Thursday, January 05, 2006

What Does al-Qaeda Want?

James Glassman has an article at Tech Central Station Daily arguing that the absence of terrorist attacks against the US is a product of aggressive and offensive US actions "at home, in Iraq and in places we know little about." I agree to a point -- it seems clear that al Qaeda was emboldened by the failure of the US under the Clinton Administration to retaliate for the first WTC bombing, the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and the bombing of the USS Cole -- but I disagree with his fundamental assessment of al Qaeda's motives. So long as the cost of striking the US was cheap, as it was when deterrence collapsed under Clinton, al Qaeda was happy to attack the US. But when the price rose, the US became a much less attractive target. It's not that the US has prevented attacks, or that al Qaeda is bogged down attacking US forces in Iraq, but rather that the US doesn't really fit into al Qaeda's grand strategy. True, to some degree, al Qaeda wants the US out of the Middle East and to end US support for Israel. But its real goal is to to end the rule of the corrupt secular regimes governing and to establish sharia over Arab and Islamic countries. And its not clear to me how or why attacking the US fits in to this strategy, unless al Qaeda believes that it could really and truly defeat the US, and its hard to imagine any of the leadership buying that argument (although perhaps the rank and file al Qaeda member does).

This is a very fine point: clearly US aggressive actions have changed the calculus of al Qaeda's actions. However, the point is one of marginal utility. All that was likely needed to establish sufficient deterrence against al Qaeda was the invasion of Afghanistan and, perhaps, a policy of targeted killings (assassination) against the leadership. If, as I believe, attacking the US is not really part of al Qaeda's strategy, these two actions were probably sufficient to deter further strikes against the US.


Lisa said...

One of al-Qaeda's great strengths in the terror department is precisely that we can't give a clear answer to the question in the title of your post. But regardless of whether al-Qaeda actually wants some kind of lasting control in the U.S. or hopes to affect change here, I still think the U.S. has a role in al-Qaeda's long-term planning. The U.S. is a whipping boy and common enemy to help unite disparate factions within the Muslim world al-Qaeda claims it wants to unite. September 11 was as much a show of strength and solidarity to the Muslim world as it was a creator of terror in the U.S. (and the West more generally).

Seth Weinberger said...


I tend to agree with you. And even if you're right, using the US as a recruiting tool is still a lot lower on the agenda than if you see the defeat of the US as the be-all, end-all goal of your organization. My point still holds: that protecting the US from attack by al-Qaeda is a lot easier and cheaper than Glassman and the Bush Administration makes it out to be.

stefan moluf said...

I'd agree that the senior leadership of al-Qaeda, once losing Afghanistan, would no longer prosecute attacks on American soil for fear of an increased crackdown. However, terrorist groups are known for retaliatory attacks, and I don't see radical fringes of the group being deterred by a policy of targeted killings.

Now, granted, these attacks would be far less spectacular than 9/11, Madrid, or London. They would likely be low-scale suicide bombings involving simple explosives and simple targets, but the "fear factor" of such attacks is still quite significant.

My guess is that these retaliatory attackers are instead drawn into the jihadist movements in Iraq and Afghanistan.