Chapter 1: Sphinx Without a Riddle? ONE
SPHINX WITHOUT A RIDDLE? A sphinx without a riddle.
—Bismarck on Napoleon II
Around the time of the 9/11 attacks, relatively little was known about Osama bin Laden. In the rare television interviews that al-Qaeda’s leader had given before then he came across as largely inscrutable, with only an occasional thin, enigmatic smile playing across his lips. He had gone to considerable lengths to keep information about his private life hidden, which wasn’t surprising since he had grown up in Saudi Arabia, one of the most closed societies in the world. He also led an organization, al-Qaeda, whose very existence was a well-kept secret for a decade after its founding in the late 1980s. The bin Laden family, one of the richest in the Middle East, had also largely avoided scrutiny. Was the leader of al-Qaeda a sphinx without a riddle?
In recent years a great deal of information has surfaced to illuminate bin Laden and the inner workings of al-Qaeda. First there is the small library of documents found in bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound that were
released in full only in late 2017, amounting to some 470,000 files. Secondly, many bin Laden associates have finally shown a willingness to talk. The result is that a decade after his death, it is now possible to appraise him in all the many dimensions of his life: as a family man; as a religious zealot; as a battlefield commander; as a terrorist leader; as a fugitive. He was born a young man of contradictions, and he kept adding to them: he adored his wives and children, yet brought ruin to many of them. He was a multimillionaire, but he insisted his family live like paupers. He projected a modest and humble persona that appealed to his followers, but he was also narcissistically obsessed about how his own image played out in the media, and he ignored any advice from the leaders of al-Qaeda that conflicted with his own dogmatic views. He was fanatically religious, yet he was also willing to kill thousands of civilians in the name of Islam, despite the fact that
some verses of the Koran emphasize the protections afforded to innocents, even in times of war. He inspired deep loyalty, yet in the end, even his longtime bodyguards turned against him. And while he inflicted the most lethal act of mass murder in United States history, bin Laden failed to achieve any of his strategic goals.
Al-Qaeda’s leader is one of the few people of whom it can truly be said changed the course of history. Who could have predicted that in the two decades following the 9/11 attacks he masterminded, the United States would wage various kinds of military operations in seven Muslim countries—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen—at the cost of more than $6 trillion and more than seven thousand American lives? In addition,
tens of thousands of soldiers from countries allied to the United States died, as did
hundreds of thousands of ordinary Afghans, Iraqis, Libyans, Pakistanis, Somalis, Syrians, and Yemenis who were also killed during the “war on terror.”
But just as it has taken many years to get a better understanding of the man who launched the 9/11 attacks, it has taken two decades to assess the successes and failures of both al-Qaeda and the United States in the long conflict that followed. This is not to suggest any moral equivalence between the two—but rather to explain where each side miscalculated the other’s intentions and actions.
Al-Qaeda did have some tactical successes. Before the 9/11 attacks it deftly exploited its safe haven in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to train thousands of militants. On 9/11 al-Qaeda carried out the first significant foreign attack against the continental United States since the British burned the White House in 1814. Al-Qaeda used the opportunities presented by the Iraq War to recruit a new generation of militants, planting the seeds for ISIS. And al-Qaeda expanded its affiliated groups from Africa to Asia.
There were also serious American policy failures. They include letting bin Laden escape at the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, which allowed him to lead his organization for another decade, and the conflation of al-Qaeda with Saddam Hussein, which helped make the case for the Iraq War, a war that ultimately produced the very thing it was supposed to prevent—an alliance between al-Qaeda and Iraqi Baathists.
But bin Laden and al-Qaeda also had many failures of tactics and strategy. For one thing, the United States eventually came up with an increasingly effective tactical playbook against al-Qaeda and other jihadist militant groups—a playbook that largely, if imperfectly, worked, relying on armed drones, a much-expanded intelligence community, and Special Operations Forces raids. It’s a playbook that presidents as different as George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump all embraced to varying degrees and that kept the United States largely safe from jihadist terrorism since 9/11.
During the two decades after the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda and its affiliates failed to successfully carry out a large-scale lethal terrorist attack in the United States.I
Al-Qaeda’s failure to strike the United States after 9/11 was neither inevitable nor predictable, especially in the first years after the attacks, when bin Laden and the organization he led continued to plot against Western targets.
The key question about bin Laden is: Why did he build an organization dedicated to the mass murders of civilians? It’s a question I have been probing since I met bin Laden in 1997 as the producer of his first television interview. There was no single event that turned bin Laden from the shy scion of one of the richest families in the Middle East into the architect of the 9/11 attacks. Rather, bin Laden went through a gradual process of radicalization that first began during his teenage years when he became a religious zealot.
The invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets in 1979, when bin Laden was twenty-two, turned him into a leading financier of Muslim volunteers from around the globe who were drawn to the Afghan holy war. Eight years later bin Laden led his followers into battle against the Russians. From that battle emerged al-Qaeda, a group dedicated to spreading jihad, holy war, around the world. The introduction of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops into the holy land of Saudi Arabia in 1990 turned bin Laden’s latent anti-Americanism into a passionate hatred of the United States. He started conceiving of the Americans as his main enemy while he was living in exile in Sudan during the first half of the 1990s. His expulsion from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996 angered him further against the United States, and in the late 1990s the planning for the 9/11 attacks began in earnest.
There was nothing inevitable about bin Laden’s transformation over the course of decades from a quiet, humble, religious young man into the leader of a global terrorist network who was intent on killing thousands of civilians. This book is an attempt to explain how that transformation happened. I
. The only lethal terrorist attack in the United States in the two decades after 9/11 that had any direct connection to al-Qaeda was when its branch in Yemen coordinated with a Saudi air force officer who killed three U.S. sailors at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida on December 6, 2019. It wasn’t clear whether this attack was directed by al-Qaeda from Yemen, or whether the Saudi officer came up with his own plan and he simply kept al-Qaeda apprised of it as it matured.