How Al-Qaeda Ends
THE RELEVANCE AND IRRELEVANCE OF HISTORY
All we have to do is send two mujahedin … [and] raise a
piece of cloth on which is written “Al Qaeda” in order to
make the generals race there, to cause America to suffer
human, economic and political losses.
—Osama bin Laden, videotaped message, 20041
HOW DOES one put an end to al-Qaeda when Western analysts cannot even agree upon what precisely al-Qaeda is? Al-Qaeda began in the 1980s as a computer database with the names of foreign fighters in Afghanistan so that a wealthy Saudi dilettante would have a way to inform their next of kin if they were killed, and over the course of the next two decades it became a global entity capable of bloodying a superpower on its own soil and frightening millions of people into supporting a “war on terror.” Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, the United States and its allies threw everything they had at this group, including major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a worldwide campaign of counterterrorism, new United Nations' measures against terrorist financing, a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign and defense policies, new U.S. legal practices at home and abroad, and billions of dollars of American expenditure, only to find several years later that they were mired in a civil war in Iraq, losing ground in Afghanistan, and, according to prevailing expert opinion, worse off with respect to the threat of terrorism overall.2 For its part, al-Qaeda absorbed the impact of Western military force, including the death or capture of 75 percent of its original leadership, and transformed itself from a small hierarchical organization into a global presence facilitated by twenty-first-century communications that made its reach seem ubiquitous and its radicalization of young Muslims seem unstoppable.3 At a time when a plethora of other long-term, pressing priorities in economic, military, and foreign policy deserved U.S. attention, this elusive group presented a persistent challenge, with high stakes for the future of the Muslim world, the security of the West, and indirectly even the stability of the international system. Yet we and our allies seemed unable to defeat