Article by Patrick Cockburn.
Al Qaeda is the most successful terrorist organization in history. By destroying the World Trade Centre in New York on 9/11 it provoked the US into launching wars damaging to itself in Afghanistan and Iraq. Al Qaeda aimed to destroy the status quo in the Middle East and it succeeded beyond its wildest dreams.
Its success has not been all its own doing. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s number two and chief strategist, wrote at the time of 9/11 that the aim of the group was to lure the US into an over-reaction in which it would “wage battle against the Muslims.” Once the US was committed to a ground war, and no longer exercised its power primarily through local surrogates, the way would be open for Muslims to launch a jihad against America. By over-reacting, President Bush, aided by Tony Blair, responded to 9/11 very much as al-Qaeda would have wished.
In the decade since the attack on the Twin Towers “terrorist experts” and governments have frequently portrayed al-Qaeda as a tightly organized group located in north-west Pakistan. From some secret headquarters its tentacles reach out across the world, feeding recruits, expertise and money to different battlefronts.
Al-Qaeda has never operated like that. The closest it ever came to being a sort of Islamic Comintern was when it had several hundred militants based in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan in 1996-2001. Even at that time, when it could operate more or less freely in the Afghan mountains, its numbers were so small that it would hire local tribesmen by the day to be filmed for al-Qaeda propaganda videos, showing its men marching and training.
Many of the most important al-Qaeda leaders from that era have since been detained or killed. But al-Qaeda has proved so hard to eradicate because it exists primarily as a set of ideas and methods for fighting holy war. Osama bin Laden’s target was primarily the US and its western allies, though this has not always been true of local franchises. Civilians were fair game because they had chosen or tolerated evil rulers. In its fundamentalist religious beliefs al-Qaeda is little different from Wahhabism, the puritanical and intolerant version of Sunni Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia.
Suicide bombing became the preferred method for al-Qaeda to wage war. It was tactically effective because it meant that untrained but fanatical recruits willing to die could be deployed as a lethal weapon capable of killing many enemies. Moreover, the public-self sacrifice of the bomber as a demonstration of Islamic faith was an important part of a successful operation.