Changing the Game: Assessing Al Qaeda's Terrorist Strategy

By Thornton, Ryan | Harvard International Review, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Changing the Game: Assessing Al Qaeda's Terrorist Strategy


Thornton, Ryan, Harvard International Review


Terrorism is a rhetorical word. Not altogether different from the rather flippant use of the word "Nazi" in modern political discourse, it is employed by various types of people for many different purposes: it is used by politicians to immediately demonize a particular group as a threat to law and order, by pundits to bait so-called experts into making sound bites about complex geopolitics, by people to distort facts, stack arguments, and legitimize their predetermined worldview.

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Yet like all words, terrorism also conforms to an objective reality. It is the world used to describe acts of violence for political ends that target civilian and government agents indiscriminately, perpetrated by individuals who deliberately disregard the rules of war. But when the British government and Irish Republican Army (IRA) each decry the other as terrorists, when Israeli and Palestinian leaders point to each other as the terrorist regime, and when the President of the United States paints the world in a dichotomy of being "with us or against us in the fight on terror," that reality is anything but clear.

In this last sense, the topic under question is terrorism, but it is terrorism of a particular kind. It is neither that practiced by the IRA against the British government, nor that of individuals like Timothy McVeigh against the United States; instead the deliberandum is the terrorism practiced by Al Qaeda and its affiliates against the United States as masterminded by the person of Osama bin Laden.

The purpose of this article is to show that all of the intelligence gathered thus far in the US-led War on Terror displays a visible strategy and system of attack that Al Qaeda is employing in its terrorist operations. After analyzing and determining this strategy, predictions for what Al Qaeda will do next and suggestions for how to prepare for the next stage of the game, if it is right to call it that, will be put forward.

The 9/11 Commission Report offers one, if not the most comprehensive, account of Al Qaeda and its machinations during the decade and events leading up to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. What it shows, among other things, is that the 9/11 attacks did not arise spontaneously; they were part of a programmatic scheme designed to terrorize the United States. This scheme or strategy can be broken into three phases: the experimental, the high-profile, and the small-target.

The Experimental

On August 7, 1998, the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed at almost the exact same time, killing over 200 people. A bombing that was perpetrated by Al Qaeda. On October 12, 2000, a small boat pulled up along-side the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen and exploded, killing 17 US sailors. This attack was also perpetrated by Al Qaeda and directly supervised by Osama bin Laden himself. What these attacks amounted to was the first phase of the terrorist strategy--the experimental.

As noted by a source cited in the 9/11 Commission Report, the USS Cole bombing was specifically undertaken by Osama bin Laden to test the United States' response to terrorist attacks. If it can be said, the bombing of the USS Cole was the rubber hammer used to test the knee-jerk reaction of the United States to terrorism. The point of these attacks was to gauge the resolve of the US government to actively fight and pursue terrorists that had deliberately attacked the country. It was a simple laboratory experiment, and the results were inspiring for Al Qaeda. The absence of any US response to the USS Cole bombing led Osama bin Laden, in the words of the report, to "launch something bigger."

The High-Profile

This decision marked the transition to the second phase of the strategy: the high-profile. The World Trade Center complex with its emblematic Twin Towers was long seen not only by Al Qaeda, but by much of the world, as a symbol of US wealth, power, and dominion. …

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