Today marks the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Some 3,000 perished in the attack, representing an unprecedented death toll in the history of terrorism — to the extent that the figure far exceeded even the wildest hopes of al Qaeda planners behind the attack. The loss of life and the scale of the destruction woke the United States from its slumber on the jihadist threat, spurring it to finally respond to al Qaeda's provocations in a powerful manner. The country first invaded Afghanistan, which had given al Qaeda refuge, and later Iraq. 9/11, however, was not the first salvo in the jihadist war, but merely a turning point. Seventeen years on, the war drags on — and will continue to do so until jihadists are defeated not only on the physical battlefield but also on the ideological one.
The jihadist movement is not a monolith. Indeed, beyond the obvious schism between al Qaeda and the Islamic State, jihadism is a "glocal" phenomenon made up of an array of local actors including the core organizations, regional insurgent groups and grassroots jihadists. Each poses a distinct threat and must be addressed by a combination of global coordination and local action. However, until the ideology of jihadism is defeated, its proponents will be able to recruit new adherents. Accordingly, the ideological battle against jihadism is as important, if not more so, as the physical struggle.
The Jihadist War on America
When al Qaeda conducted a pair of bombings in Aden, Yemen, in December 1992, as well as a rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa a month later, the U.S. government was unaware that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his associates had decided to launch a war on the United States — something I was privy to because I traveled to Yemen with an FBI colleague to investigate the attacks. When we deployed to Yemen, our working hypothesis was that Libyan intelligence officers had conducted the Aden bombings or had contracted the job out to a terrorist surrogate. Due to the long history of Libyan and Libyan-sponsored attacks against U.S. military targets in Europe and the Middle East, Tripoli's attempt to assassinate U.S. Embassy communications officer Arthur Pollick in Sanaa in 1986 and the fact that Libyan intelligence had trained terrorists at camps in South Yemen, the hypothesis was eminently plausible.
Specifically, we sought to investigate one of the bombs which did not explode. We found that it was unlike anything we had seen the Libyans use before. More than that, the method used to launch the M20 rocket at the embassy was, to a T, the same as what I had been taught at an improvised explosive device course by the CIA's Office of Technical Service. The discovery led us toward a new conclusion: The perpetrators of the Aden and Sanaa attacks were Yemenis who had traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets and received training there from the CIA — or at least from someone else trained by the CIA. Thanks to our investigation, we now knew what kind of people the attackers were, but we didn't yet know what to call them.
After my return from Yemen, my next big investigation was the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing. As we began to identify and arrest suspects, we could not help but notice — again — the links to Afghanistan and the Egyptian militant group Gamaah al-Islamiyah under Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman.
It would be a couple of years before I finally became aware that the Yemen attacks and the World Trade Center bombing were both linked to al Qaeda and bin Laden. After its first attack on the World Trade Center, al Qaeda continued its attempts to target the United States, although an FBI informant inside the group thwarted a subsequent plot to attack New York. Toward the end of 1994, militants aborted Operation Bojinka, a plot by al Qaeda to simultaneously bomb a number of American-flagged airliners, when a bombmaking accident in a Manila apartment ignited a blaze that revealed the cell and its plans. A separate attempt to launch a scaled-back version of Bojinka in 1995 led to the arrest of the bombmaker, Abdul Basit Abdel Karim (widely known by his alias, Ramzi Yousef), a militant responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing who had escaped from the Philippines after the fire. In August 1998, al Qaeda also staged coordinated attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, using large truck bombs. Less than two years later, the group hatched a multicontinent plot to attack New Year's festivities as the world welcomed the year 2000, only for authorities to arrest the plotters in the United States and Jordan. Al Qaeda later turned its attention back to Yemen but failed to inflict damage on the USS The Sullivans in January 2000 when its boat sank off Aden. Nine months later, it succeeded in a do-over, bombing the USS Cole in the same area.
Before 9/11, al Qaeda had conducted a long string of attacks — and had failed in many others — but never attained its prime aim: forcing the United States out of the Muslim world or provoking it to enter direct battle against the jihadists. Instead, Washington answered by arresting a few operatives or launching barrages of cruise missiles, whether against training camps in Afghanistan or an aspirin factory in Sudan. Needless to say, the American response was not what bin Laden and company had hoped for. This paradigm, however, shifted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when the U.S. government deployed all of its might against those responsible for the attacks.
The Empire Strikes Back
The surprise of al Qaeda's leaders at the level of destruction in 9/11 was matched only by their surprise at the severity of the U.S. response. The United States invaded Afghanistan less than a month after the attacks, rapidly overthrowing the government of the Taliban and forcing al Qaeda's leaders to flee for shelter in Pakistan and Iran. Al Qaeda patently did not expect such ramifications when it launched its attack, and the Taliban could not fulfill U.S. demands to surrender the group's leaders in accordance with a Pashtun code of conduct that forbade them from turning over those who had sought sanctuary.
While many Muslims viewed the invasion of Afghanistan as justified, the 2003 invasion of Iraq reinforced al Qaeda's narrative that the "crusader forces of the West" had declared war upon Islam.
While many Muslims viewed the invasion of Afghanistan as justified, the 2003 invasion of Iraq reinforced al Qaeda's narrative that the "crusader forces of the West" had declared war upon Islam and that all Muslims were religiously enjoined to defend Muslim lands by taking up arms as part of defensive jihad. Indeed, the invasion of Iraq mobilized many foreign fighters, thousands of whom flocked to Iraq — the most famous of which was a Jordanian street thug-turned-jihadist commander, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Due to Iraq's location and the place it holds in Islamic history, the jihadist struggle there quickly overshadowed that in Afghanistan, becoming the focal point for jihadist fighters and funding. U.S strategic blunders, including a policy of debaathification that needlessly sidelined soldiers, police officers and intelligence officers from participating in the public life of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, poured fuel on the insurgency. In fact, without the guidance and support of these local insurgents who had previously worked in Saddam's government, foreign jihadists simply would not have succeeded in forming effective insurgent organizations. At the same time, the parallel formation of Shiite insurgent groups fostered the growth of various Sunni insurgent organizations.
Of the various Sunni insurgent groups to emerge, perhaps the most effective was al-Zarqawi's Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad, which quickly merged into al Qaeda's fold, becoming "al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers" or, as it was more commonly known, al Qaeda in Iraq. The merger boosted al-Zarqawi's profile in terms of attracting men and funds and even helped the Jordanian jihadist provide some much-needed funding to al Qaeda's core leadership. But the merger with al-Zarqawi was far from seamless, and even in 2005, my colleagues and I forecast that it would eventually lead to a significant split in the jihadist movement.
The Long War
Today, as we look back at 9/11 and the three decades of al Qaeda action, it is clear that the war against jihadism won't end anytime soon. Ultimately, I believe the fight against Islamist militancy bears a strong resemblance to the global struggle against communism in the last century. Like communism, the jihadist movement is founded upon a potent utopian ideology that sees world domination as its ultimate goal. Because of this, like communism, jihadism cannot be defeated until the ideology behind the movement has been discredited and no longer attracts a significant number of new adherents. In many ways, the al Qaeda-Islamic State split is reminiscent of the divisions in communism between Stalinists and Trotskyists, or Marxists and Maoists, and I believe the jihadist movement will eventually fracture further and new strains of the ideology will emerge due to personal conflicts, doctrinal differences and divergent objectives. And unlike some, I do not believe al Qaeda and Islamic State can ever reunite.
While jihadists use terrorism as a weapon, they are about so much more than that. They are militants who practice insurgent warfare, hybrid warfare and even conventional warfare when and where they have the strength to do so. Defining them as "mere terrorists" vastly underestimates the threat they pose. As militants, the jihadists have embraced a long-war philosophy in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria. This means that the jihadists will not stand toe-to-toe on the battlefield with the U.S.-led coalition and allow themselves to be utterly destroyed. In fact, it has proved extremely difficult to find, fix and destroy the enemy.
Even so, it remains important to continue to apply military pressure against such militants in order to prevent them from gaining sanctuaries where they can operate freely, attempt to establish jihadist polities and plan terrorist attacks across the world. Basically, conventional warfare is needed to restrict militant groups and limit their ability to threaten governments in the Muslim world. Jihadism is a truly "glocal" phenomenon, meaning it requires a combination of local and global forces to combat it. This means that U.S. and coalition forces must remain engaged in supporting local partners across a wide arc of the globe that spans from West Africa to the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines. The efforts to counter and limit jihadist terrorist operations will continue to be a significant challenge for law enforcement and intelligence services around the globe. However, it is far easier to arrest people and disrupt organizations than it is to discredit and ultimately defeat an ideology. The virulent ideology of jihadism can only be defeated on the ideological battlefield, and until that happens, the physical efforts against jihadists must continue in order to limit the threat they pose to the rest of the world.