2004 December 24 Friday
Would Bin Laden Have Been Better Off Waiting To Attack America?

Vikram Sood, recently retired head of India's foreign intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), has written an interesting piece on ways that both Osama Bin Laden and the United States have damaged their positions each after first making substantial gains.

Masoud was the last obstacle to establishing Taliban rule in Afghanistan and making that country truly Islamic. He had to go. Months of planning and two assassins eventually succeeded in murdering Ahmed Shah Masoud on September 9, 2001 (see Masoud: From warrior to statesman, September 12, 2001). The country was up for grabs now, with the Taliban as the only real viable force in Afghanistan. They had the backing of Pakistan and the support of al-Qaeda. Strategic depth was a reality for the Pakistanis for a short period on September 9.

From Afghanistan, the Islamists could fan out into the resource rich Central Asian republics from Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan. Why stop there? There was Chechnya beckoning, and the green flag of Islam would fly from Morocco to Pakistan and throughout parts of Europe.

Sood is arguing that absent the 9/11 attack the United States and the rest of the Western nations would have awakened too late to stop a spread of Islamist rule throughout Central Asia. This sounds at least partially plausible. I say "partially" because my guess is that some of the governments of the "stans" in Central Asia likely would have succeeded in holding off an Islamic insurgency even without US help. He also says (and I agree) that the US role in Iraq has cost the US a lot of the gains in terms of goodwill that came from 9/11. The US invasion has been a great propaganda coup for Bin Laden and the Jihadists. Worse still, that miscalculation continues to cost the US and looks to do so for years to come.

The answer to the question of whether Bin Laden made a mistake with the 9/11 attack depends on Bin Laden's primary goal. To Bin Laden the "stans" of Central Asia are a side show. His primary interest is Arab countries (since they speak a version of the language of the prophet) and Saudi Arabia in particular. However, radical Islamist regimes in Central Asia would have been assets to his primary cause. Also, the power of the Islamists in the Pakistani government could have been strengthened if the US didn't decide to focus attention and pressure on Pakistan. Also, time spent waiting to make a really big attack on the US would have been time to train terrorists and build up bigger networks of sleeper agents. So I'm inclined to agree with Sood that the 9/11 attack was a mistake.

On the other hand, the 9/11 attack created the conditions that made the US invasion of Iraq possible. That invasion has hurt the US strategically in a number of ways. I therefore find it difficult to conclude at this point that Bin Laden's attack was a strategy miscalculation.

Each faction in a struggle makes miscalculations. The Islamists in Europe are also notable for their miscalculations. Rather than avoiding political assassinations and attacks until their fraction of the populations of various countries gets much bigger they just couldn't help themselves a small group of them responded to the message coming from the radical Islamic community in Holland and had to go assassinating Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh while threatening to kill many others. This is the problem with a militant religious movement that has no central authority and no disciplined chains of command. Freelancers will eventually heed the call of the propagandists and go hunting. More such attacks by Islamists acting independently of Al Qaeda in France, Germany, and other European likely will shift public opinion against Muslims and lead to changes in immigration policy that will reduce future Muslim immigration to Europe.

Al Qaeda and other Islamists may manage kill a lot more Europeans. Attacks with lethality similar to the Madrid train bombings may be repeated. Such attacks are going to shift public opinion in non-Muslim countries but likely will do nothing to recover US losses in public opinion in such important Muslim countries as Indonesia. Still, gains for the US are possible as a result of Jihadist attacks in other countries.

According to some reports Al Qaeda even seems inclined to pursue operations in Europe in order to attack countries (notably Italy and Britain) that have troops on the ground in Iraq fighting alongside American troops. What I find difficult to guess is whether success in carrying out such attacks will do more to build resentment in Europe toward Al Qaeda or toward the US for invading Iraq. But successful Jihadists attacks in Europe will drive European public opinion in an increasinly anti-Muslim direction regardless of what the attacks do to European opinion of America.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 December 24 11:21 PM  Politics Grand Strategy

Kenelm Digby said at December 26, 2004 5:56 AM:

Do you honestly believe that the European political elites really give a damn whether the indigenous ethnic peoples of Europe actually survive into this century or not?

Randall Parker said at December 26, 2004 2:16 PM:


I see two factors at work that might change the thinking of the European rulers.

1) What is changing in Holland is that the elites are being targetted for assassination. Imagine you are a Dutch MP and at least 2 (and perhaps more) fellow MPs now live in hiding. Well, you can be really careful about what you say. But you still might get targetted yourself simply because you are an MP. Well, that has to focus the mind.

2) An increasing fraction of some European populaces are becoming, in essence, single issue voters. We can see this in the Netherlands with first the Pim Fortuyn list and now the polls on Geert Wilders (though I wonder if Wilders can find a group of people brave enough to run as candidates on his List). This puts people who want immigration restriction in elected positions.

Just how far European opinion will go is going to depend on the skills of the terrorists and the growth of crime by immigrants.

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