Is the economic crisis a sign that, even after death, Bin Laden stings at us? Counterterrorism researcher Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the author of the provocative new book Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror, and he discusses it here with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Ten years later, is our economic crisis evidence that al-Qaeda is winning?
: The economic crisis is evidence that the massive disparity in power between the United States and al-Qaeda that existed on Sept. 11, 2001, has narrowed. Obviously, the U.S. is still far, far more powerful than al-Qaeda, but it is weakened and beset by multiple problems — both internal and external — that could further erode its ability to project power and to defend itself from terrorist groups. To be clear, the U.S.’s problems are by no means entirely attributable to the fight against Islamist terrorism: For example, al-Qaeda didn’t trigger the subprime-mortgage crisis. But the jihadi group’s strategy has been centered on the U.S. economy from the very outset; it’s a strategy that, coupled with the U.S.’s own missteps and strategic blunders, has had a far more corrosive effect on our economy than many observers would like to admit. Regardless of the fact that it has multiple causes, our weakened state is an undeniable fact.
The collapse of the U.S.’s financial sector in September 2008 made the country seem mortal to its enemies, likely for the first time. In turn, that produced a strategic adaptation by jihadis, toward what they call the “strategy of a thousand cuts.” This strategy emphasizes smaller, more frequent attacks, many of which are designed to drive up security costs for their targets. Al-Qaeda operatives have placed three bombs on passenger planes in the past 22 months: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s underpants bomb in December 2009, and two bombs hidden in ink cartridges that were placed on FedEx and United Parcel Service planes in October 2010. Abdulmutallab’s detonator failed, and the ink-cartridge bombs were found before their timers were set to explode, but al-Qaeda doesn’t necessarily view those attacks as failures. As radical Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki explained, the ink-cartridge plot presented a dilemma for al-Qaeda’s foes. “You either spend billions of dollars to inspect each and every package,” he wrote, “or you do nothing and we keep trying.” The U.S.’s weakened economic condition makes a strategy like this far more harmful to America than it would have been a decade ago.
LOPEZ: You say we’re “still losing the war on terror.” Were we ever winning?
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Yes, I think we were winning for a period, albeit a rather brief one. The initial invasion of Afghanistan to dislodge al-Qaeda from the sanctuary it enjoyed there was brilliantly executed. As is well known, the U.S. missed the opportunity to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders when it failed to dedicate additional troops to an operation in the Tora Bora mountains in December 2001. CIA veteran Hank Crumpton, who oversaw the intelligence agency’s operations in Afghanistan, was convinced that bin Laden was holed up in Tora Bora, but Gen. Tommy Franks rebuffed his request for additional troops. Much of al-Qaeda’s leadership, including bin Laden, escaped.
We were winning prior to the Tora Bora operation, and the past ten years could have looked much different had the U.S. devoted the additional troops that Crumpton requested. But though bin Laden and other jihadi leaders escaped, I think we were still doing quite well even after Tora Bora, for the Taliban was out of power and al-Qaeda had been significantly degraded. As journalist Peter Bergen writes in The Longest War, “Bin Laden retreated from the Tora Bora battlefield demoralized, wounded, and contemplating his own death, while the organization he had so carefully nurtured for more than a decade was now on life support.”
Many of the U.S.’s key errors were made shortly thereafter, prominent among them the diversion of resources away from Afghanistan-Pakistan and toward the Iraq theater. Thereafter, with the U.S. presence in South Asia diminished, al-Qaeda went about carving out a safe sphere for itself in Pakistan’s tribal areas.