Washington Post columnist David Ignatius offered an op-ed on March 19 about the final years of Osama bin Laden, and the piece portrays an isolated strategic thinker who reflectively considered the position of his global terrorist network and the possibility for success. The U.S. government allowed Ignatius to read some of the documents found at the compound where Special Forces killed bin Laden. From these papers, it appears bin Laden feared that al-Qaeda had failed in its ultimate goals, but he did offer new strategies for his devoted followers.
There are several important points one can take away from bin Laden’s final writings. He lamented the political costs of killing so many Muslims and warned his lieutenants that the mass slaughter of so many Muslims “would lead [al-Qaeda] to winning several battles while losing the war at the end.” This weakness in al-Qaeda’s strategy was previously noted by Heritage Foundation analysts, including James Phillips, who testified before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Terrorism:
The United States should be driving home the point that bin Laden and his ilk represent just as much a threat to the Muslim world as to the West. We must relentlessly remind Muslims that bin Laden has killed more Muslims than non-Muslims, more Afghans than Americans.
Bin Laden also despaired that al-Qaeda has not been effective in achieving its Islamist goals of eliminating the “Crusaders” and “Zionists.” He recognized that al-Qaeda had not pulled off another 9/11 but hoped to launch another major attack in the United States. In fact, The Heritage Foundation estimates that there have been 45 terrorist plots thwarted since 9/11, many of them hatched by al-Qaeda. The inability of al-Qaeda to successfully attack the homeland led him advocate a “bleeding” strategy by attacking non-Islamic U.S. allies like South Korea.
Al-Qaeda was forced to become more decentralized because of heavy losses suffered due to America’s relentless pursuit of its top leaders, and the terrorist network has splintered into several regional franchises. Two of these groups have been prodigious in their terrorist attacks and have inflicted a mounting death toll in Arabia and the Maghreb (North Africa).
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has become al-Qaeda’s most dangerous franchise group and has caused considerable damage in Yemen, long a hotbed of Islamist extremism. It has grown even stronger by exploiting the political turmoil inspired by the “Arab Spring” and the rebellion of tribal leaders against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s hold on power. Before the United States killed AQAP leader Anwar al-Awlaki, he was a powerful cleric who increasingly played an operational role in terrorist attacks while inspiring terrorists such as the Fort Hood shooter. AQAP continues to pose a threat to homeland security and to American interests in the region, as well as to Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
The other regional franchise is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a terrorist group in northern Africa that has gained strength since the Arab Spring and is becoming a serious threat. AQIM has begun to align itself with other terrorists in northern Africa, specifically Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabab in Somalia. The three terrorist groups working together have the possibility of creating a trans-African threat if they decide to unite.
The important message from bin Laden’s papers is that al-Qaeda still remains a threat today; bin Laden continued to strategize about America’s demise until the day he died. Al-Qaeda may have been severely weakened, but the terrorist organization has devolved into decentralized groups in the Arabian Peninsula, northern Africa, and elsewhere. The United States needs to remain vigilant against al-Qaeda and work closely with as many allies as possible to defeat it.
Treston Wheat is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm