Al-Qaida's history: Why has it always been so resilient?

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Sept. 1 2011 7:14 AM

The History of Al-Qaida

A look at what al-Qaida has been up to since 9/11.

Also in Slate: Daniel Byman reviews al-Qaida's prospects for the next 10 yearsRead more from Slate's Sept. 11 anniversary coverage.

This undated file photo shows Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden (center), with two unidentified associates in an undisclosed place inside Afghanistan in 1998. Click image to expand.
Osama Bin Laden (center) with two associates

Since 9/11, al-Qaida has suffered a confusing mix of setbacks and advances. Brutal attacks on fellow Muslims have tarnished its reputation, its leadership is under siege from the air (drone strikes) and the ground (special operations forces), and the core organization no longer has a safe haven. How far it must seem from the heady days after 9/11, when the organization shook the world. In the 10 years that followed, al-Qaida soared to powerful heights but also experienced setbacks and disasters. Reviewing that history helps us understand both why al-Qaida is so troubled and why it may remain a force to be reckoned with.

Although 9/11 was a high point for al-Qaida terrorism, it also brought the organization to the brink of ruin. The attacks made the danger of terrorism clear to leaders around the world, who also knew that they had to work with Washington or risk the wrath of the world's only superpower. From the Philippines to Germany, governments that before 9/11 had at best gone through the motions on counterterrorism now tried to monitor, arrest, and disrupt suspected terrorists. All this activity produced a steady stream of detentions that revealed considerable intelligence and made it far harder for al-Qaida to operate.

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More dramatically, U.S. military forces and Afghan oppositionists quickly overthrew the ruling Taliban. This was a double blow: The Taliban had provided al-Qaida with a safe haven, and now the terrorist group had to relocate to the far more dangerous territory of Pakistan. Even more important, the Taliban represented, in jihadists' eyes, the world's only true Islamist regime. (Saudi Arabia's claims to this title were dismissed as hypocrisy, and Shia-led Iran's as apostasy.) So Islamists of many persuasions criticized al-Qaida for destroying their political Holy Grail: a state to call their own. 

The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq helped rescue al-Qaida, both operationally and ideologically. The war vindicated Bin Laden's message, "proving" to skeptics that the United States was indeed bent on controlling the Islamic world. It also motivated a new generation of jihadists to travel to Iraq. 

And the United States suffered. The United States has lost more than 6,000 troops —more than twice as many Americans as those who died on 9/11—in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the cost of trillions of dollars. In neither country is long-term success assured, or perhaps even likely. Al-Qaida claims that the fight in Afghanistan bankrupted the Soviet Union in the 1980s and led to its collapse, and that the United States too is being driven to the brink of ruin.

Al-Qaida, however, went too far in Iraq. Grateful locals took its help to fight U.S. forces, but soon al-Qaida-linked groups began to seize power for themselves and to wantonly slaughter Iraqi civilians. Sunni tribes turned against them, working with U.S. forces to decimate al-Qaida in Iraq's ranks. Outside the country, Muslims initially enraged by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq gradually became more critical of the Muslim-on-Muslim slaughter.

As al-Qaida's star fell in Iraq, its power grew in Pakistan. Since its founding, al-Qaida has had strong ties within Pakistan, but it found itself on the ropes after 9/11 as the Pakistani government worked with the United States to capture key leaders such as 9/11-mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. As the decade wore on, however, the United States became increasingly distracted in Iraq. Meanwhile, Pakistan itself became more and more chaotic, with a range of radical groups (some of which were linked to al-Qaida) turning against the Pakistani government. All of this allowed al-Qaida to reestablish itself operationally in Pakistan. Most of the major terrorist attacks plotted against European targets since 9/11 had some link to al-Qaida's core in Pakistan.

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