Bin Laden’s lonely crusade

Exactly 10 years ago this month, just days after the inauguration of George W. Bush as president, Richard Clarke, the top counterterrorism aide in the White House, wrote a now famous memo warning the administration of the challenge posed by al-Qaeda. He "urgently" requested a high-level review of American efforts to deal with Osama bin ...

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Exactly 10 years ago this month, just days after the inauguration of George W. Bush as president, Richard Clarke, the top counterterrorism aide in the White House, wrote a now famous memo warning the administration of the challenge posed by al-Qaeda. He "urgently" requested a high-level review of American efforts to deal with Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization. The warning was not heeded-and, even if it had been, there is no way of knowing whether the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented. The attacks came, and in their aftermath, encouraged by political leaders and national-security experts, a particular view of terrorism and of al-Qaeda took hold, and remains entrenched to this day. The idea, simply put, is that Islamist terrorism, spearheaded by al-Qaeda, poses an "existential" threat to America and the West. That sentiment was repeatedly voiced by Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair, and many others. We continue to hear it today.

That reaction was perhaps understandable, but it was always wrong. Few terrorist actions pose an existential threat, though the fear engendered by terrorism-particularly if that fear is stoked, manipulated, and institutionalized-may well accomplish what attacks themselves cannot. But whatever harm the terminology may have done, the language of existential threat also blinds us to what has long been a basic truth: it is not the West that faces an existential threat, but al-Qaeda. About two months after 9/11, bin Laden boasted to a group of supporters, "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse." The weak horse turned out to be bin Laden's own. During the past decade, misguided actions taken in the name of the War on Terror-notably the invasion of Iraq, the bungled war in Afghanistan, and the heavy-handed approach to the treatment of prisoners-have bought bin Laden and his allies some time. These actions have won a certain amount of sympathy among Muslims for the Islamist cause. But they have not changed the underlying reality: al-Qaeda and groups that share its ideology are on the wrong side of history.

Exactly 10 years ago this month, just days after the inauguration of George W. Bush as president, Richard Clarke, the top counterterrorism aide in the White House, wrote a now famous memo warning the administration of the challenge posed by al-Qaeda. He "urgently" requested a high-level review of American efforts to deal with Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization. The warning was not heeded-and, even if it had been, there is no way of knowing whether the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented. The attacks came, and in their aftermath, encouraged by political leaders and national-security experts, a particular view of terrorism and of al-Qaeda took hold, and remains entrenched to this day. The idea, simply put, is that Islamist terrorism, spearheaded by al-Qaeda, poses an "existential" threat to America and the West. That sentiment was repeatedly voiced by Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Tony Blair, and many others. We continue to hear it today.

That reaction was perhaps understandable, but it was always wrong. Few terrorist actions pose an existential threat, though the fear engendered by terrorism-particularly if that fear is stoked, manipulated, and institutionalized-may well accomplish what attacks themselves cannot. But whatever harm the terminology may have done, the language of existential threat also blinds us to what has long been a basic truth: it is not the West that faces an existential threat, but al-Qaeda. About two months after 9/11, bin Laden boasted to a group of supporters, "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse." The weak horse turned out to be bin Laden’s own. During the past decade, misguided actions taken in the name of the War on Terror-notably the invasion of Iraq, the bungled war in Afghanistan, and the heavy-handed approach to the treatment of prisoners-have bought bin Laden and his allies some time. These actions have won a certain amount of sympathy among Muslims for the Islamist cause. But they have not changed the underlying reality: al-Qaeda and groups that share its ideology are on the wrong side of history.

To read the rest of this article, visit VanityFair.com, where this was originally published.

Peter Bergen, the editor of the AfPak Channel, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and at New York University’s Center on Law and Security, and the author of The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader. He is a national security analyst for CNN.

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