By Christian Taylor
Al-Qaida has recruited an estimated 40,000 fighters since Sept. 11, 2001, when the Osama bin Laden-led extremist group attacked the United States, according to the not-for-profit Council on Foreign Relations.
Despite a United States-led global “war on terror” that has cost $5.9 trillion, killed an estimated 480,000 to 507,000 people and assassinated Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida has grown and spread since 9/11, expanding from rural Afghanistan intoNorth Africa, East Africa, the Sahel, the Gulf States, the Middle East and Central Asia.
In those places, al-Qaida has developed new political influence – in some areas even supplanting the local government.
So how does a religious extremist group with fewer than a hundred members in September 2001 become a transnational terror organization, even as the world’s biggest military has targeted it for elimination?
According to my dissertation research on the resiliency of al-Qaida and the work of other scholars, the U.S. “war on terror” was the catalyst for al-Qaida’s growth.
Bin Laden and the ‘war on terror’
Al-Qaida was founded in Afghanistan in 1988 in response to the Soviet invasion of that country.
For decades, it was a small, weak and uninspiring movement. Bin Laden sought to raise an Islamic coalition of forces to establish a caliphate – an Islamic state governed with strict Islamic law – across the Muslim world. But as late as 1996 he had just 30 fighters willing to die for the cause.
For years, bin Laden tried to merge with such extremist groups as Egypt’s Ibn al-Khattab and the Libyan Islamic Fighting group, hoping to create a global Islamist movement.
These organizations rejected bin Laden’s overtures. These disparate groups lacked a common enemy that could unite them in al-Qaida’s fight for an Islamic caliphate.
So bin Laden shifted his strategy. He decided to make the United States – a country most Islamic extremist groups see as the enemy of Islam – his main target.
In 1998 al-Qaida waged successful attacks on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. In 2000, it bombed the USS Cole, a military ship refueling in a Yemen harbor, killing 17 sailors.
Bin Laden hoped the U.S. would respond with a military invasion into Muslim majority territory, triggering a holy war that would put al-Qaida at the forefront of the fight against these unholy invaders.
After al-Qaida operatives flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 2,977 people, bin Laden got his wish. The United States invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001. Eighteen months later, it invaded Iraq.
How al-Qaida grew
Islamic groups and individual extremists flocked to bin Laden’s cause after 9/11. Al-Qaida became the nucleus of a global violent Islamist movement, with affiliates across the Middle East and Africa swearing their allegiance.
At the same time, the war in Afghanistan was decimating al-Qaida’s core operations.
Leaders were killed by drone strikes or driven into hiding. The Bush administration claimed killing 75% of al-Qaida leadership. Bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders sought refuge in places like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan and Yemen – remote areas outside the easy reach of U.S. ground forces.
To evade U.S. detection, al-Qaida had to limit communication between its newly decentralized fronts. That meant the group’s global leadership had to have autonomy to operate relatively independently.
Bin Laden expected al-Qaida affiliates to adhere to certain core values, strategiesand, of course, pursue the objective of establishing an Islamic caliphate.
But newly minted regional al-Qaida leaders – people like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, Ahmed Abdi Godane in Somalia and Nasir al-Wuhayshi in Yemen – enjoyed enough autonomy to pursue their own agendas in these unstable places.
You can read the full analysis at International Policy Digest here.