Why Bin Laden Still Matters

Al Qaeda never had more than a few hundred sworn members. The real danger was its ability to train and inspire jihadis around the world.
September 4, 2010 |
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In late January, Osama bin Laden released an audiotape praising the Nigerian who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009. “The message delivered to you through the plane of the heroic warrior Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a confirmation of the previous messages sent by the heroes of [September] 11th,” he said.

While the tape was proof that Al Qaeda’s leader was still alive, it also raised the question of whether he’s now only an irrelevant militant seeking to associate himself with even failed attacks originated by groups he doesn’t control. After all, the organization behind the botched bombing was Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, headquartered in Yemen, thousands of miles from bin Laden’s presumed base on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Bin Laden’s irrelevance seemed further confirmed in June, when CIA Director Leon Panetta told ABC News that Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is now “relatively small…I think at most we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100.”

For some, these small numbers suggest that bin Laden’s organization is fading away, and that the war against it is largely won. But the fact is that Al Qaeda has always been a small organization. According to the FBI, there were only 200 sworn members at the time of the 9/11 attacks, and the group has always seen itself primarily as an ideological and military vanguard seeking to influence and train other jihadist groups.

Al Qaeda’s ideology and tactics have spread to a range of militant groups in South Asia, some of which are relatively large; the Afghan Taliban alone are estimated to number at least 25,000 men. As Al Qaeda’s ideas proliferated, leaders began planning seriously to attack targets in the West. According to Spanish prosecutors, the late leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, sent a team of would-be suicide bombers to attack Barcelona’s public-transport system in January 2008. Luckily, the alleged plotters were arrested before the plan was carried out.

A year later Mehsud threatened America itself, saying, “Soon we will launch an attack in Washington that will amaze everyone in the world.” At the time, this was largely discounted as bloviating, but the Pakisani Taliban then started training an American recruit, Faisal Shahzad, for just such an attack. In the winter of 2009–10 Shahzad traveled to Pakistan, where he received bomb-making training. After returning to Connecticut he built a bomb, which he then placed in an SUV and detonated in Times Square on May 1. The bomb was a dud, and Shahzad was arrested two days later as he tried to leave JFK airport for Dubai.

In recent years Al Qaeda Central has also seeded a number of franchises around the Middle East and North Africa that are now acting in a Qaeda-like manner, despite having little or no contact with bin Laden. In September 2009 the Somali Islamist insurgent group Al-Shabab (“the youth”) pledged its allegiance to Al Qaeda’s leader. Today Al-Shabab controls a swath of central Somalia. Worryingly, the group has also shown that it is capable of carrying out operations outside Somalia, bombing two groups of fans watching the World Cup in Uganda on July 11, 2010, attacks that killed more than 70.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has shown an even longer reach. It was the group responsible for Abdulmutallab’s botched attempt to explode a bomb hidden in his underwear on Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit. Several counterterrorism officials tell me they believe that the Yemeni-based builder of Abdulmutal-lab’s bomb is still at large, and that the bomb maker is likely to try again to bring down a commercial jet with a concealed bomb invisible to metal detectors.

This level of threat is likely to persist for years to come. Al Qaeda may no longer be able to launch an attack sufficiently deadly to completely reorient U.S. foreign policy, as the 9/11 attacks did. But there has been a key shift since around the time President Obama took office: the Americanization of the leadership of Al Qaeda and aligned groups. Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric who grew up in New Mexico, is today playing an important operational role in AQAP and had some part in recruiting the underwear bomber, according to counterterrorism officials. Adnan Shukrijumah, a Saudi-American who grew up in Brooklyn and Florida, is now Al Qaeda’s director of external operations. In 2009 he allegedly tasked Najibullah Zazi and two other Americans to attack targets in the United States. Omar Hammami, an Islamic convert from Alabama, is both a key propagandist and a military commander for Al-Shabab, while Chicagoan David Headley played a central role in scoping the targets for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed more than 160.

Al Qaeda and like-minded groups have attracted dozens of U.S. citizens and residents as foot soldiers. According to a count by Andrew Lebovich of the New America Foundation, in 2009 at least 43 American citizens or residents aligned with Sunni militant groups or their ideology were charged with terrorism crimes in the United States or elsewhere, the highest number in any year since 9/11. So far in 2010, at least 18 have been similarly charged or convicted.

Bin Laden remains important as the guiding icon that is drawing these people to jihad. Yet U.S. intelligence agencies have not had any “actionable intelligence” about his location since he disappeared in mid-December 2001 after the battle of Tora Bora. Informed hypotheses put him in or around Pakistan’s tribal regions, but these are only educated guesses (albeit rather expensive ones, given that U.S. intelligence agencies have sucked up some half a trillion dollars since the 9/11 attacks).

While bin Laden himself may have vanished like a wraith, intelligence about other militant leaders in the Pakistani tribal areas has markedly improved in the past couple of years. In 2007 there were just three drone strikes reported there; in 2008 there were 34; the Obama administration has already authorized more than 100. Those drones have killed at least a dozen mid and upper-level leaders of Al Qaeda or the Taliban. One apparent result is how few propaganda tapes Al Qaeda’s leaders are issuing. The number of tapes released in 2010 by Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been his smallest in seven years. Bin Laden has also fallen relatively silent, seemingly more worried about staying alive than staying relevant. Still, as he enters late middle age—family members say he turned 53 in February—he may take some satisfaction that his message continues to resonate with all too many disaffected men, from Connecticut to Kandahar.