Al-Qaeda: Enduring Appeal
Fall 2008 - Number 15

Al-Qaeda: Enduring Appeal

William Boykin

“I tell you to act upon the orders of Allah, be united against Bush and Blair, and defeat them through suicide attacks so that you may be successful before Allah.” That directive was issued by Osama Bin Laden in 2003, in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. And it was remarkably successful. In droves, his followers began to attack U.S. and British forces, resulting in indiscriminate death and destruction throughout Iraq and, ultimately, in Afghanistan and other parts of the world.

Bin Laden’s directive was all the more shocking because of its perversion of Islamic law, which views suicide as an unpardonable sin.1 And yet the followers of Osama Bin Laden now see this as the one sure way to earn a place in paradise and to please Allah. How could this man wield such influence and turn a 1,400-year-old theology on its ear? How could his terrorist organization, al-Qaeda (the Base), account for so much death and carnage over the past two decades? What do they want and how do they intend to achieve their goals? These are questions that continue to stimulate considerable debate among analysts, scholars, and diplomats.

Their attention is deserved. Not since Adolf Hitler has the world seen a more charismatic character than Osama Bin Laden. Al-Qaeda is recognized by the U.S. intelligence community as the greatest threat to America today.2 And yet, many have yet to realize what a serious danger Bin Laden and his organization pose to Western civilization as a whole.

The foundations of “The Base”

Today, most analysts are certain that Bin Laden and his core group are operating in the tribal areas of Pakistan along the Afghan border. But because of the spread of Bin Laden’s “Holy War” theology, this dislocation has not robbed al-Qaeda of its appeal. To the contrary, the Bin Laden network is assessed by terrorism experts like Magnus Ranstorp to be “exponentially much stronger” than before.3

How did we get here? Al-Qaeda traces its beginnings to the end of the Afghan war, and the victory of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Red Army. Bin Laden had served with the mujahideen and, although he was not a particularly effective combat commander, had developed a reputation as a very charismatic leader. Following the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan, Bin Laden was determined to see the “holy war” continue beyond the borders of Afghanistan—in essence, to become a global campaign. Al-Qaeda was birthed to give Bin Laden’s “holy warriors” an identity and a clear purpose: to take their battle to the West. Speaking of the success of their operations against the Russians, Bin Laden famously opined that his warriors had just defeated the world’s greatest infidel power and “ the effeminate Americans will be easy.”

What followed was a series of calculated and brutal attacks on the United States, most famously the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers, the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S Cole, and the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Al-Qaeda also carried out devastating attacks in Tunisia (2002), Pakistan (2002), Kenya (2002), Saudi Arabia (2003), Madrid (2004), London (2005), and again in Saudi Arabia (2006). Numerous other al-Qaeda operations have been disrupted or simply failed as a result of a flaw in some phase of the operation.

Whether the West accepts it or not, the reality is that al-Qaeda has declared war on Western civilization, and fully intends to win. Some have argued that Bin Laden only desires to drive the infidels from Muslim territory.4 The actions of al-Qaeda prove otherwise. Why attack targets in Morocco or Tunisia, or even in Kenya, where there are no U.S. military troop concentrations? In fact, al-Qaeda has been clear in articulating its objectives. It is determined to destroy Israel, rid the world of Western democracy (because of its incompatibility with shari’a law) and unite Muslims around the world and establish an Islamic Caliphate.5

Achieving these objectives means oceans of blood must flow. The blood is that of infidels, but also of suicide bombers, martyrs and innocent Muslims. Such has been the case in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas in the world where al-Qaeda is active. Bin Laden is the ideological leader of this global campaign of terror, even though he has little to do with the day-to-day operations of it. His vision of a world dominated by his brand of Islam with shari’a law at its core is being embraced by jihadists globally. Every successful al-Qaeda event brings new recruits to Bin Laden’s ideology. A major attack like the London bombing builds the credibility of al-Qaeda in the eyes of the world’s jihadists and inspires young Muslims to join its ranks.

The persistence of al-Qaeda’s ideology

In truth, no one can calculate the size of al-Qaeda. Its strength waxes and wanes depending on a number of factors, not least the success of Coalition and allied military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recent reports from Iraq indicate that al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has been dealt a series of devastating blows by Coalition forces, including the Iraqi military and police. This has been made possible by a strengthening of local Sunni opposition to al-Qaeda’s radical vision, and growing cooperation by local tribal leaders with the Coalition and the Iraqi government.

Likewise, al-Qaeda is becoming much less popular in Pakistan, where the group has conducted numerous terrorist attacks including the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and multiple attempts on the life of President Pervez Musharraf. A recent poll carried out by Terror Free Tomorrow showed only 24 percent of Pakistanis now support al-Qaeda.6

Yet one should not interpret this success as an indicator that al-Qaeda as a whole is losing strength or support. Indeed, al-Qaeda’s numbers are most likely increasing worldwide in spite of these setbacks. One of the main reasons for this is that many previously independent jihadist groups have aligned themselves with al-Qaeda and the Bin Laden ideology. Among them are the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group, Abu Sayyaf, and Jemaah Islamiyah. Fundamentally, Bin Laden has transitioned from being the head of a unitary terrorist organization to being the ideological leader of a “jihadist” movement comprising many new groups that operate without direct support or direction from him or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Al-Qaeda’s evolution is ideological as well as organizational. In late June 2008, police in Saudi Arabia arrested 700 alleged terrorists in a surprise raid. Among the items they seized in the raid was a document written by Al-Qaeda’s chief theoretician, Sheik Abu Bakr Naji. Entitled Governance in the Wilderness, it was intended to be a manifesto to al-Qaeda operatives and affiliates in the world of jihad. Journalist Amir Taheri has outlined its tenets:

No one should feel safe without submitting to Islam, and those who refuse to submit must pay a high price. The Jihadist movement must aim to turn the world into a series of wildernesses where only those under Jihadi rule enjoy security… the Islamic movement must be global—fighting everywhere, all the time, and on all fronts…
In a notable departure from past al-Qaeda strategy, Naji recommends “countless small operations” that render daily life unbearable, rather than a few spectacular attacks such as 9/11: The “infidel,” leaving his home every morning, should be unsure whether he’ll return in the evening.
Naji recommends kidnappings, the holding of hostages, the use of women and children as human shields, exhibition killings to terrorize the enemy, suicide bombings and countless gestures that make normal life impossible for the “infidel” and Muslim collaborators.7

Fighting back

How should the United States and its allies address this evolving challenge? Today, Western counterterrorism strategy still suffers from a number of key deficiencies—deficiencies that must be addressed if the West hopes to persevere in the contest of wills now taking place across the Arab and Muslim worlds. It can start on a number of fronts:

Messaging to the masses

Al-Qaeda’s popularity has spread largely because of the skill of its propagandists. Al-Sahab, the media wing of al-Qaeda, has done a masterful job of spreading the Bin Laden theology and enhancing the reputation and legend of Bin Laden himself. Their use of the Internet is a textbook example of how to build support, recruit followers, and propagandize to both friend and foe.

The sophistication of this communications strategy is stunning. Bin Laden has been quick to leverage every misstep by the West for propaganda purposes, and to seize every opportunity to bolster the morale of his followers and recruit new cells and “holy warriors.” Sadly, the U.S. and other Western democracies have so far proven themselves unwilling to counter jihadist propaganda, or to execute effective strategic communications programs designed to reduce the influence and popularity of al-Qaeda. Those that have emerged have by and large been far too timid and lacking in synergy among the various U.S. government players involved. The United States and its allies, in short, are losing the information war against al-Qaeda.

Reversing this trend requires using information, an “element of national power” in Pentagon parlance, as a force multiplier. Reluctance to do so thus far has been based, in large part, on a fear of criticism. Any notion that the U.S. government is spreading propaganda is generally met with scathing commentary from the national media. However, information is power, and informing target audiences about the nature of the conflict, the true goals of our adversaries, and their own stake in this fight are essential to this “war of ideas.”

In this regard, the most fundamental problem is that no one in the U.S. is in charge. Each U.S. government agency currently has its own informational program, but the bureaucracy as a whole lacks a senior official with the authority to integrate these efforts. In the 1990s, the U.S. government faced an analogous situation in its self-proclaimed “war on drugs.” The answer was the appointment of a “drug czar” to lead official efforts against the growing problem of drug abuse and drug-related crime. It would seem reasonable to take the same approach with information. Since the jihadists are so adept at using the Internet and broadcast media to support their ideology, it is critical that the U.S. bring some structure to its own effort.

Draining the financial swamp

Another element of national power that the U.S. must better harness is the economic one. One of the fundamental principles of counterinsurgency strategy is to provide the populations of a targeted area with more hope and basic human needs than the insurgents can offer. This principle applies in the larger War on Terror as well, but it has not yet been applied in a concerted fashion.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), for example, is focused on development and humanitarian relief, with a mixed record of success. Several other U.S. government agencies do the same, on a limited scale. But these investments are dwarfed by those of the worldwide NGO community, which cumulatively distributes over one trillion dollars in assistance each year.8 Yet the U.S. government has yet to effectively leverage these private-sector resources.

To be sure, many NGOs are unwilling to coordinate their activities with any government. Others, however, are happy to do so. There are creative ways to encourage the NGO community to deliver critical skills and resources to locations where they will have the greatest impact on countering jihadist recruiting and denying sanctuary to terrorists.

U.S. policy should therefore make maximum effort to include NGOs as part of the country’s counterinsurgency strategy. Hunger and hopelessness are conditions that enhance jihadist recruiting, but they can be overcome through the coordinated efforts of the government and private sectors.

Policing properly

Law enforcement became an element of national power as a result of 9/11. In a real sense, it serves as the first line of defense in the War on Terror, defending the homeland against future terrorist attack.

In order to enable our law enforcement personnel to do this better, however, U.S. policymakers will have to find a solution to the illegal immigration issue. Estimates of the number of al-Qaeda cells operating in the United States range as high as four with an extensive support base in mosques.9 At least some are certainly here illegally. With an estimated eleven to twelve million illegal immigrants in the U.S., it should be obvious that law enforcement personnel have a daunting task of keeping track of potential terrorist suspects. Immigration reform must be a top priority of both Congress and the next administration. We cannot continue to ignore the obvious problem and still expect our federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel to succeed in keeping al-Qaeda from conducting another devastating attack.

In it for the long haul

Since September 11th, it has become abundantly clear that Osama Bin Laden is a determined adversary with a following of passionately committed zealots. He and his followers have declared war on America, the West, Israel, and those Muslims whom he considers apostates. Yet, even today it is difficult for many Americans and inhabitants of democratic societies to accept the notion that al-Qaeda or any other non-state enemy could present an enduring threat to the liberties we enjoy.

The growing influence of these suicidal “holy warriors” should stimulate us to rethink this notion. Al-Qaeda is a threat the world will be forced to live with for generations. Some nations may ultimately fall victim to this global insurgency. Avoiding that fate will require that we as a nation take this threat seriously and develop the national will to protect our liberties by applying all elements of national power as part of a comprehensive strategy to defeat al-Qaeda.


Lieutenant General William Boykin retired in 2007 as the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. During a 36-year Army career, he served in the Special Forces and a variety of intelligence assignments, including a tour at the CIA.

  1. A number of Quranic verses make this clear, including Nisa, verse 29 (“And do not kill yourselves. Surely Allah is Most Merciful to you”), and Al-Baquarah, verse 195 (“And do not throw yourselves in destruction”).
  2. The July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland, National Intelligence Council, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, July 2007,
  3. Jeffrey Donovan, “How Is War Against Al-Qaeda Progressing?” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 11, 2007,
  4. See, for example, Laura Hayes, Borgna Brunner, and Beth Rowen, Al-Qaeda: Osama Bin Laden’s Network of Terror, n.d.,
  5. Yassin Musharbash, “What Al-Qaeda Really Wants: The Future of Terrorism,” Spiegel (Berlin), August 12, 2005,
  6. “Results of a New Nationwide Public Opinion Survey of Pakistan Before the February 18th Elections,” Terror Free Tomorrow, February 2008,
  7. Amir Taheri, “Al-Qaeda’s Plan B,” New York Post, July 1, 2008,
  8. According to the estimates of the Humanitarian International Services Group, a global NGO.
  9. See, for example, Jack Kelley, “Al-Qaeda Fragmented, Smaller, But Still Deadly,” U.S.A Today, September 9, 2002,