influence in the Muslim world and rallying its youth to resistance. Yet even in Iraq, al-Qaeda's efforts to gain control of the resistance failed because its ideology and tactics were so loathsome to even the bulk of the Sunni insurgents fighting the Americans that they eventually made common cause with the U.S. against the jihadists.

Similarly, in Afghanistan, bin Laden's erstwhile stomping ground, the fight against the U.S. is being waged by the Taliban, which may once have been an ally of al-Qaeda but now exists entirely independently of bin Laden's movement and will ultimately make its strategic decisions based on its national interests. The sobering reality for bin Laden is that even among those dedicated to resisting the U.S. and its allies, his ideology of global jihad against the "far enemy" (the U.S.) has failed to supplant the more pragmatic Islamist movements such as Hamas, Hizballah and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, all of whom limit themselves to clearly defined national objectives, eliciting increasingly manic denunciations from al-Qaeda's cave dwellers.

Senator John Kerry invited ridicule from the Bush Administration while running for President in 2004 when he made the point that terrorism was essentially a law-enforcement and intelligence problem. "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance," he told the New York Times, suggesting that the goal was to reach a point at which the specter of al-Qaeda "isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."

Not even another 9/11-scale terrorist attack would succeed in launching al-Qaeda's revolution. The years since 9/11 have seen events in Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan escalating Muslim hostility toward Israel, the U.S. and those Arab regimes deemed too willing to do Washington's bidding. But even so, al-Qaeda remains a marginal factor. Bin Laden may have imagined that 9/11 would anoint him the head of a resurgent caliphate in the making, but instead it has reduced him and his movement to a life of duck-and-cover in Pakistan's wild frontier — and a political address otherwise known as oblivion. History marches on without them.