Bin Laden Is Long Gone, but He Sparked a Jihadist Revolution

An Islamic caliphate was his ultimate political goal and remains al-Qaeda’s chief objective to this day.

May 2 is the 10th anniversary of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. For America, bin Laden’s death brought about a collective sigh of relief. The master terrorist responsible for the most devastating attack on U.S. soil in decades was dead. 

A decade later, however, we can say this with certainty: Al-Qaeda is alive. 

That’s not just my assessment. No one today seriously argues that al-Qaeda has been defeated once and for all. That was a popular argument in the immediate aftermath of the bin Laden raid, when Obama administration officials often bragged that al-Qaeda was, if not dead, then at least on death’s door. The Obama team conceded that the terrorist threat had “metastasized.” But Obama and his advisers were eager to claim that al-Qaeda was “a shadow of its former self,” and on the “path to defeat.” John Brennan, Obama’s most senior counterterrorism adviser and then CIA chief, went so far as to predict that the group would be dead within a decade. “Indeed, if the decade before 9/11 was the time of al-Qaida’s rise, and the decade after 9/11 was the time of its decline, then I believe this decade will be the one that sees its demise,” Brennan said during a speech on April 30, 2012

Nine years later, no U.S. counterterrorism official is predicting al-Qaeda’s demise within the next year.  The triumphalist rhetoric of the Obama years is, for the most part, gone.

Instead, the Biden administration has taken a different approach. During his public appearances, such as when announcing the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden has emphasized how different the world is today. He points to the new challenges we face—from the coronavirus pandemic, to cyber crime, to the threats posed by China and Russia. All of which is true. With respect to al-Qaeda, President Biden is a bit more circumspect than the Obama team, to which he belonged.

During his speech before Congress earlier this week, President Biden claimed only that the threat from al-Qaeda had been “degraded” in Afghanistan, while the jihadists fight on elsewhere. “Al-Qaeda and ISIS are in Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and other places in Africa and the Middle East and beyond,” President Biden said. That’s true. But the president used this observation to justify his withdrawal from Afghanistan,  as if the growth of jihadism elsewhere somehow lessens the threat streams pouring out of South Asia. That’s a problematic argument.  

Contrary to what President Biden claims, we should be careful not to write off al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaeda is poised to capitalize on the Taliban’s battlefield gains, while its footprint in both countries has been consistently underestimated. For example, the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e Taliban, or TTP) has thousands of fighters under its command. Even though the TTP is clearly part of al-Qaeda’s web, its membership is rarely included in U.S. assessments of al-Qaeda’s size and strength. Once one realizes that the TTP has been reconstituted and is growing, and that this is part of al-Qaeda’s strategy, al-Qaeda doesn’t look so “degraded” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are many additional facts I could add to buttress this point. Al-Qaeda’s strategic relationship with Taliban leaders, such as Sirajuddin Haqqani, adds to the group’s depth. Al-Qaeda’s weekly newsletter also advertises the jihadists’ resiliency, documenting their regular participation in battles against the Afghan government and others. 

How is it possible that al-Qaeda survived nearly 20 years of intense war? 

There are many answers to this question, which is more complex than it may sound. 

On the 10th anniversary of bin Laden’s death, and after studying al-Qaeda for the past two decades, let me offer some thoughts.

First, al-Qaeda was never solely a terrorist organization. For obvious reasons, the 9/11 hijackings came to dominate America’s and Europe’s view of the group. But it is striking how little al-Qaeda has actually invested in mass casualty attacks in the West. For instance, the 9/11 Commission found that thousands of recruits, perhaps as many as 20,000, were trained in al-Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan between mid-1996 and September 11, 2001. Only a small number of these trainees, less than 1 percent, were selected for missions in the West. The vast majority of them were trained to wage guerrilla warfare and take part in insurgencies. Consider that al-Qaeda’s pre-9/11 camps produced far more fighters dedicated to waging jihad on behalf of the Taliban in Afghanistan than terrorizing Americans. 

Why? One way to look at it is to think of Osama bin Laden as an evil revolutionary. He wanted to strike America, and he did. But he always saw this is as a step, or a tactic, toward his longer-term goal of sparking a jihadi revolution in Muslim-majority countries. As the files recovered in his Abbottabad compound make clear, bin Laden sought to resurrect an Islamic caliphate. That was his ultimate political goal and remains al-Qaeda’s chief objective to this day, even if sometimes it looks fanciful to American eyes.

For bin Laden, the vast majority of Muslims had lost their way by ignoring the supposed necessity of waging jihad. Bin Laden believed that if he struck America, then he could inspire many to take up his cause. He also thought the U.S. would retreat from the broader Middle East, thereby creating the space for his jihadi revolution across a number of countries. Conversely, after the U.S. didn’t retreat, al-Qaeda sought to bleed the U.S. and its allies in long-term insurgencies, hoping to eventually kick out the Americans.  

Events certainly haven’t gone as bin Laden planned. But when you think of al-Qaeda as principally an insurgency group, and not purely as a terrorist organization, then its presence in all of the areas mentioned by President Biden starts to make sense. 

Many jihadis refer to bin Laden as the “Reviving Imam,” or the “Reviving Sheikh,” thereby crediting him with reigniting the flame of jihad. In other words, despite suffering many defeats and ultimately succumbing to American might, bin Laden succeeded in sparking his jihadi revolution. 

Consider that al-Qaeda has established several regional branches, all of which are devoted to waging insurgencies in their designated geographic regions. Al-Qaeda hopes that they will replace existing governments with Islamic emirates—and that these emirates will eventually join together to form a new empire: an Islamic caliphate. 

Al-Qaeda’s leaders were always aware that caliphate-building is a long-term project, notwithstanding the Islamic State’s (ISIS) meteoric rise, which created many problems for the organization bin Laden founded. And al-Qaeda’s prospects vary from region to region. In some areas, it is closer to reaching its goal of building emirates than others. Let’s briefly review.

Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, established in 2014, is working with other al-Qaeda groups to restore the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and export jihad elsewhere throughout the region. Al-Qaeda views the Taliban’s emirate as a core part of its new, imagined caliphate.

Shabaab in Somalia swore allegiance to bin Laden prior to his death. It is seeking to build an Islamic emirate in East Africa and currently controls much of Somalia.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which was founded by bin Laden’s former aide-de-camp Nasir al-Wuhayshi, has suffered setbacks in Yemen. After conquering much of southern Yemen twice, the group was forced to revert to its insurgent roots. But it still has an eye on taking territory once again and has enough resources to keep fighting in the meantime. 

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which officially joined al-Qaeda in 2006, has spawned a new outfit, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM, or the “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims”). JNIM is prolific in its attacks, seeking to build an Islamic emirate in West Africa. 

Al-Qaeda’s fortunes in Syria have waned, and it’s difficult to judge its strength inside the country today. A group known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is still designated by the U.S. and U.N. as an al-Qaeda “affiliate” despite asserting its independence from al-Qaeda’s chain of command. HTS, which has built a proto-emirate in the Syrian province of Idlib, has splintered into other groups. One is named Hurras al-Din (or the “Guardians of the Religion”), which is led by a known al-Qaeda veteran who served bin Laden in Afghanistan. Other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups exist in Syria as well.    

All of the aforementioned groups, with the exception of HTS, are publicly loyal to bin Laden’s successor: Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Incredibly, Zawahiri has survived decades of being on the lam. U.S. intelligence officials think he is hiding somewhere in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region today, waiting for the U.S. to leave. 

Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda will always be best known for the 9/11 hijackings. Bin Laden’s henchmen failed to replicate that terrorist success for nearly two decades. Americans can take comfort from that fact, as al-Qaeda has only executed smaller-scale operations in the West in recent years. 

But that doesn’t mean al-Qaeda is finished. Its jihad continues across several countries. And there’s always a possibility that al-Qaeda will try to carry out a mass-casualty attack once again. Some of the al-Qaeda groups mentioned above have already clearly signaled their intent to attack America.  

Bin Laden is dead. 

Al-Qaeda lives. 

The Russia Bounty Story Was Always Murky

The intelligence community is inundated with ‘low to moderate confidence’ information frequently. Why did this get so much attention?

During a briefing Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked whether the Biden administration thinks “Russia placed bounties on American troops.” Her answer demonstrated why this storyline, which garnered much press during the 2020 presidential campaign, was always dubious. 

“Well, I would say, first, that we felt the reports were enough of a cause of concern that we wanted our intelligence community to look into those reports as a part of this overall assessment,” Psaki replied.  “They assessed … with low to moderate confidence … that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan.”

“Low to moderate confidence” doesn’t mean that the story was a complete “hoax,” as President Trump claimed. There was some intelligence behind this reporting. 

It does mean that then-candidate Biden was far too strident in his critiques of Trump. For instance, Biden said it was “absolutely despicable” that Trump didn’t challenge Putin on the allegations. 

In reality, this story was always murky

From the beginning, the U.S. intelligence community wasn’t really sure whether the Russians actually paid for any anti-American operations. In other words, they didn’t know whether the alleged bounty offers had any real effect. 

This seems to be what Psaki was alluding to when she said “Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks” on the U.S. and NATO personnel. “Sought to encourage” means the U.S. intelligence community couldn’t say that any operations actually occurred because of the purported bounties.

Psaki pointed to the uncertainty of “detainee reporting” and “the challenging operating environment in Afghanistan” as reasons for the intelligence community’s “low to moderate confidence.”  

But there’s an added issue, one which I addressed when this story first broke: Why would the Taliban need encouragement from Russia to do what it’s been doing for most of the last two decades—namely, attacking American and NATO forces?

U.S. officials told reporters that two specific attacks were being scrutinized. One was the April 8, 2019, bombing outside of the Bagram Air Base, the largest U.S. military facility in Afghanistan. Three U.S. Marines were killed and several other people were wounded. 

That bombing looked like many other typical Taliban operations through the years. The Taliban’s official spokesman quickly claimed responsibility for it, praising the “martyr” who blew himself up. The Taliban routinely attacked Bagram both before and after the April 8, 2019 suicide bombing, including another suicide raid in December 2019. None of these other operations at Bagram were supposedly instigated by Russian bounties. So, why did the April 2019 attack stand out? There were no answers offered.  

The Russian bounty theory included the possibility that “criminals” who worked with the Taliban were paid by the Russians to strike at Americans. Speaking on background to reporters Thursday, a senior administration official said their “conclusion is based on information and evidence of connections between criminal agents in Afghanistan and elements of the Russian government.”  

But why would criminals be called upon to carry out a Taliban suicide bombing – the type of ideologically motivated operation the jihadists specialize in? 

This is not to suggest that such an arrangement is impossible, but in Afghanistan’s sea of violence, it is curious that such reporting would stand out, especially without confirmation.

The reality is that the U.S. intelligence community is inundated with “low to moderate confidence”-type reporting all the time. Why did the alleged Russian bounties deserve front-page attention? It’s natural to suspect that anything Russia-related stood out to officials during the Trump years, when the president was widely accused of being a Russian asset and a Kremlin hook could instantly hype any story.  

Psaki explained that the U.S. intelligence community “assesses” with “high confidence” that Russian’s military intelligence service, the Main Intelligence Directorate (also known as the GRU), “manage[s] interaction with individuals and Afghan criminal networks” and the “involvement of this [GRU] unit is consistent with Russia’s encouraging attacks against U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan.” It may be “consistent” with the bounty story, but it doesn’t close the loop and show that the GRU paid for actual attacks.

Although the reporting isn’t firm, Psaki said the Biden administration “felt it was important for our intelligence community to look into it” and “will not stand by and accept the targeting of our personnel by any elements, including a foreign state actor.”  

“This information really puts the burden on Russia and the Russian government to explain their engagement here,” Psaki added. 

Again, the U.S. government should be forward leaning when it comes to protecting American troops, especially as they are withdrawn from Afghanistan. But that doesn’t mean this story deserved all the attention it received.

The Flawed Reasoning Behind Biden’s Afghanistan Withdrawal

The president isn’t all wrong about leaving Afghanistan, but he misunderstands the history of the war and the terrorist threat emanating from the region.

On Wednesday, President Biden announced that all U.S. and NATO forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. Biden’s speech was emotional. He recalled the toll taken on American troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, explaining that he carries around a card with the precise number of soldiers killed in both wars. To date, Biden said, 2,448 American soldiers and personnel have been killed during the war in Afghanistan, while more than 20,000 others have been wounded. Biden reminded viewers that his late son, Beau, was deployed to Iraq, making him the only commander-in-chief in recent memory to have a child serve in a war zone. The president also noted how much the world has changed since 2001. America needs to “fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20,” Biden said. He cited the many new challenges we collectively face, from the coronavirus pandemic, to cyber threats, to revanchist powers such as China and Russia. 

These arguments have much merit and likely resonated with many Americans. 

At other points, however, President Biden stumbled—both rhetorically and in terms of his reasoning. He confused Iraq and Afghanistan more than once, both in his speech and during a poignant visit to Arlington National Cemetery immediately after. 

Oddly, Biden indirectly critiqued his friend, President Barack Obama, with whom he served for two terms. He argued that the U.S. should have left Afghanistan immediately after killing Osama bin Laden. “That was 10 years ago, think about that,” Biden said. “We delivered justice to bin Laden a decade ago, and we’ve stayed in Afghanistan for a decade since.” More than half of those years came during Biden’s time as Obama’s vice president. 

President Biden had his own Mission Accomplished moment. “I believed that our presence in Afghanistan should be focused on the reason we went in the first place, to ensure Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again,” Biden said. “We did that. We accomplished that objective.” Biden cited the death of bin Laden as the true end point for the conflict.  

Listening to President Biden speak, Americans might think that the terrorist threat was entirely eliminated with bin Laden’s demise in May 2011, that the al-Qaeda founder was all that really mattered. This is obviously wrong.

The U.S. intelligence community and military hunted down dozens of senior al-Qaeda figures in South Asia both before and after the raid on bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. President Obama authorized a drone campaign that specifically targeted bin Laden’s henchmen and their allies in northern Pakistan. Some of them were killed in the months and years after bin Laden’s death, as the U.S. leveraged intelligence, including the files recovered in the Abbottabad compound, to map out al-Qaeda’s network. The purpose of this campaign was to weaken al-Qaeda and mitigate a stream of threats to Americans around the world. The U.S. and its partners in the region have continued to target senior and midlevel al-Qaeda operatives to this day—mainly in Afghanistan. Some of bin Laden’s original companions, including al-Qaeda’s current emir Ayman al-Zawahiri, continued to carry the banner forward years after Osama’s demise. 

Biden’s repeated references to the bin Laden raid reveal another flaw in his thinking. The president believes America can manage terrorism emanating from the region without maintaining a footprint in Afghanistan. This is called the “over the horizon” model, a term Biden used to describe striking targets from afar. But the operation that netted bin Laden is a good example of why this won’t work. The elite Navy SEALs who killed bin Laden in Pakistan were deployed via helicopters—from Afghanistan. It is difficult, if not impossible, to see how the U.S. could have conducted that raid otherwise. And Biden’s strategy will make it only more difficult to launch special operations raids behind enemy lines in the future. 

There is another problem with Biden’s “over the horizon” model. The U.S. military presence enables an intelligence network that is essential for locating and neutralizing terrorists. But the CIA’s counterterrorism spy network is going to wither post-withdrawal. Biden’s own CIA director, William Burns, made this very point while testifying in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee shortly before the president’s announcement. “When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact,” Burns said. He’s right. 

There is also a basic contradiction in Biden’s reasoning. “We'll hold the Taliban accountable for its commitment not to allow any terrorist to threaten the United States or its allies from Afghan soil,” the president said. But if the main objective was already “accomplished,” as the president claims, and the threat to the U.S. homeland was eliminated, then why would the Taliban’s supposed counterterrorism assurance even matter? Why should the U.S. even attempt to “hold the Taliban accountable” in this regard?

This contradiction is exacerbated by the facts. The Taliban’s supposed counterterrorism assurances were at the heart of the February 29, 2020, deal negotiated by the Trump administration. According to the State Department, the Taliban was supposed to end its decades-long relationship with al-Qaeda, preventing the group from operating on Afghan soil. As I’ve written at length previously, there is no evidence indicating that the Taliban has broken with al-Qaeda. There is much evidence showing that the two remained intertwined, fighting against their common Afghan enemies to this day. Their alliance is unbroken. 

President Biden explained that while he may not have agreed to the February 29, 2020, withdrawal deal, “it was an agreement made by the United States government, and that means something.” He explained that he is beginning the withdrawal “in keeping with that agreement and with our national interests.” But the Trump-Taliban deal isn’t worth the paper it is written on. Not only has the Taliban failed to live up to its counterterrorism assurances, the group has done nothing to advance the cause of peace. Instead, the Taliban went on the offensive against Afghan forces immediately after it was signed, rejecting multiple requests for a prolonged ceasefire. It would have been more reasonable for Biden to say that although he is withdrawing America’s forces, the U.S. doesn’t consider the Taliban a counterterrorism partner and reserves the right to defend itself. 

Biden openly questioned whether America should even support the Afghan government, which was established by the U.S. and an international coalition of nations following the Taliban’s ouster in late 2001. He recalled how a visit to the Kunar Valley in 2008 “reinforced” his “conviction that only the Afghans have the right and responsibility to lead their country.” He added that “more and endless American military force could not create or sustain a durable Afghan government.” But the U.S. military has sustained the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) to this point, even while greatly reducing America’s footprint and the costs associated with it. It has long been the case that the Afghans suffer the lion’s share of casualties trying to stop the jihadists’ advances. While the U.S. hasn’t suffered any combat deaths in more than one year, thousands of Afghan personnel have died fighting against the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS. Biden claimed that the U.S. “will keep providing assistance” to the ANDSF, but didn’t explain what that will really entail. 

The continued existence of the Afghan government after America’s withdrawal is very much in doubt. It is easy to see how the Taliban and al-Qaeda will gain ground quickly in some areas, likely seizing several provincial capitals that had remained out of their clutches the past two decades. Kabul, the Afghan capital, is already rocked by terror attacks on a regular basis. The pace of those operations will increase in the coming months. But for the president, this is no longer America’s concern. 

Biden claimed that “our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan have become increasingly unclear, even as the terrorist threat that we went to fight evolved.” He continued: “Over the past 20 years, the threat has become more dispersed, metastasizing around the globe—Al-Shabaab in Somalia, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Nusra in Syria, ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and establishing affiliates in multiple countries in Africa and Asia.”

Even in this brief synopsis, Biden stumbled. There hasn’t been a group known as “Al-Nusra” in Syria since mid-2016, when it began a rebranding process that has greatly confused the picture. 

There are also broader problems with the point the president was trying to make. Biden argued that with the jihadis fighting in so many countries today, the U.S. cannot afford to have “thousands” of troops in Afghanistan. Although domestically unpopular, the several thousand troops who are currently in Afghanistan represent a sustainable force posture, from the perspective of resource allocation. Long gone are the days of massive counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, as only several thousand U.S. personnel are deployed across those two countries. The U.S. simply does not have large-scale forces deployed to any of the theaters where the jihadis are fighting.  

The additional implication of Biden’s argument is that it does not matter if the jihadists win in Afghanistan. If he and his advisers do indeed think this is the case, then they are wrong—very wrong. 

Al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia that Biden mentioned, has sworn its allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and, through him, to the emir of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhunzada. AQAP, also mentioned by Biden, is led by Khalid Batarfi, a veteran of the jihad in Afghanistan who has been featured in Taliban propaganda and also recognizes Akhundzada as the new “Emir of the Faithful”—a title usually reserved for a Muslim caliph. While there is no longer an “Al-Nusra” in Syria, other al-Qaeda organizations continue to operate there, including one known as the “Guardians of Religion.” That group is headed by Abu Humam al-Shami, another Afghan jihad veteran who trained al-Qaeda recruits to fight for the Taliban prior to 9/11.   

Tens of thousands of jihadists around the globe are poised to celebrate America’s defeat in Afghanistan. Their movement was given a large boost by the defeat of the Soviets a generation ago. Now, America’s defeat will be commemorated on September 11, 2021—the end date chosen by President Biden. It was a tone-deaf decision to select the 9/11 anniversary. Any other date would have been better. It means the jihadis can now remember how al-Qaeda brought the war to America on that date, and America completed its retreat from Afghanistan exactly 20 years later.    

This isn’t to say that Biden is all wrong. He rightly pointed out the absurdity of having young Americans going off to fight in a war that began before they were even born. It’s understandable that he doesn’t want any more Americans to die there while he is commander in chief. But there is another side to the story.

President Biden argued that the war in Afghanistan “was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking.”  

That’s true from an American perspective. 

But it was never true from the jihadists’ perspective. While America’s role in this “forever” war may be coming to a close, the endless jihad continues. 

Loading more posts…