International Security Studies
Al Qaeda at 2.0: The Terrorist Organization After 9/11
Speaker: Peter Bergen, CNN Terrorism Analyst and author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden
This meeting, jointly sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Division of International Studies, the RAND Corporation and the U.S. Army's Eisenhower National Security Series, was part of an ongoing series on terrorism and homeland security.
Peter Bergen observed that a half dozen different theories, ranging from the plausible to the ludicrous, have been propounded to explain the September 11 terrorist attacks. In America, some 40% still believe that Saddam Hussein was directly involved, while, in the Middle East, conspiracy theorists claim that the Israelis perpetrated the attack. Understanding why the United States was attacked on 9/11 is the prerequisite for, in turn, devising an effective strategy to meet this ongoing terrorist threat.
Amidst these conflicting interpretations of 9/11, the debate over whether international society is in the throes of "a clash of civilizations" continues. Bergen quipped that Samuel Huntington, who first articulated that theory in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article, has no bigger fan than Osama bin Laden. Indeed a global clash of civilizations pitting the Islamic world against the West is precisely what the Al Qaeda leader hopes to precipitate. Alternatively, some experts on Islamic terrorism argue that the clash is actually within Islam itself between so-called moderates and extreme fundamentalists who support a global jihad ("holy war"). In this perspective, the horrors of 9/11 in America were the "collateral damage in someone else's civil war." The real target of the jihadists is not America but rather the Middle East region's autocratic, secular states – notably, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In a similar vein, former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger observed, "the real twin towers" are Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – both of which are looking more vulnerable after 9/11.
Bergen noted the Afghanistan war in late 2001 evoked muted regional reaction because it was regarded as a justified response to the 9/11 attacks. In contrast, the Iraq war triggered huge demonstrations across the Islamic world and led to calls by leading clerics for a defensive jihad against U.S. occupation. The war in Iraq has been a "total disaster" for the war on terrorism: Bin Laden now eclipses President Bush in popularity in Pakistan; recent elections have registered significant gains for Islamist parties; and the number of terrorist attacks globally is the highest since 1982.
Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden remains at large and continues to prolifically generate videotaped messages, which are intended to energize his base and to provide direct instruction to his supporters. For example, bin Laden videos have been linked to two subsequent assassination attempts on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. As to efforts to apprehend him, Bergen was sympathetic to the difficulty of finding one man in a huge geographical area. The conventional wisdom is that bin Laden is hiding in the barren, no-man's land along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Bergen, noting that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was apprehended in Rawalpindi, speculated that the Al Qaeda leader might be hiding in a Pakistani city. Another possibility, given the close operational links between Al Qaeda and Kashmiri insurgents, is that he is in the disputed region separating Pakistan and India. Osama bin Laden is not "making amateur errors," but will eventually be located – although Bergen, taking the Al Qaeda leader at his word, believes that he will not be captured alive, preferring instead to go down fighting as a martyr.
Al Qaeda remains determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to conduct deadlier attacks than those on 9/11. In August 2001, with the 9/11 attacks only weeks away, bin Laden met with two senior Pakistani nuclear scientists. The ensuing war in Afghanistan disrupted Al Qaeda's efforts to develop WMD capabilities. Bergen believes the principal near-term WMD threat is a radiological weapon, or so-called "dirty bomb."
9/11 was a hugely successful "leveraged investment" for Al Qaeda as a miniscule expenditure of $500,000 produced hundreds of billion dollars in damage to the U.S. economy. In his videos, bin Laden continues to emphasize his strong intention for Al Qaeda to disrupt the global economy.
Bin Laden's capture or killing would probably trigger major anti-American demonstrations in the Islamic world. Even if possibly enhancing the appeal of bin Laden's ideas over the long run, his removal would certainly set back Al Qaeda operationally. Bergen emphasized the need for the United States and the West to wage an effective war of ideas against bin Laden's jihadist ideology, just as they did against communism during the Cold War. While the rancor stemming from the Iraq war has complicated this essential task, Bergen argued that the United States should stress that bin Laden has killed more Muslims than Americans and that Al Qaeda's horrific terrorist acts, such as beheadings, are not countenanced by the Koran.
Robert S. Litwak, Director, Division of International Studies