The threat of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic Revolutionary Movement

On October 29, 2004, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden released a new videotape, revealing the first images of the leader in more than a year. The video offered proof that bin Laden is alive and healthy with access to modern technology. The resurgence of Osama bin Laden emphasizes the threat still posed by Islamic revolutionaries to the United States and its interests.

Bin Laden Applauds U.S. Response to September 11 Attacks

Bin Laden is undeterred by the Bush administration's response to the September 11 attacks on the United States. Washington's destruction of the Taliban government in Afghanistan and its increased influence in the Middle East gained through the invasion and occupation of Iraq have not, according to bin Laden, adversely affected al-Qaeda in any significant manner. In fact, bin Laden's October 2004 video quoted him as saying that the results of the September 11 attacks -- results that include the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to U.S. attacks on Islamic revolutionaries worldwide -- have been "positive and enormous, and have, by all standards, exceeded all expectations."

At first glance, there are many reasons why bin Laden's statement is questionable. After the invasion of Iraq, the United States destroyed the Taliban's hold over Afghanistan, a government that gave safe haven to bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. Along with this attack, the United States was able to scatter the al-Qaeda command center and increase pressure on the organization's operations. Nevertheless, while the attacks must have caused setbacks to al-Qaeda's operational capability, bin Laden is correct in arguing that Washington's response to the September 11 attacks has proved beneficial to his cause.

Even though the United States invaded Afghanistan, many al-Qaeda figures escaped into Pakistan. Moreover, the Taliban itself was not destroyed -- only removed from power, where they then filtered into the local Afghan populace and are now primarily responsible for the pervasive guerrilla attacks against U.S.-led troops and other security forces aligned with the central government in Kabul. Furthermore, the U.S. never captured the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, and bin Laden himself managed to escape. The one month delay it took the United States to attack Afghanistan following September 11, 2001 afforded bin Laden and other top leaders of his network the time to put into effect contingency plans that would allow for the continuation of their organization in a new atmosphere subject to heightened U.S. surveillance and potential attack.

With Iraq, bin Laden has argued that the invasion and subsequent occupation has been a major benefit to his cause. Iraq, due to its past secularist nature, had little to do with Islamic revolutionary movements; the government in Baghdad was actually scorned by bin Laden. Yet, the removal of Saddam Hussein furthered bin Laden's aims since it removed a leader who bin Laden had already labeled a socialist "infidel," and who had been persecuting Islamic revolutionaries for decades. By removing the secular Ba'athist Party from power, the forces of Islamism have been unleashed in Iraq; this is apparent through the growing Shi'a demand for the institutions of Islamic law and Islamic governance. The removal of the Ba'ath Party and the resulting instability ripened the ground for al-Qaeda and other Islamic revolutionaries to recruit and expand operations since, in the past, Saddam's security apparatus would have captured and killed any Islamic revolutionary that posed a danger to his regime.

Additionally, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have given al-Qaeda more opportunities to attack U.S. interests. With U.S. troops patrolling Afghanistan and Iraq, al-Qaeda has less distance to travel to strike at U.S. military targets and interests. The invasions have also increased the ability of al-Qaeda sympathizers -- groups or individuals who identify with al-Qaeda's central political themes without actually being in regular contact with the organization -- to launch their own attacks on U.S. interests. The many beheadings in Iraq are a good example of this, where, by striking fear into the West, militants are able to increase the chances of ending the occupation while also heightening the perceived threat of Islamic militancy. In the words of al-Qaeda adviser and founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri, broadcast in September 2003 on the al-Jazeera satellite network, "We thank God for appeasing us with the dilemma in Iraq after Afghanistan. The Americans are facing a delicate situation in both countries. If they withdraw they will lose everything and if they stay, they will continue to bleed to death."

Finally, as clearly stated in bin Laden's recent speech in October 2004, the September 11 attacks have caused the United States to spend unprecedented levels of financial capital on combating the threat of terrorism. Because the use of terrorism as a tactical military strategy is so difficult to defend against, it has caused the Bush administration to spend billions of dollars in attempts to counter every potential threat to U.S. interests. Bin Laden, recognizing this favorable situation, stated in his October 2004 address, "All that we have to do [to provoke the United States] is to send two mujahideen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note than some benefits for their private companies."

Striking the U.S. Economy

Bin Laden understands the tremendous effect that fear -- a byproduct of the use of terrorism as a political and military tactic -- has on the population of the United States. As argued by bin Laden in the past, "Terror is the most dreaded weapon in the modern age…It can add fear and helplessness to the psyche of the people of Europe and the United States. … You can understand as to what will be the performance of the nation in a war, which suffers from fear and helplessness."

It appears that bin Laden will continue to pursue this strategy in the hopes of bringing severe financial hardships to the U.S. economy. Aware that the United States cannot be defeated through direct military confrontation, bin Laden's central strategy -- most vividly depicted through the September 11 attacks that hit the financial heart of the United States -- has been to undermine U.S. security and, therefore, the U.S. economy. In his October 2004 address, bin Laden, after commenting on how the mujahideen in Afghanistan successfully "bled Russia for ten years" to end its occupation there, is now practicing a similar strategy on the United States, "continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy." Indeed, in October 2002, bin Laden said on al-Jazeera television, "God is my witness, the youth of Islam are preparing things that will fill your hearts with fear. They will target key sectors of your economy until you stop your injustice and aggression or until the more short-lived of us die."

Bin Laden's strategy is feasible. The U.S. budget deficit stands at $413 billion, and shows no sign of decreasing. Much of this money comes out of the costs of waging the "war on terrorism," including the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, the invasion of Iraq will not only cause financial hardship to the United States, but will further bin Laden's ambitions as long as it continues down the course it has thus far. Unless Iraq is transformed into a stable country generally in line with U.S. interests, it will continue to act as a drain on the U.S. economy and persist in helping al-Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups find willing recruits to pursue al-Qaeda's agenda.

Al-Qaeda's Recruiting Prospects

The major reason why the invasion of Iraq, provided it continues along its present course of instability, will accelerate al-Qaeda's political agenda is because the U.S. has failed to address the motives behind al-Qaeda's attacks on the United States and its allies. Bin Laden has repeatedly stated his reasons for starting and continuing his attacks against U.S. interests. As stated by Michael Scheuer, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency's unit on Osama bin Laden, bin Laden's, attacks are meant to advance bin Laden's clear, focused, limited, and widely popular foreign policy goals: the end of U.S. aid to Israel and the ultimate elimination of that state; the removal of U.S. and Western forces from the Arabian Peninsula; the removal of U.S. and Western military forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Muslim lands; the end of U.S. support for the oppression of Muslims by Russia, China, and India; the end of U.S. protection for repressive, apostate Muslim regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, et cetera; and the conservation of the Muslim world's energy resources and their sale at higher prices.

Along these lines, bin Laden argued that U.S. influence in the Muslim world demonstrates "an ocean of oppression, injustice, slaughter, and plunder carried out by [the United States] against our Islamic [community]. It is therefore commanded by our religion that we must fight back. We are defending ourselves against the United States. This is a 'defensive jihad' as we want to protect our land and people." Since this is the crux of bin Laden's argument, and an argument that is extremely popular among Muslims, Scheuer warns, "The choice we have is between keeping current policies, which will produce an escalating expenditure of American treasure and blood, or devising new policies, which may, over time, reduce the expenditure of both."

Bin Laden has vividly described how he will persist in attacking the United States in response to its policies, saying, "…if [Muslims] do not have security, the Americans also will not have it. This is a very simple formula. … This is the formula of live and let live." Further to this point, bin Laden declared that the division between Americans living in peace and Muslims living in conflict is "unfair," and that the "time has come for us to be equal. Just as you kill, you are killed. Just as you bombard, you are bombarded."

Bush Administration Maintains Past Policies

Following the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration made a decision to not only remain steadfast in its pursuit of traditional U.S. foreign policy, but to escalate it. For example, the United States has not only continued to support the state of Israel, but has remained especially silent on Israel's controversial treatment of its Palestinian population and its continued violation of U.N.-sponsored demands to release territory that is considered occupied. While the United States has removed U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia, it has not removed them from the region; the U.S. command center that was in Saudi Arabia simply relocated to Qatar, and the presence of U.S. military personnel in the region is astronomical as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Washington shows no sign of ending its occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Bush administration has continued its mute policy with regards to Russia's, China's and India's harsh treatment of its Muslim populations. Washington has not been critical of the dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, and Jordan, and it has shown no desire to accept oil prices sold at higher prices; the only reason oil prices are high now is because of the instability brought to the global scene mainly due to the intervention in Iraq, but also due to supply concerns in Venezuela, Nigeria and other oil-producing countries.

Therefore, in this light, it becomes clear that bin Laden's potential to recruit disaffected Muslims enraged over U.S. foreign policy has improved as a result of the Bush administration's failure to alter the aforementioned policies. This will result in more Muslims alienated with the United States and more Muslims that will subsequently find leadership in Osama bin Laden's militant rhetoric.

This result is quite evident by subsequent polls taken in Muslim-majority countries that show how the United States' image has plummeted down to levels never recorded before. According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in their "What the World Thinks in 2002" poll, resentment toward the United States grew tremendously between 2000 and 2002. In 19 of the 28 countries polled, attitudes toward the United States became more negative. In Muslim-majority countries, America's positive standing fell sharply, as many Muslims perceived the "war on terrorism" to be a war on Muslims.

In Indonesia, where 87 percent of the population is Muslim, in a matter of two years, the United States dropped in favor by 14 percentage points. In 1999/2000, 75 percent of Indonesians had a favorable view of the United States; in 2002, that number had fallen to 61 percent. Turkey, with 98 percent of its population Muslim, saw 22 percent of its population lose favor with the United States between those two years; in 1999/2000, 52 percent of its population had a favorable attitude toward the United States, compared with a meager 30 percent in 2002. Pakistan, too, saw a 13 percent drop in favor toward the United States; by 2002, only 10 percent of Pakistanis had a positive attitude of the United States.

These numbers have not fared better since 2002. In its latest report, "Views of a Changing World 2003," the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that from 1999/2000 to June 2003, the number of Indonesians that had a favorable view of the United States dropped from 75 percent to 15 percent from; Turkey down from 52 percent to 15 percent; Pakistan remained relatively unchanged, standing at 13 percent.

This sinking level of support for the United States depicts how Osama bin Laden has been able to tap into widespread anger and resentment held by many Muslims toward U.S. foreign policy. The political grievances aired by bin Laden and his deputies resonate among many of their coreligionists, who, like al-Zawahiri, believe that "Muslims have suffered the worst and most serious disasters, for more than a century. Their lands are occupied either by foreign forces, or through political influence. Their resources are deemed lawful and plundered. They are deprived of free will. Their rights are thrown away and stolen. Their sanctuaries are surrounded and taken over."

To demonstrate this, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that, in 2003, 58 percent of Indonesians had "confidence" that bin Laden would "do the right thing" in world affairs. That number stands at 55 percent in Jordan, 49 percent in Morocco, 45 percent in Pakistan, and 71 percent among Palestinians.

Bin Laden's Grievances are Central Pillars of U.S. Interests

All of the above grievances about U.S. foreign policy held by the al-Qaeda leadership are central pillars of U.S. interests. Because of this, it will be very difficult for the Bush administration to alter any of them. These policies are very much responsible for the United States' status as a superpower and for its success as a state.

For instance, Washington supports the state of Israel for a variety of reasons, but one of the central ones is due to Jerusalem's success in preventing any one Middle Eastern country from dominating the region and threatening the price or flow of energy resources. American troops are stationed in the region in order to protect the conditions that foster a stable supply of energy resources, a critical component to the global economy. Also, in line with the need to protect energy resources, the United States has thrown its support behind many Middle Eastern dictators; U.S. interests demand that these leaders keep stability and control over their countries in order to prevent instability within their domain and within the region as a whole. Finally, being an oil-dependent country, the United States would like to see below-market oil prices since low oil prices help to accelerate economic growth in oil-dependent countries.

Since all of bin Laden's complaints are key components in U.S. interests, it will be difficult for the U.S. to compromise on any of them. The dilemma, however, is that these important U.S. interests are affecting Muslims in adverse ways. Through U.S. support of Israel, Muslims in Palestine are oppressed, in addition to Arab and Persian aspirations for regional dominance. Through the proliferation of U.S. troops in the region, Muslims see themselves weak in the face of superior U.S. technology and control. U.S. support of regional dictatorships has resulted in these leaders having the financial and political support to crack down on dissidents, often imprisoning or torturing these individuals who care to exercise democratic rights -- whether through violent or peaceful means. Finally, U.S. demand for below-market oil prices is seen by Muslims as theft of their oil resources. Indeed, thus far, the U.S. has not compromised on any of these interests which explains why al-Qaeda still considers the U.S. a threat and a target, and demonstrates why Muslims continue to hold a negative view of the United States.

This fundamental clash of interests, which is only heightened by the difference in cultures, exemplifies why the United States and Islamic revolutionaries have not been able to find common ground on issues that affect them both.

Bin Laden's Military Plan

Since September 11, bin Laden's al-Qaeda network has not attacked the United States directly. Nevertheless, there have been regular attacks on U.S. interests abroad, in addition to the interests of countries that support U.S. policy. There are two explanations behind the lack of attacks on the U.S. homeland: either al-Qaeda is preparing for a future attack and waiting for the right opportunity to strike, or al-Qaeda lacks the operational capability to do so.

Bin Laden is aware that he cannot defeat the United States militarily. His key to victory will be in convincing the American people to change the policies of the U.S. government by persuading them that certain U.S. policies in the Muslim world are not worth the violent reaction that will result. Indeed, from the start, bin Laden has tried to explain to the American people what needs to be done to prevent attacks from the al-Qaeda network. He stated, "Many people in the West are good and gentle people. I have already said that we are not hostile to the United States. We are against the system [U.S. policies] which makes nations slaves of the United States, or forces them to mortgage their political and economic freedom."

He has said that it is up to the "American people to check the anti-Muslim policies of their government. … They should play the same role now that they played during the Vietnam War. The American people should prevent the killing of Muslims at the hands of their government." Bin Laden has been steady in this argument. In his latest address to the American people, released shortly before the U.S. presidential elections, bin Laden warned Americans that their security "is in your own hands. And every state that doesn't play with [Muslim] security has automatically guaranteed its own security."

With this information in mind, the recent reelection of the Bush administration has demonstrated that the administration received an endorsement from the American people for its policies in the Middle East and the larger Muslim world. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney stressed this fact, saying that President Bush ran "forthrightly on a clear agenda for this nation's future, and the nation responded by giving him a mandate." Because these policies are perceived as negative by Muslims, bin Laden, the al-Qaeda network, and others in the Islamic revolutionary movement will come to the conclusion that the United States will not alter its foreign policy, at least not in the next four years. Therefore, if bin Laden were playing a waiting game, to see if Americans would work to change U.S. policies in the region, that wait is now over.

If al-Qaeda has the operational capability to attack the United States or its major interests abroad, it will now do so once the right opportunity arises. The form of this impending attack and future attacks will likely follow al-Qaeda's established military strategy of utilizing the tactic of terrorism. This has proved to be the most effective tactic of choice for al-Qaeda and other Islamic revolutionary groups. In order to demonstrate why al-Qaeda will not deviate from its use of terror tactics, witness bin Laden's comment in October 2002, "The American people have the ability and choice to refuse the policies of their government, yet time and again, polls show the American people support the policies of the elected government. … This is why the American people are not innocent. The American people are active members in all these crimes [against Muslims.]"

If no attack is seen in the months after the reelection of President Bush, then it can be reasonably argued that bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, in addition to the Islamic revolutionary movement as a whole, lacks the organizational and operational capabilities to launch significant attacks against the United States and its interests. While bin Laden has proven himself to be an experienced military strategist, witnessed through his involvement in the struggle against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, he may lack the resources necessary to launch significant terror attacks against the United States and its interests. Especially now, in light of the United States' heightened defense against Islamic terrorism, the ability to strike the U.S. homeland, and even U.S. interests abroad, is difficult.

Furthermore, the intelligence community of the United States and its allies has been extremely focused on detecting and capturing bin Laden and other members of his network. This intense manhunt, using the most sophisticated technology available, has had a major impact on al-Qaeda's ability to operate freely. With the U.S. military involved in an assortment of countries, giving it the capability to launch quick tactical strikes, one mistake by any member of the al-Qaeda leadership could be deadly to both that leader and the organization as a whole.

Nevertheless, while it may be difficult for al-Qaeda and the larger Islamic revolutionary movement to attack high value targets in the United States or elsewhere, it is not difficult for them to attack targets that will affect the interests of the United States and its allies. As al-Qaeda articulated in late 2002, "The enemy's tourist industry…includes easy targets with major economic, political, and security importance. This is because the impact of an attack on a tourist facility that cannot be protected equals, and sometimes surpasses, the impact of an attack against an enemy warship." Also, as C.I.A. officer Michael Scheuer writes, "Of the twenty nations al-Qaeda threatened, eighteen have been attacked, a 90-percent correlation." This shows how the al-Qaeda network has been very successful in attacks against the West, and in light of its statements over its list of potential U.S. targets, should have little difficulty finding potential sites to attack, even in the face of heightened U.S. vigilance.


The threat to U.S. interests posed by Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda network, and the Islamic revolutionary movement as a whole is a reaction to U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world. The U.S. has pursued relatively static interests in the Middle East for decades, interests that are central pillars in America's present status as a superpower. These interests are now clashing with the aspirations of the Islamic revolutionary movement, which seeks to resist U.S. policies in the Muslim world that are perceived as discriminatory to Muslims, whether as an intentional or unintentional result of U.S. policies.

Islamic revolutionaries such as Osama bin Laden are well aware that the United States cannot be defeated militarily. Their goal, then, is to effect political change inside the United States in order to defeat the country's will to sustain its involvement in the Muslim world. The persistent attacks on U.S. interests, culminating in the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, are intended to bring about this change of policy.

With the support of the American people, the Bush administration has resisted these attacks, and has amplified the very policies that have caused so much angst among Muslims. If the Bush administration is unsuccessful in its interventions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it will fail to marginalize the Islamic revolutionary movement and will find itself in a poor strategic position when faced with popular Islamic revolutionaries utilizing the military tactic of terrorism to achieve their political ends. Overstretched and exhausted, Washington could be forced to retreat back to its core and inadvertently deliver on many of al-Qaeda's demands.

Therefore, it is critical for the United States to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq in a manner that wins the support of its people and helps to boost the United States' image in the Muslim world. By failing to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq, and if it is unable to alter the perception of itself favorably, the Islamic revolutionary movement will grow and become a greater threat to the U.S. homeland and its interests abroad. Unfortunately, Washington's ability to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq may prove impossible, bringing the instability of these two peripheral countries to the core of the United States.

Erich Marquardt

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Author`s name Andrey Mikhailov