The War on Terror: Did the US defeat al-Qaeda?

The War on Terror: Did the US defeat al-Qaeda?
Comment: Despite trillions of dollars spent, millions of lives lost or damaged and 15 years of strife, the US War on Terror has not achieved its objective, writes Tallha Abdulrazaq
6 min read
19 Sep, 2016
Fighters from al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate al-Nusra Front in Aleppo [Getty]

It has been just over 15 years since this millennium's defining event occurred, and changed lives all over the world.

Although terror, whether state or non-state, state-sponsored or targeted against states, has reaped countless human souls before, the impact of 9/11 goes beyond the direct human cost of the attack itself. Instead, it represents a profound paradigm shift of how security is perceived and acted upon globally.

In this sense, al-Qaeda, the masterminds behind the attack, succeeded spectacularly and forced the United States to change its entire calculus. Although al-Qaeda has suffered immensely since, it has survived and, in some arenas, thrived.

Trailblazing terrorism

Al-Qaeda arguably succeeded in ways most politically-motivated organisations that use terror as a primary tool to achieve their objectives, can only imagine. Prior to 2001, the US stood alone as the world's preeminent and unchallengeable superpower.

It did not need to engage in lengthy and expensive wars, as the balance of power was so much in its favour that the mere threat of an American intervention tended to make international actors take a backwards step.

However, al-Qaeda managed to shake the perception of American invulnerability not only in the minds of the US' foes, but within the American psyche itself. America was reminded of its mortality in ghastly fashion, as al-Qaeda terrorists killed more than 3,000 civilians on that fateful day, causing the US under President George Bush Jr to lash out with military campaigns, ostensibly in an attempt to defeat terror.

9/11 was America's 21st century Pearl Harbor, except that it achieved victory over the Axis powers less than four years after that attack, but has utterly failed to destroy its enemy this time. In fact, it is completely beyond doubt that global terrorism and the loss of civilian life has increased substantially.

In this sense, al-Qaeda, succeeded spectacularly and forced the United States to change its entire calculus

Indeed the incidence of terrorist attacks had increased by more than 4000% by 2014 alone – an astronomical figure, especially when we consider that the so-called Islamic State (IS) was only really getting started around then.

As such, it becomes ever clearer that the US' security, defence and foreign policies have done nothing to reduce terrorism, but have in all likelihood encouraged and facilitated it, by increasing radicalisation through its large-scale invasions of countries around the world, some of which had nothing to do with terrorism like Iraq.

This has exposed American weakness, and allowed rivals to rise up, including China and a resurgent Russia who now calls the shots in Syria more than the increasingly lame and impotent US President Barack Obama ever did.

Al-Qaeda had long called for the weakening of the United States and, through the catalyst of 9/11, it led the US down a long, troubled road that damaged it immeasurably in terms of its prestige, economic and military power projection and in its status as the toughest kid on the block.

Al-Qaeda thus became more than the average terrorist organisation, but a trailblazer in how to use asymmetric force to compel superpowers to behave in a manner that will ultimately weaken them. 

Al-Qaeda's future

All of al-Qaeda's successes, however, came at an exorbitant price. Not that long ago, al-Qaeda seemed to be up against the ropes. It had been mercilessly pounded in Afghanistan and Iraq, causing it to haemorrhage both men and money. It had lost the stability of having a friendly government in Afghanistan tolerating its training camps where it used to train its fighters and operatives.

Worst of all for al-Qaeda, American special forces soldiers flew in on Blackhawk helicopters to the Pakistani town of Abbottabad and killed Osama bin Laden in a sudden strike in 2011. Bin Laden had been hiding out in the Pakistani town in a compound for years, not too far away from a Pakistani intelligence compound, which also suggests that the US' "ally" in the War on Terror knew all along where the terrorist leader was hiding, and kept it from Uncle Sam.

Al-Qaeda has been supplanted in the hierarchy of Muslim (and not Islamic) terror by their accidental child, IS.

Al-Qaeda has also been supplanted in the hierarchy of Muslim (and not Islamic) terror by their accidental child, IS. Al-Qaeda has long favoured a franchising approach with minimal centralised control in order to allow operational flexibility and freedom to its affiliates whilst assisting them in financing. IS turned this formula on its head, and established direct control of its subsidiaries, deploying its handpicked commanders to take control in places as far afield from Raqqa and Mosul as Libya.

Starting off as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, AQI underwent a metamorphosis that saw it establish its own networks of finances and recruitment which allowed it to break ranks with al-Qaeda and create IS. Even before their divorce was formally declared early in 2014, there were clear signs that IS was its own monstrosity, turning against and attacking Sunnis in Iraq which caused the Sunni Arabs to rise up against them.

Realising that IS' brutality, and AQI before them, had actually harmed al-Qaeda's own image and reputation as guardians of the Sunni Islamic world in the face of Iranian Shia expansionism, al-Qaeda changed tack.

Those nations ought to be keeping a close eye on IS's wiser, older grandparent, who might still have a few deadly tricks up its sleeve

With al-Qaeda's blessing, the Nusra Front swiftly gained a reputation in Syria as one of the most effective opponents of the Assad regime, and even began running bakeries and other welfare initiatives for the relief of the Syrian people.

Last summer, the Nusra Front, again with al-Qaeda's blessing, rebranded itself to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) and declared that it was no longer a part of al-Qaeda. This may have been in an attempt to prevent the excuse of al-Qaeda being used by western forces and Russia in order to bomb them, which in any case appears to have failed, as an alleged US airstrike killed one of its most celebrated field commanders earlier this month.

Whatever happens with al-Qaeda-associated groups like JFS, it is possible to argue that al-Qaeda may take up its mantle as the head of the global jihad against the West and all those who seek to control the Islamic heartlands of the Middle East. IS' brutality is simply too much, and its approach of directly controlling its subsidiaries means that it can be decimated by simply crippling its nerve centres in Syria and Iraq.

Indeed, IS looks to be on the verge of losing both Raqqa and Mosul, and its "successes" have proven to be transient and temporary. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, still has the horror of 9/11 as its legacy, and the fact that the US is still floundering in the $5 trillion quagmire of Middle East conflicts shows that its impact will be much longer lasting than anything IS can muster.

As IS is rolled back by the world's nations, those same nations ought to be keeping a close eye on IS's wiser, older grandparent who might still have a few deadly tricks up its sleeve.

Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.