Al Qaeda Changed the World—but Not in the Way It Expected
By Nelly Lahoud
On September 11, 2001, al Qaeda carried out the deadliest foreign terrorist attack the United States had ever experienced. To Osama bin Laden and the other men who planned it, however, the assault was no mere act of terrorism. To them, it represented something far grander: the opening salvo of a campaign of revolutionary violence that would usher in a new historical era. Although bin Laden was inspired by religion, his aims were geopolitical. Al Qaeda’s mission was to undermine the contemporary world order of nation-states and re-create the historical umma, the worldwide community of Muslims that was once held together by a common political authority. Bin Laden believed that he could achieve that goal by delivering what he described as a “decisive blow” that would force the United States to withdraw its military forces from Muslim-majority states, thus allowing jihadis to fight autocratic regimes in those places on a level playing field.
Bin Laden’s worldview and the thinking behind the 9/11 attack are laid bare in a trove of internal communications that were recovered in May 2011, when U.S. special operations forces killed bin Laden during a raid on the compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad where he had spent his final years hiding. In the years that followed, the U.S. government declassified some of the documents, but the bulk of them remained under the exclusive purview of the intelligence community. In November 2017, the CIA declassified an additional 470,000 digital files, including audio, images, videos, and text. With the help of two research assistants, I pored over 96,000 of those files, including nearly 6,000 pages of Arabic text that form a record of al Qaeda’s internal communications between 2000 and 2011, which I have spent the past three years analyzing. These documents consist of bin Laden’s notes, his correspondence with associates, letters written by members of his family, and a particularly revealing 220-page handwritten notebook containing transcripts of discussions between members of bin Laden’s immediate family that took place in the compound during the last two months of his life. The documents provide an unparalleled glimpse into bin Laden’s mind and offer a portrait of the U.S. “war on terror” as it was seen through the eyes of its chief target.
By the time of 9/11, bin Laden had been contemplating an attack inside the United States for decades. Many years later, in conversations with family members, he recalled that it was in 1986 that he first suggested that jihadis “ought to strike inside America” to address the plight of the Palestinians, since, in bin Laden’s mind, it was U.S. support that allowed for the creation of the state of Israel on Palestinian land. Bin Laden’s concern for the Palestinians was genuine; their suffering, he often reminded his associates, was “the reason we started our jihad.” But the Palestinians mostly served as a convenient stand-in for Muslims all over the world, whom bin Laden portrayed as the collective victims of foreign occupation and oppression. In his “Declaration of Jihad,” a 1996 public communiqué that came to be known among jihadis as the “Ladenese Epistle,” bin Laden grieved for Muslims whose “blood has been spilled” in places as far-flung as Chechnya, Iraq, Kashmir, and Somalia. “My Muslim brothers of the world,” he declared, “your brothers in the land of the two holiest sites and Palestine are calling on you for help and asking you to take part in fighting against the enemy, your enemy: the Israelis and the Americans.” This collective battle, bin Laden hoped, would be the first step in reviving the umma.
It soon became clear that bin Laden was ready to back his words with deeds. In 1998, al Qaeda carried out simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people and wounding more than 4,000. Emboldened by the international attention those strikes received, bin Laden became more ambitious. On October 12, 2000, al Qaeda rammed a small boat filled with explosives into the USS Cole as it was refueling in the port of Aden, Yemen, killing 17 U.S. Navy personnel. Soon after that, bin Laden told a large gathering of supporters that the attacks represented “a critical turning point in the history of the umma’s ascent toward greater eminence.”
The Abbottabad papers include handwritten notes that bin Laden composed in 2002, disclosing “the birth of the idea of 11 September.” They reveal that it was in late October 2000, within weeks of the USS Cole attack, that bin Laden decided to attack the American homeland. They also reveal his reasoning at the time: bin Laden believed that “the entire Muslim world is subjected to the reign of blasphemous regimes and to American hegemony.” The 9/11 attack was intended to “break the fear of this false god and destroy the myth of American invincibility.”
About two weeks after the attack, bin Laden released a short statement in the form of an ultimatum addressed to the United States. “I have only a few words for America and its people,” he declared. “I swear by God almighty, who raised the heavens without effort, that neither America nor anyone who lives there will enjoy safety until safety becomes a reality for us living in Palestine and before all the infidel armies leave the land of Muhammad.” The attack had an electrifying effect, and in the years that immediately followed, thousands of young Muslims around the world committed themselves in various ways to bin Laden’s cause. But a close reading of bin Laden’s correspondence reveals that the world’s most notorious terrorist was ignorant of the limits of his own métier.
Bin Laden’s documents offer a portrait of the “war on terror” as it was seen through the eyes of its chief target.
Bin Laden was born in 1957 in Saudi Arabia. His father was a wealthy construction magnate whose company was renowned not just for the opulent palaces it built for the Saudi royal family but also for its restoration of the Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina. Bin Laden was raised in comfort, wanting for nothing. He grew into a poised young man who yearned to take part in political causes around the Muslim world. In his early jihadi exploits, which involved fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s and helping finance and coordinate the mujahideen battling the Soviet occupation of that country, he demonstrated that he had learned something about entrepreneurship and management from the family business. And yet, although bin Laden’s correspondence indicates that he was well versed in Islamic history, particularly the seventh-century military campaigns of the Prophet Muhammad, he had only a perfunctory understanding of modern international relations.
That was reflected in the 9/11 attack itself, which represented a severe miscalculation: bin Laden never anticipated that the United States would go to war in response to the assault. Indeed, he predicted that in the wake of the attack, the American people would take to the streets, replicating the protests against the Vietnam War and calling on their government to withdraw from Muslim-majority countries. Instead, Americans rallied behind U.S. President George W. Bush and his “war on terror.” In October 2001, when a U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan to hunt down al Qaeda and dislodge the Taliban regime, which had hosted the terrorist group since 1996, bin Laden had no plan to secure his organization’s survival.
The 9/11 attack turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for al Qaeda. The group shattered in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban regime’s collapse, and most of its top leaders were either killed or captured. The rest sought refuge in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, an autonomous area bordering Afghanistan. Hiding became a way of life for them. Their communications reveal that for the rest of bin Laden’s life, the al Qaeda organization never recovered the ability to launch attacks abroad. (The group did carry out attacks in November 2002 in Kenya but was able to do so only because the operatives tasked with planning them had been dispatched to East Africa in late 2000 and early 2001, before everything fell apart for al Qaeda in Afghanistan.) By 2014, bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, found himself more preoccupied with delegitimizing the Islamic State (or ISIS), the jihadi group that eventually overtook al Qaeda, than with rallying Muslims against American hegemony. Still, it is impossible to look back at the past two decades and not be struck by the degree to which a small band of extremists led by a charismatic outlaw managed to influence global politics. Bin Laden did change the world—just not in the ways that he wanted.
LETTERS TO A MIDDLE-AGED TERRORIST
After fleeing to Pakistan following the Taliban’s defeat, many al Qaeda fighters and operatives were arrested by authorities there. Fearing the same fate, the remaining al Qaeda leaders and many members of bin Laden’s family covertly crossed the border into Iran in early 2002. Once there, they were assisted by Sunni militants who helped them rent houses using forged documents. But by the end of 2002, the Iranian authorities had tracked down most of them and had placed them in a secret prison underground. They were later moved into a heavily guarded compound, along with their female relatives and children.
In 2008, bin Laden’s son Saad escaped from Iran and wrote a letter to his father detailing how Iranian authorities had repeatedly ignored the al Qaeda detainees’ medical conditions and how “the calamities piled up and the psychological problems increased.” When Saad’s pregnant wife needed to be induced, she was not taken to a hospital until after “the fetus stopped moving”; she was forced “to deliver him after he died.” Saad was convinced that the Iranians “were masters at making us lose our nerve and took pleasure in torturing us psychologically.” So desperate were their conditions that when a Libyan jihadi leader, Abu Uns al-Subayi, was eventually released in 2010, he wrote to bin Laden that Iran is where the “greatest Satan reigns.” Detention there felt like being “exiled from religion,” he wrote, admitting that he had even begged his Iranian captors to deport him to “any other country, even to Israel.”
Bin Laden never anticipated that the United States would go to war in response to 9/11.
Bin Laden was completely unaware of these travails while they were happening. The Abbottabad papers show that in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, bin Laden disappeared from the scene and was not in command of al Qaeda for three years, even though he continued to release public statements cheering jihadi attacks in Indonesia, Kuwait, Pakistan, Russia, Tunisia, and Yemen. It was not until 2004 that bin Laden was finally able to resume contact with second-tier leaders of al Qaeda. He was eager to launch a new campaign of international terrorism. In one of the first letters he sent after reestablishing contact, he methodically outlined plans to carry out “martyrdom operations akin to the 9/11 New York attack.” If these proved too difficult, he had alternative plans to target rail lines.
His associates quickly set him straight: al Qaeda had been crippled, and such operations were out of the question. In September 2004, a second-tier leader known as Tawfiq wrote a letter to bin Laden describing just how difficult things had been in the immediate aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. “Our afflictions and troubles were heart-rending, and the weakness, failure, and aimlessness that befell us were harrowing,” he wrote. He lamented that bin Laden’s “absence and inability to experience [their] painful reality” had itself fed the turmoil. “We Muslims were defiled, desecrated, and our state was ripped asunder,” he reported. “Our lands were occupied; our resources were plundered. . . . This is what happened to jihadis in general, and to us in al Qaeda in particular.”
Another second-tier leader, Khalid al-Habib, explained in a letter to bin Laden that during his three-year absence, their “battlefield achievements were negligible.” He counted a total of three “very modest operations, mostly with [rockets], and from a distance.” Another correspondent told bin Laden that al Qaeda’s “external work”—that is, attacks abroad—had been “halted” because of the unrelenting pressure that Pakistan was exerting on the jihadis. As if this weren’t bad enough, bin Laden learned that al Qaeda had been sold out by most of their erstwhile Afghan sympathizers and the Taliban—“90 percent of whom,” Habib complained, “had been lured by the shiny dollars.”
A LIFELINE FOR AL QAEDA
But around the time that bin Laden was able to reestablish contact, things started looking up for al Qaeda. After the U.S.-led coalition had ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, the next phase of Bush’s war on terrorism was the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a country ruled by a secular tyrant, Saddam Hussein, who viewed jihadis with hostility. The U.S.-led invasion put a swift end to Saddam’s brutal reign but also led to the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the hollowing out of other secular government institutions. Initially, Arab Sunnis, the minority group that had dominated Iraq under Saddam, bore the lion’s share of the sectarian violence that followed the invasion. This proved to be a lifeline for al Qaeda and other jihadi groups, which were able to position themselves as the defenders of the Sunnis. As Habib put it in his 2004 letter to bin Laden: “When God knew of our afflictions and helplessness, he opened the door of jihad for us and for the entire umma in Iraq.”
Habib was referring, specifically, to the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadi who had come to prominence in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. By 2004, Zarqawi, and not bin Laden, was the leader of the world’s most powerful jihadi group. Aside from their shared commitment to violent jihad, the two men had little in common. Bin Laden had enjoyed a privileged upbringing; Zarqawi had grown up poor, had done time in prison, and had emerged not just as a religious extremist but also as a hardened ex-convict and a brutal thug. Despite the vast gulf between the two men, Zarqawi was eager for his group, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, to merge with al Qaeda. In a series of missives to bin Laden, Zarqawi made clear that his followers were “the sons of the Father”—that is, bin Laden—and that his group was a mere “branch of the original.” Zarqawi also assured al Qaeda’s leaders that he was collaborating with and seeking to unite all the jihadi factions in Iraq.
Zarqawi’s enthusiasm pleased bin Laden. “The merger of the group [Jamaat] al-Tawhid wal-Jihad [would be] tremendous,” bin Laden wrote to his deputy Zawahiri and Tawfiq, urging them “to give this matter considerable attention, for it is a major step toward uniting the efforts of the jihadis.” In December 2004, bin Laden formalized the merger by publicly appointing Zarqawi as the leader of a new group, al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (often referred to in Western media as al Qaeda in Iraq).
Zarqawi’s initiative eventually spurred jihadi groups in Somalia, Yemen, and North Africa to formally align themselves with al Qaeda. These groups did not directly grow out of the original organization, but their leaders saw many benefits in acquiring the internationally feared al Qaeda brand, especially the chance to improve their standing in the eyes of their followers and to gain international media attention, which they hoped would help them raise money and recruit new adherents. It worked.
Fixated on al Qaeda, counterterrorist authorities all over the world often subsumed all jihadis under a single umbrella, unwittingly giving individuals who wanted to associate themselves with bin Laden a larger selection of groups to potentially join. Thus, although the al Qaeda organization was broken, its brand lived on through the deeds of groups that acted in its name. All of this flowed from Zarqawi’s alliance with bin Laden. In early 2007, a Saudi jihadi cleric, Bishr al-Bishr, described the merger in a letter to a senior al Qaeda leader as an instance of God having “shown mercy on al Qaeda,” which would have come to an end had it not been for “the amazing jihadi victories in Iraq, which raised the value of al Qaeda’s stocks.” It was a divine intervention, he assessed: “God’s way of repaying the people of jihad for their sacrifices in his path.”
THINGS FALL APART
Bin Laden had assumed that those who pledged their allegiance to him would pursue the kind of attacks against the United States that al Qaeda had pioneered. Their success, he hoped, would “raise the morale of Muslims, who would, in turn, become more engaged and supportive of jihadis,” as he put it in a letter to Zawahiri and Tawfiq in December 2004.
Once again, bin Laden had miscalculated. The decision to bestow the al Qaeda imprimatur on groups that he did not control soon backfired. Zarqawi failed to unite Iraq’s jihadi groups under his banner, and the country’s most established jihadi group, Ansar al-Sunna (also known as Ansar al-Islam) refused to merge with him. Before long, bin Laden and his followers found themselves at the receiving end of letters that chronicled the squabbles among their new associates. “Ansar al-Sunna have been spreading lies about me,” Zarqawi complained in one. “They say that I have become like [Antar] al-Zawabiri,” the leader of a notoriously extremist Algerian group who had been killed in 2002 and whom many jihadis had considered to be overzealous even by their standards. “Can you imagine?!” he fumed.
More disturbing for al Qaeda than Zarqawi’s vain whining, however, were his group’s indiscriminate attacks, which resulted in massive Iraqi casualties, particularly among Shiites. Bin Laden wanted al Qaeda to make headlines by killing and injuring Americans, not Iraqi civilians—even if they were Shiites, whom Sunni jihadis saw as heretics.
The new generation of jihadis, bin Laden concluded, had lost their way.
From their hideouts in Pakistan and the tribal areas, al Qaeda’s leaders struggled to unify the militant groups in Iraq that were now at the center of global jihadism. But the divisions among them became even more entrenched. Zawahiri tried to mediate between Zarqawi and Ansar al-Sunna, but his efforts failed. Ansar al-Sunna made it clear to al Qaeda that unity with Zarqawi was conditional on “correcting the ways of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.” Atiyah Abd al-Rahman (generally referred to as Atiyah), who oversaw al Qaeda’s external contacts and relations at the time, grew ever more dismayed with Zarqawi’s leadership and wrote to bin Laden that “we cannot leave the brother to act on the basis of his judgment alone.” In a December 2005 letter intercepted by U.S. intelligence, Atiyah urged Zarqawi “to lessen the number of attacks, even to cut the current daily attacks in half, even less,” pointing out that “the most important thing is for jihad to continue, and a protracted war is to our advantage.”
Things went from bad to worse for al Qaeda after Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006. His successors declared themselves the Islamic State of Iraq without consulting bin Laden, Zawahiri, or any other senior al Qaeda figures. In 2007, ISI leaders stopped responding to al Qaeda’s letters altogether, a silence that reflected, in part, the fact that the Iraqi jihadis had begun losing ground to what became known as the Sunni Awakening, which saw U.S. forces forge ties with Sunni tribal sheikhs in order to confront the terrorists.
ON THE SIDELINES
Al Qaeda’s management struggles were hardly limited to Iraq. In 2009, a group of jihadis in Yemen dubbed themselves al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula without alerting the parent group or even publicly pledging allegiance to bin Laden. They were to prove a persistent source of headaches. In or around 2009, an AQAP leader named Qasim al-Raymi admitted in a letter to al Qaeda’s leadership that he and the group’s other top members suffered from inexperience and “deficiencies concerning leadership and administration.” He conceded that he himself was not equipped “to judge when, how, and where to strike.” But inexperience did not deter AQAP’s top leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, from announcing in 2010 that he wanted to proclaim an Islamic state in Yemen. It took a great deal of finesse on the part of senior al Qaeda leaders to dissuade him.
For his part, bin Laden was dismayed that AQAP even considered itself a jihadi group at all, much less an affiliate of al Qaeda. “Did you actually plan and prepare for jihad?” he tartly asked in a draft letter to Wuhayshi. “Or is your presence a result of a few government attacks to which the brothers responded, and in the midst of this reactive battle, it occurred to you that you should persist?” Wuhayshi’s letters to bin Laden show that he was vexed by the guidelines that the leadership had given him. Despite backing down from declaring an Islamic state, Wuhayshi defied senior al Qaeda leaders’ instructions to refrain from sectarian attacks targeting Houthis in Yemen and to curb military confrontations with the Yemeni government.
For bin Laden, the least problematic of the new al Qaeda spinoffs was the North African group al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Unlike the other affiliates, it did not want to proclaim a state and instead focused on taking Westerners hostage for ransom or for the freeing of jihadi prisoners held by Western governments. Bin Laden saw this tactic’s potential for influencing Western publics and seemed to appreciate the pragmatic approach of AQIM’s leader, Abu Musab Abdul Wadud. Still, because bin Laden could not communicate with AQIM in a timely fashion (since his communications depended on the schedule of a courier), his interventions often arrived too late and sometimes even proved counterproductive. On at least one occasion, negotiations over the release of Western hostages that could have benefited AQIM fell apart because of bin Laden’s meddling.
By 2009, most of al Qaeda’s senior leaders were fed up with their unruly affiliates. That year, bin Laden hardly rejoiced when Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr, the leader of the Somali jihadi group al Shabab, sought a public merger with al Qaeda. Zubayr, too, wanted to proclaim an Islamic state. In a letter to Zubayr, Atiyah delicately explained that it would be best to “keep your allegiance to Sheikh Osama secret.” For his part, bin Laden declined the public merger and suggested that Zubayr downsize from a state to an emirate, and do so quietly. “Our inclination,” he wrote, “is that your emirate should be a reality to which the people grow attached without having to proclaim it.” Zubayr complied with their wishes, but his response shows that he was troubled, rightly pointing out that he and his group were “already considered by both our enemies and our friends to be part of al Qaeda.” A few years later, Zawahiri, who succeeded bin Laden after his death, finally admitted al Shabab into al Qaeda.
During the last year of his life, bin Laden lamented that his “brothers” had become a “liability” for global jihad. Some of their attacks, he bemoaned, resulted in “unnecessary civilian casualties.” Worse yet, “the Muslim public was repulsed” by such attacks. The new generation of jihadis, he concluded, had lost their way.
In the winter of 2010–11, the revolts that became known as the Arab Spring initially gave bin Laden some hope. He reveled in the success of what he called the “revolutionaries” (thuwar) who brought down autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. But soon, he grew troubled. In conversations with his family, he worried that “the revolutions were born prematurely” and lamented that al Qaeda and other jihadi groups were mostly on the sidelines. He was resigned that “we cannot do anything except intensify our prayers.”
Yet bin Laden was determined to “protect these revolutions” and intent on advising the protesters through his public statements. His one and only response to the Arab Spring went through at least 16 drafts before he made an initial recording of it. And his daughters Sumayya and Maryam, who had effectively co-authored most of the public messages that bin Laden delivered over the years, did much of the heavy lifting in composing the text. In late April 2011, they were planning to give it one more round of edits before the final recording, but they ran out of time: U.S. Navy seals raided the Abbottabad compound before they had a chance to polish it. It was the U.S. government that ended up releasing the statement, probably to help establish that the raid had actually occurred and undermine the claims of conspiracy theorists to the contrary.
The raid was masterfully planned and executed. “Justice has been done,” U.S. President Barack Obama declared in announcing bin Laden’s death. With the man behind the 9/11 attack eliminated and with mostly peaceful and secular protesters on the march against Middle Eastern tyrants, it seemed for a moment that the jihadi movement had run its course. But that moment proved fleeting.
A SHORT-LIVED CALIPHATE
Back in Washington, the Obama administration had dropped Bush’s “war on terror” moniker. But Obama maintained his predecessor’s excessive focus on al Qaeda, and his team failed to discern divisions within jihadism that proved consequential. In choosing to go to war in Iraq, the Bush administration had exaggerated al Qaeda’s connections to the country and overestimated the counterterrorism benefits of toppling Saddam’s regime. The Obama administration, for its part, overestimated the positive effects that bin Laden’s death and the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would have on the fight against jihadism. “The drawdown in Iraq allowed us to refocus our fight against al Qaeda and achieve major victories against its leadership, including Osama bin Laden,” Obama claimed in October 2011. At that very moment, however, the ISI, al Qaeda’s erstwhile ally in Iraq, was being energized by a new generation of leaders. The Obama administration and other Western governments failed to see the growing danger.
In 2010, the ISI had come under the leadership of a formerly obscure Iraqi who called himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Iraqi government’s sectarianism and corruption offered fertile ground for the ISI to rebuild and grow. In 2010–11, Baghdadi unleashed a wave of terrorist assaults on Iraqi Christians and Shiites. This campaign enraged al Qaeda’s leaders. “I do not understand,” Zawahiri chafed in a letter he wrote to bin Laden a few months before the Abbottabad raid. “Are the brothers not content with the number of their current enemies? Are they eager to add new ones to their list?” He urged bin Laden to write to the ISI’s leaders and instruct them to stop “targeting the Shiites indiscriminately” and to “end their attacks against Christians.” But bin Laden no longer had any influence over the ISI. The Iraqi group had moved on.
When it comes to the next phase of the struggle, all eyes are on Afghanistan.
Between 2011 and 2013, the ISI expanded into Syria, inserting itself into the bloody civil war that had begun there after the regime of Bashar al-Assad crushed an Arab Spring uprising. In June 2014, after the ISI had conquered vast swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria, the group’s spokesperson, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, proclaimed Baghdadi to be the leader of a new caliphate, and the group renamed itself the Islamic State, dropping all geographic references from its name. Its territorial expansion led jihadi groups in more than ten countries to pledge allegiance to the new caliph. In turn, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) designated these groups as either “provinces” or “soldiers of the caliphate.”
After bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda continued to operate under Zawahiri’s command, but it had now been fully eclipsed by ISIS. Still, just as bin Laden had been ignorant of terrorism’s limits, Baghdadi proved to be clueless when it came to running a state, let alone a “caliphate” that aimed to conquer other countries without possessing so much as a single fighter jet. In September 2014, the Obama administration formed a coalition of 83 countries “to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS.” By 2016, ISIS had begun to collapse. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump kept up the fight, and the coalition eventually wrested control of all of ISIS’s territory. Baghdadi had spurned bin Laden’s strategy of fighting from the shadows in favor of empire building and had managed to replace bin Laden as the face of global jihadism. But the two men had similar fates. In October 2019, U.S. forces raided Baghdadi’s compound in Idlib Province, in northwestern Syria. U.S. military dogs chased Baghdadi into a dead-end tunnel. Cornered, the caliph detonated a suicide vest. “The world is now a safer place,” Trump declared.
THE FUTILITY OF TERROR
In the two years since Baghdadi’s demise, Trump’s pronouncement has held up. The jihadi landscape is still divided. Jihadi organizations continue to proliferate, but no group dominates in the way that al Qaeda and ISIS once did. Their capabilities range from merely howling threats, to throwing Molotov cocktails, to carrying out suicide operations or blowing up cars, to seizing control of territory—at least for a time.
When it comes to the next phase of the struggle, all eyes are on Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, ISIS, and a number of other groups maintain operations in the country, but they are overshadowed by the larger conflict playing out between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which are both struggling for control of the country in the wake of the United States’ withdrawal. In 2020, the United States and the Taliban reached a peace agreement in which the Taliban promised “to prevent any group or individual, including al-Qa’ida, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
Will the Taliban make good on their promise? Judging by the Abbottabad papers, not all Taliban members were equal in the eyes of al Qaeda, which had long suspected that some Taliban factions had been seeking rapprochement with the United States. As early as 2007, Atiyah wrote to bin Laden that “forces within the Taliban are distancing themselves from al Qaeda to elude the terrorism accusation.” And in 2010, Zawahiri expressed alarm in a letter to bin Laden that the Taliban seemed “psychologically prepared” to accept a deal that would render al Qaeda impotent. Owing to the Taliban’s factionalism since 9/11, it may be difficult for the group’s leaders to enforce compliance with the terms of their agreement with the United States.
The Taliban’s factionalism may prove to be an intractable problem for the United States. But al Qaeda’s experiences after 9/11 suggest that the same factionalism will also complicate matters for terrorists seeking refuge in Afghanistan. Even a sympathetic host regime is no guarantee of safe haven. Bin Laden learned that lesson the hard way, and Baghdadi later found out that controlling territory was even harder. But Washington and its allies have come to realize (or at least they should have) that an open-ended war on terrorism is futile and that a successful counterterrorism policy must address the legitimate political grievances that al Qaeda claims to champion—for example, U.S. support for dictatorships in the Middle East.
Washington cannot quite claim victory against al Qaeda and its ilk, which retain the ability to inspire deadly, if small-scale, attacks. The past two decades, however, have made clear just how little jihadi groups can hope to accomplish. They stand a far better chance of achieving eternal life in paradise than of bringing the United States to its knees.