Why Doesn’t al-Qaeda Attack the US?

With daily television coverage of suicide car-bomb attacks, ambushes, drive-by shootings, stabbings, and other Intifada-type attacks around the world, the question arises as to why al-Qaeda does not stage such small-scale but deadly operations in the United States. From Washington and the presidential campaign trail comes a cocky, multi-part answer: our massive homeland security spending has worked; al-Qaeda is on the run and hiding; and/or the U.S. military is fighting the Islamists in Iraq and Afghanistan so they cannot come to America. There may be a mite of truth in each claim, but the correct answer would be frankly to acknowledge that al-Qaeda would have no trouble mounting the kind of attacks made against Israel in America – guns, cars, militant Muslims, and open borders for other needs are all readily available – but that, at this time, it has no interest in staging Intifada-type attacks in the United States.

There are at least three solid reasons why al-Qaeda is not running an Intifada-like campaign in the United States:

1.) Al-Qaeda does not want to fight the United States for any longer than is needed to drive it as far as possible out of the Middle East, and its doctrine for so doing has, in Osama bin Laden’s formulation, three components: (a) bleed America to bankruptcy; (b) spread out U.S. forces to the greatest extent possible; and (c) promote Vietnam-era-like domestic disunity. Based on this doctrine, al-Qaeda leaders have decided that attacks in the United States are only worthwhile if they have maximum and simultaneous impact in three areas: high and enduring economic costs, severe casualties, and lasting negative psychological impact. Such an attack, they believe, would require significant U.S. military participation in the post-attack phase – especially if the weapon used is the nuclear device they have sought since the early 1990s – and thereby reduce the military’s ability to operate overseas. They also believe that a greater-than-9/11 attack would greatly undermine the confidence of Americans in Washington’s ability to protect them. (NB: The usually deft Osama bin Laden also has put himself in something of a box regarding another attack in America because he pledged the next attack will be more destructive than 9/11. Paradoxically, a spate of Intifada-type attacks by al-Qaeda in the United States could well be good news because it probably would signal an admission by bin Laden, et. al that they no longer have the capability to match or exceed the attacks of 9/11 inside America.)

2.) Al-Qaeda appears to recognize the huge difference between attacking Israel and attacking the United States. For Palestinian and Hezbollah insurgents, Intifada-style attacks have sufficed; over the decades, the limited number of casualties the Palestinians and Hezbollah have inflicted on Israel’s small population has repeatedly won concessions. Suicide attacks, ambushes, and stabbings against America’s 300-plus-million population would cause outrage, a few casualties, and some panic, internal confusion, and perhaps limited inter-ethnic-group violence. They would not, however, shift the strategic balance in al-Qaeda’s favor. Intifada-style attacks could not satisfy any of al-Qaeda’s three-part doctrine: they would not (a) cause U.S. bankruptcy, (b) require large numbers of U.S. troops to clean-up after, or (c) significantly undermine political cohesion. Indeed, there is reason to surmise that al-Qaeda’s leaders have concluded that attacks like those used against Israel – which intend to cause deaths of women, children, and the elderly – would unite Americans rather than divide them.

3.) Al-Qaeda leaders probably think, for the moment, that it would be counterproductive to stage any but a larger-than-9/11 attack in America. Currently, Bin Laden and his senior lieutenants are clearly off balance vis-à-vis the United State because so much substantive success has accrued to al-Qaeda’s interests so quickly since 9/11. Neither al-Qaeda nor the Taliban were destroyed in 2001; both escaped with most of their forces largely intact. Each has regrouped, rearmed, and retrained in safe havens in the Pashtun tribal lands that straddle the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The Pakistan army’s incursion into the tribal zone was defeated; the new, less-pro-U.S. government in Islamabad is suing for peace with the tribes; and the Islamization of Pakistan continues unabated. The Muslim world perceives that the U.S. military is being defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has been further alienated by the U.S. treatment of captured mujahedin. Finally, the U.S. economy is slowing, Americans are severely divided over Washington’s activities overseas, and none of the three major presidential candidates are likely to drastically alter the foreign policies all polls show are hated by up to 80 percent of Muslims. This embarrassment of riches advances each part of al-Qaeda’s doctrine for fighting America – casualties, costs, and disunity – and it has been accumulated without a follow-up-to-9/11 attack. While bin Laden might well risk this good fortune for a chance to detonate a nuclear device in the United States, he certainly would not risk it now for the sake of shooting up a half-dozen theaters, coffee shops, and pizza parlors.

So, Americans can relax a bit, go to the movies or the mall, and stop afterwards for coffee or pizza without worrying too much about al-Qaeda launching small-scale attacks. For now, Americans should see themselves as being in standby mode for the larger-than-9/11 attack bin Laden eventually will trigger because the last two U.S. administrations and Senators McCain, Clinton, and Obama have warned about the severe Islamist threat, while knowingly encouraging its worldwide growth by championing status quo foreign policies that degrade U.S. security, as well as by supinely appeasing their Saudi and Israeli masters.

Author: Michael Scheuer

Michael Scheuer is a 22-year veteran of the CIA and the author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror.