Death by a Thousand Cuts

See all those security lines? Just because al Qaeda's recent attacks haven't succeeded doesn't mean the terrorist group's overall strategy is failing.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

"Two Nokia phones, $150 each, two HP printers, $300 each, plus shipping, transportation and other miscellaneous expenses add up to a total bill of $4,200. That is all what Operation Hemorrhage cost us… On the other hand this supposedly ‘foiled plot’, as some of our enemies would like to call [it], will without a doubt cost America and other Western countries billions of dollars in new security measures."

Thus begins the lead article in the latest issue of Inspire, the English-language online magazine produced by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the jihadi group’s Yemen branch, which was released Saturday. The cover features a photo of a UPS plane and the striking headline: "$4,200." It is referring to the recent cartridge-bomb plot, and specifically the great disparity between the cost of executing a terrorist attack and the cost to Western countries of defending against asymmetric warfare — costs now numbering in the billions of dollars a year and climbing. The magazine warns that future attacks will be "smaller, but more frequent" — an approach that "some may refer to as the strategy of a thousand cuts."

The slick packaging may be new, but al Qaeda’s emphasis on bleeding the U.S. economy is not. From Osama bin Laden’s earliest declaration of war against America, al Qaeda has linked its attacks to the U.S. economy. He and other salafi jihadi thinkers had long believed that economic power was the key to America’s military might; they thus saw weakening Western economies as their path to victory. When bin Laden declared war against the "Jews and crusaders" in 1996, he emphasized that the mujahideen’s strikes should be coupled with an economic boycott by Saudi women. Otherwise, the Muslims would be sending money to the enemy, "which is the foundation of wars and armies."

In October 2001, just after he put this strategy to work by striking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, bin Laden spoke with Al Jazeera journalist Taysir Allouni (who is now imprisoned in Spain, following his controversial conviction for cooperating with al Qaeda). The terrorist leader emphasized the costs that the attacks imposed on the United States. "According to their own admissions, the share of the losses on the Wall Street market reached 16 percent," he said. "The gross amount that is traded in that market reaches $4 trillion. So if we multiply 16 percent with $4 trillion to find out the loss that affected the stocks, it reaches $640 billion of losses." He told Allouni that the economic effect was even greater due to building and construction losses and missed work, so that the damage inflicted was "no less than $1 trillion by the lowest estimate."

In his October 2004 address to the American people, bin Laden noted that the 9/11 attacks cost al Qaeda only a fraction of the damage inflicted upon the United States. "Al Qaeda spent $500,000 on the event," he said, "while America in the incident and its aftermath lost — according to the lowest estimates — more than $500 billion, meaning that every dollar of al Qaeda defeated a million dollars."

The economic strategy of jihad would go through refinement. Its initial phase linked terrorist attacks broadly to economic harm. A second identifiable phase, which al Qaeda pursued even as it continued to attack economic targets, is what you might call its "bleed-until-bankruptcy plan." Bin Laden announced this plan in October 2004, in the same video in which he boasted of the economic harm inflicted by 9/11. Terrorist attacks are often designed to provoke an overreaction from the opponent and this phase seeks to embroil the United States and its allies in draining wars in the Muslim world. The mujahideen "bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt," bin Laden said, and they would now do the same to the United States.

Next, bin Laden turned to what he saw as America’s greatest vulnerability: its reliance on oil. He had not always seen attacks on oil as part of his war: In 1996, he said oil was not part of the battle because it was "a great Islamic wealth and a great and important economic power for the coming Islamic state." But as al Qaeda elevated the importance of economic warfare, attacks on the oil supply became more attractive. One indication was a March 2004 book by Rashid al-Anzi, who has been described as al Qaeda’s "minister of propaganda," titled The Laws of Targeting Petroleum-Related Interests and a Review of the Laws Pertaining to the Economic Jihad. Al-Anzi argued that oil wells should be off-limits as a target (because oil wells represent supplies that may be exploited under a caliphate), but that attacks against other facilities, such as pipelines and refineries (so long as they are not privately owned by a Muslim), are "a legitimate means of economic jihad," which is "one of the most powerful ways in which we can take revenge on the infidels."

Bin Laden reached the same conclusion in a December 2004 audiotape in which he finally told his followers to focus their operations on oil production, "especially in Iraq and the Gulf area," because lack of oil would cause the infidels "to die off." Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, similarly called for al Qaeda fighters to "concentrate their campaigns on the stolen oil of the Muslims" in December 2005.

Al Qaeda-linked militants responded almost immediately. The most significant attempt occurred in February 2006, when AQAP terrorists attacked the refinery at Abqaiq operated by Saudi Aramco. Local news sources played down the incident, but it may have been a nearer miss than official rhetoric allowed. Written evidence submitted to Britain’s House of Commons claimed that the terrorists — who wore Aramco uniforms and drove Aramco vehicles — managed to enter the first of three perimeter fences. They were only fired upon as they approached the second perimeter fence. Thus, the terrorists either "had inside assistance from members of the formal security operation of the state-owned energy company" in acquiring the vehicles and uniforms, or else "security was sufficiently [lax] that these items could be obtained and entry to the site obtained," the report reads. Neither possibility would be reassuring. A catastrophic attack on the oil supply would have a tremendous economic impact on the United States, which imports roughly 11 percent of its oil from Saudi Arabia.

Al Qaeda’s strategy took another turn following the September 2008 collapse of the U.S. economy (for which Zawahiri and other spokesmen promptly claimed credit). Even before AQAP gave that strategy a name and outlined its defining feature — smaller but more frequent attacks — a careful reading of key jihadi documents suggested that this was where the strategy was already heading.

To al Qaeda, America’s weakened position makes it seem mortal. "How much more can the U.S. Treasury handle?" radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki asked this March, months after a young Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day. "9/11, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then operations such as that of our brother Umar Farouk which could not have cost more than a few thousand dollars end up draining the U.S. Treasury billions of dollars… For how long can the U.S. survive this war of attrition?"

In a March 2010 video, al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn praised Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan and encouraged Muslims to follow his example. Although Hasan’s target was not economic, Gadahn portrayed Hasan as a model to "further undermine the West’s already struggling economies with carefully timed and targeted attacks on symbols of capitalism which will again shake consumer confidence and stifle spending."

In that address, Gadahn put his finger on an important insight that AQAP is now reiterating: Even failed attacks can help the jihadists by "bring[ing] major cities to a halt, cost[ing] the enemy billions, and send[ing] his corporations into bankruptcy." Failed attacks, simply put, can themselves be successes. This is precisely why AQAP devoted an entire issue of Inspire to celebrating terror attempts that killed nobody.

A message making this point at length was posted to the Al-Fallujah Islamic forums in December 2009. The author mockingly addressed the security services monitoring the website, asking them to write the following in their reports:

A Very Serious Threat

Source: A Radical Islamist Forum

Warn them that they must protect every federal building and skyscraper, such as: Library Tower (California), Sears Tower (Chicago), Plaza Bank (Washington State), the Empire State Building (New York), suspension bridges in New York, and the financial district in New York.

Nightclubs frequented by Americans and the British in Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia (especially our dear Bali Island), the oil company owned by the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Sumatra (Indonesia), and US ships and oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, Gibraltar, and the Port of Singapore.

Let us not forget any airport, seaport, or stadium. Tell them to protect [these places] no matter the cost, day and night, around the clock.

The point is clear: Security is expensive, and driving up costs is one way jihadists can wear down Western economies. The writer encourages the United States "not to spare millions of dollars to protect these targets" by increasing the number of guards, searching all who enter those places, and even preventing flying objects from approaching the targets. "Tell them that the life of the American citizen is in danger and that his life is more significant than billions of dollars," he wrote. "Hand in hand, we will be with you until you are bankrupt and your economy collapses."

Unfortunately, the author, and the editors of Inspire, are all too right: The economics of this fight favor the terrorists, not those seeking to defend against terrorism. Although there is a tone of triumphalism to al Qaeda’s latest statements — and a clear attempt to spin its recent failures — we would be foolish to ignore the group’s warnings and its clearly articulated strategy.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and lecturer in world politics at the Catholic University of America. He is author of several books and monographs, most recently Bin Laden's Legacy.