It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
Al Qaeda has released several new video messages coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. On Sunday, As-Sahab, the media branch of al Qaeda, released a documentary-style video that showed preparations for the attacks as well as footage of Osama bin Laden and two of the eventual hijackers. A few hours later, As-Sahab released a video of Ayman al-Zawahiri, in which he mentioned the Israeli attacks against Hezbollah in Lebanon and called for Muslims to fight against U.S. allies in Somalia. Al Qaeda traditionally has not treated anniversaries as significant — at least so far as attacks go. Rather, the choice of timing for centrally planned actions has been based on operational considerations. However, the two As-Sahab videos, which are both lengthy and show a high degree of sophistication in production, were clearly released to take advantage of the U.S. focus on the psychologically important fifth anniversary. Though there has been little correlation between al Qaeda videos and attacks, these tapes do serve the organization's psychological goals. The fifth anniversary is also taking center stage in political battles in the United States, where campaigns for the congressional elections in November are gearing up. The air is thick with discussions of national security, the absence of any linkage between al Qaeda and Iraq, and blame for failing to capture or kill bin Laden before the attacks (or afterward), even though officials on both sides of the aisle have decried the politicization of the Sept. 11 events. Into this electioneering and the anniversary memorials come the al Qaeda tapes. As the Americans and al Qaeda trade blows on the battlefield and in the media, it is useful to look back and reflect on what al Qaeda had hoped to achieve with the attacks. Both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri initially targeted not the United States, but the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In bin Laden's eyes, the Saudi regime had violated the tenets of the Prophet Mohammed by calling on the United States to repel the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, rather than supporting bin Laden and his Afghan-trained Mujahideen. And al-Zawahiri, for his part, had sought the overthrow of the Egyptian government since his youth; he joined forces with bin Laden after being driven (along with many Islamists) out of the country in the wake of the Luxor attacks. Once joined, al-Zawahiri and bin Laden expanded their focus, creating a more internationalist agenda. In 1998, this emerging al Qaeda carried out the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. As justification for the strikes, bin Laden said that the United States had invaded Somalia and planned to divide Sudan — an operation allegedly planned in the U.S. embassies in Africa. The attacks had little impact on a broad scale, and al Qaeda soon shifted back to something nearer its original focus, by attacking the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen. It was the Sept. 11 attacks that truly brought international attention to al Qaeda and framed the group as a major strategic challenger to the United States and the West as a whole. The attacks had a focused goal, were extensively planned and executed by a well-trained group of operatives. The operation marked the pinnacle of al Qaeda attacks: Subsequent actions in Madrid and London, and inspired actions like Bali, all had less impact. And during the past five years, the arrests of several of al Qaeda's senior and midlevel members appear to have weakened the group in important ways — damaging its finances, movements and strategic capability. Al Qaeda has not broken the bonds between the United States and the Saudi and Egyptian governments, nor has it succeeded in bringing down the regimes in Riyadh or Cairo. But it has spawned a movement — one that is spreading around the globe, with localized cells and organizations that can communicate with others for ideas and assistance in carrying out attacks. But the ensuing strikes and the movement triggered by al Qaeda are not forcing strategic shifts in government policies, as the Sept. 11 attacks did. They are, for the most part, local operations with internationalist links, carried out on a local stage, and thus are having a largely localized impact. Al Qaeda has created a movement, and though its core leadership remains intact (meaning that further strategic strikes cannot be entirely ruled out), the global operations are now becoming local operations, inspired by — but not controlled by — the central leadership. This is creating numerous brush fires for the United States and its allies that spread resources and attention thin. And it is into this environment that the Shia, under Iranian leadership, are now trying to move — perceiving both a void of leadership of revolutionary Islam, left by al Qaeda, and the overextension of U.S. assets and bandwidth. The al Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, born of an extreme Sunni Wahhabi ideology, have spawned an unintended consequence: a propitious moment for the reflowering of Shiite influence in the Middle East. Neither Washington nor al Qaeda expected this, and both are now seeking ways to reclaim the initiative.