Al Qaeda After the Death of Bin Laden – The Future of Jihadist Terrorism
Thomas Joscelyn, Senior Editor, Long War Journal, Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
A One-Day Conference: May 25th, 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Key Bridge Marriott, Arlington, Virginia
The death of Osama bin Laden will significantly affect both sides in the war on terror. The most important questions now are how will al Qaeda and its associated movements respond to the death of their leader, and is the United States safer or in more danger today? The Westminster Institute brings together world-renowned authorities and national security practitioners for a one-day special event in Washington, D.C. Together they will provide answers to these questions and also address the broader questions of what impact bin Laden’s death will have on non-violent jihadists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and what strategies can the U.S. employ to turn this battlefield win into a definitive victory.
About the speaker
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and is senior editor of FDD’s Long War Journal, a widely read publication dealing with counterterrorism and related issues. Much of his research focuses on how al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS, ISIL) operate around the globe.
Joscelyn has served as a trainer for the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division. Thomas has testified before Congress on fourteen occasions, including before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, House Homeland Security Committee, House Foreign Affairs Committee, House Armed Services Committee, and House Judiciary Committee. He was the senior counterterrorism adviser to Mayor Giuliani during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Joscelyn has constructed dossiers for hundreds of terrorists during the course of his work. The Daily Beast has described him as one of “the most trusted authorities on the al-Qaeda network because of his encyclopedic knowledge of terrorist biographies.” In 2007, he published a monograph titled, “Iran’s Proxy War Against America,” which details Iran’s decades-long sponsorship of America’s terrorist enemies. In 2008, he completed an exhaustive review of the Guantanamo Bay detainee population, cataloging and analyzing thousands of pages of declassified documents.
Joscelyn is also a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard. His work has been published by a variety of other publications and cited by The Associated Press, Reuters, The Washington Post, USA Today, Time, Foreign Policy, and many others. He makes regular appearances on television and radio programs.
I’m supposed to talk a little bit about the death of bin Laden and sort of the future of jihad and Al Qaeda and where things are going. And that may seem like a sort of obvious topic to address, you know, given recent events here but I think that night after Osama bin Laden was killed, after the news broke that he had been killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, I turned on CNN and I saw one of the guys who was considered one of the leading thinkers on Al Qaeda, a guy named Peter Bergen, who is CNN’s counterterrorism analyst, say that the war was over, that’s it, terrorism is over, we don’t have anything to worry about anymore. That’s it and in fact, it’s just the Americans need to get beyond the War on Terror. As if it’s something that we came up with, as if it’s a construct in our heads and not something that we’re actually fighting, you know.
So, I guess I’d start by saying the war is, in fact, not over for a lot of reasons. I think that the ideological conflict has been greatly outlined by the previous presenters here today and so I’m not going to touch so much on that but so what I’m going to talk about is much more about the nitty gritty of the fight and that starts with jihadist-sponsoring states.
Now, that may even seem like an obvious notation for everybody. I mean, you know, of course there are states that are involved in sponsoring terrorism and are involved in terrorism but in fact, much of the analysis that’s proceeded here in the U.S. and in the West starts with the assumption that states aren’t in fact involved in sponsoring terrorism whether that be Al Qaeda or its likeminded affiliates around the globe.
And since we have a Cold War-minded crowd here today, I’ll start with a brief analogy. Back in the Cold War, back in 1981, in fact, the Reagan Administration decided it was going to confront Marxist and Leftist terrorism and Secretary of State Alexander Haig came forward and said that in fact, much of the terrorism that was on the planet, Marxist and Leftist terrorism, was sponsored by the Soviet Union.
And so, the Reagan Administration ordered up a National Intelligence Estimate on Soviet-sponsored terrorism and they kicked it over to the CIA’s analysts and the CIA’s Soviet analysts came back and said, well, no, in fact, the Soviets aren’t sponsoring terrorism. It’s against their interests to do so and they would never do this. They would never be involved in sponsoring terrorism.
Well, the fight that ensued, a bureaucratic fight that ensued, was quite legendary. In fact, Bob Gates, the current Secretary of Defense, talks about this in his book From the Shadows and I recommend anybody go out there and read it because it’s a pretty interesting characterization, I would say, from Bob Gates, who is ever the bureaucrat and sides with the bureaucrats to a certain extent.
I think he still gets the facts right of what happened and lo and behold, what happened was the Soviet analysts were wrong and Bill Casey and the CIA leadership and President Reagan were right. In fact, the Soviets were deeply involved in sponsoring terrorism. In fact, not only were the Soviets and their client states deeply involved in sponsoring terrorism generally and broadly in terms of training and so forth and ideologically, they actually were arming and training terrorist groups in Europe, in the Middle East, and elsewhere to attack us. In fact, in Lebanon a Soviet-backed terrorist group was actually tasked by the KGB to go out and kidnap the deputy head of the CIA in Lebanon in the 1970s.
So I just want you to pause for a second here and think about this. At the same time the Soviets are actually sponsoring terrorism against the CIA directly, the CIA’s Soviet analysts are saying that the Soviets aren’t sponsoring terrorism at all, okay?
That’s the type of ideological, I would say, intellectual blindspot you’re dealing with when it comes to the analysis of terrorism. Now, you may be wondering, what does that have to do with today? What does that have to do with Al Qaeda and Islamist terrorism? Well, it turns out that in the 1990s our analysts, as brilliant as they are, made the same assumption again. They decided that Islamist terrorism, jihad, was not state sponsored. And in fact, if you go to the 9/11 Commission Report, you’ll see in the 9/11 Commission it specifically describes Al Qaeda as “stateless” and as a “new terrorism without any state backers.”
Now, if you go through the 9/11 Commission Report carefully as I have many, many times since 2004 when it came out, you’ll realize this is logically incoherent. When you actually look at the facts of what’s reported in the 9/11 Commission Report.
Now, I’ll start with a very simple, basic overview of just safe haven for Al Qaeda. It starts in the early 1990s when bin Laden and Al Qaeda needed a place to live and they turned to Sudan, which at the time was run by a guy named Hasan al-Turabi, a leading member of the international Muslim Brotherhood.
And al-Turabi was a radical ideologue, a real dangerous thinker, if you actually get into how he thinks and how he viewed the world, it’s really, really troubling. And al-Turabi did not see the world as, you know, divided between the Muslim world even, divided between Sunnis and Shiites. He saw the world as divided between Muslims and non-Muslims and so what he did with the Sudan is he turned it basically into this place for cross fertilization of all of these different terrorist groups and ideologues that come together and terrorist groups that come together, including Al Qaeda, and bin Laden.
You know, Osama bin Laden forged a lot of lasting relationships there in Sudan. So, his safe haven in Sudan as documented by the 9/11 Commission was a crucially important part in Al Qaeda’s development. Well, wait a minute, that’s one state, right? So we’ve got one state where now we have one state that actually plays a role in sponsoring Al Qaeda.
Well, in the mid-1990s Al Qaeda’s safe haven in Sudan became troubled, I would say, under immense international pressure. And so, Sudan politely asked bin Laden to leave, basically, with Al Qaeda and what they did was they relocated to South Asia.
Now, going to the 9/11 Commission Report, what we find is the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment had long had a relationship with bin Laden and Al Qaeda going back to the 1980s when sort of proto-Al Qaeda was first getting going.