A Modern Look at Bin Laden’s Grand Strategy

“So the war went ahead, the death toll rose, the American economy bled, and Bush became embroiled in the swamps of Iraq that threaten his future.” – Osama Bin Laden (2004)

The tragic attacks of September 11, 2001 changed the American perception of the world, and the consequences of that day have undeniably colored the experience of the United States in the new millennium. With the specter of the attacks still looming large in the American conscience 16 years later,  the “war on terror” has been debated endlessly, but the specifics of al-Qaeda’s motivations and larger strategy for attacking the United States have often been lost in the political rhetoric. Despite the extremist ideology of al-Qaeda, the intended grand strategy of Osama Bin Laden and his organization to counter the United States was harshly rational, informed by political theory and historical examples, and perhaps more effective than most might think.

In television interviews after the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden spoke extensively about his overarching strategy to target the United States, which seems to be rooted primarily in political realism, not Islamic extremism. One of the prevailing themes of Bin Laden’s monologues was the concept of a socioeconomic “death by a thousand cuts” for the United States. The destruction of the Twin Towers represented a targeted attack on the economic hub of the country, and it was designed to provoke a military response by the United States against an enemy that was agile and difficult to counter. Bin Laden, informed by his own experience fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, believed that the United States was an empire in decline that would over-commit resources to fighting an unpopular, cost-ineffective, and unending counterinsurgency in the quagmire of Afghanistan and the Middle East. In a November 2004 speech sent to al-Jazeera, Bin Laden stated triumphantly that “all that we have to do is send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth that says al-Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note.” After discussing the Bush administration’s ties to Haliburton, Bin Laden added his poetic and vaguely clairvoyant assessment of how the relatively new war in Iraq was proceeding: “So the war went ahead, the death toll rose, the American economy bled, and Bush became embroiled in the swamps of Iraq that threaten his future.”

According to Bin Laden, the blundering and inefficient response by the U.S. would expose the weaknesses of an increasingly impotent superpower, inviting aggression by increasingly powerful states and further weakening the country’s standing in the international system. The pure economic effects would be aggravated by the American populace’s eager acceptance of a new world view centered on a “clash of civilizations,” a political theory which Bin Laden acknowledges several times. The attacks were intended to invite repressive policies and general sentiments that would target Muslims, catalyzing domestic chaos. This chaos, both at home and abroad, would then make the United States turn inwards and look to avoid risky international interventions, and al-Qaeda believed that this would eventually lead to an American withdrawal from the Middle East, specifically from the Arabian Peninsula, and a decrease in support for Israel. Though the United States is far from pulling out of the Middle East and the idea of the U.S. withdrawing support for Israel is generally inconceivable, it is hard to argue that Bin Laden’s concept of how this strategy would play out doesn’t sound slightly familiar.

The United States has now been at war continuously in Afghanistan for 16 years without making any lasting gains. Thousands of American troops are on the ground in Iraq and Syria fighting against the Islamic State with no clear long-term strategy. The national debt of the United States now tops 20.3 trillion dollars, fueled partially by trillions of dollars spent on the “war on terror.” The United States is currently experiencing nearly unprecedented domestic division, with white nationalism and Islamophobia gaining a mainstream foothold and hate crimes surging. Al-Qaeda’s concept of a long-term war of attrition has been further developed through the Islamic State’s low-tech terrorism strategy, with small-scale lone-wolf attacks driving irrational fear, and both jihadist propaganda and right-wing rhetoric pushing the narrative of a clash of civilizations. The United States has seen its position as global hegemon come increasingly under siege from China and Russia, while the limits of American power have been increasingly exposed by the defiance of North Korea and the United States’ long-term impotence in the Middle East and Afghanistan. As exemplified in the recent election, significant portions of both sides of the American political sphere now seem to favor increased isolationism.

This isn’t to say that we are all being slowly manipulated by Bin Laden posthumously in a grand plot to destroy the Western world. But the United States did react to the tragedy of 9/11 much in the way that Bin Laden intended: the U.S. passed repressive and reactionary policies like the Patriot Act, eagerly stumbled into poorly conceived foreign interventions that generated more support for extremist groups, and succumbed to the politics of fear and division. Looking at the trajectory of the United States in 2017, Bin Laden’s vision of the consequences of that fateful day in September may have been more prescient than he could have imagined.