This is the first installment in a short series from Today’s WorldView for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Sign up to get the rest of the newsletter free, including news from around the globe, interesting ideas and opinions to know, sent to your inbox every weekday.
The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, catapulted al-Qaeda from relative obscurity to a household name in the United States. As the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon crumbled, it became clear that the United States had underestimated the threat posed by the Islamist extremist group, led by a Saudi outcast in Afghanistan who dreamed of uniting Muslims and destroying the “myth of American invincibility.”
Al-Qaeda grew out of battlefield bonds forged in the Afghan insurgency against the Soviet Union, redirected toward fighting the West. Founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden, the group attracted disaffected recruits who opposed American support for Israel and Middle Eastern dictatorships. When the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in 1996, it gave al-Qaeda the sanctuary that enabled it to run training camps and plot attacks, including 9/11.
The cataclysm of 9/11 proved a powerful inspiration for a generation of Islamist extremists. But it also provoked a reaction that some Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, who had reportedly opposed attacking the United States, had feared. The mass killing of civilians for their faith disgusted most Muslims. And rather than turning Americans against their government’s foreign interventions as bin Laden had hoped, the attacks rallied them behind what became America’s longest war.
Al-Qaeda “succeeded too well with 9/11,” Barak Mendelsohn, a political science professor at Haverford College, told Today’s WorldView. “It went beyond their expectations and then it was impossible for them to actually repeat an event of the scale of 9/11.”
After the U.S-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, al-Qaeda’s leaders fled to Pakistan or Iran. Many were killed or captured. Bin Laden disappeared from the scene for several years, and when he emerged, eager to replicate the 9/11 attacks, the group’s leaders informed him that in al-Qaeda’s reduced state, such an operation was unthinkable.
A succession of U.S. presidents was quick to declare the group all but defeated, but al-Qaeda has shown remarkable resilience, even after two decades. President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 proved a boon to the group, fueling the emergence of a new and powerful al-Qaeda affiliate there led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian extremist with few scruples about indiscriminate violence.
Islamist groups in Somalia, Yemen and North Africa also cemented ties to al-Qaeda, which catalyzed al-Qaeda’s transformation from a tightknit group once concentrated in Afghanistan and Pakistan to a sprawling network of franchises across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, ideologically and organizationally decentralized.
The offshoots were not entirely beneficial. Al-Qaeda’s grip on the organisation was weakened and there were divisions within extremist circles over matters such as violence against Muslim civilians.
The killing of bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs in Pakistan in 2011 dealt a blow to al-Qaeda, but the Arab Spring revolts that year provided fresh opportunities for the organization to expand its footprint. The organization’s long-lasting reputation prompted pledges from Islamist groups involved in civil wars in Syria and Libya.
When the Islamic State grew out of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, it sought to position itself as a more ruthless alternative. The Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria gave it a luster in the eyes of radical Islamists across the world, who traveled to the region to join the group, which had managed to build a “state” and propaganda machine unlike anything al-Qaeda had achieved.
Still, al-Qaeda managed to hold on to its branches, Mendelsohn said, and the central organization’s willingness to integrate into local movements ensured its survival.
But al-Qaeda’s turn to local issues produced a paradox: Even as the reputation it gained from 9/11 helped it to dramatically expand its international footprint, its branches are now more concerned with fighting battles at home than with waging war against the United States.
“You have an al-Qaeda that is weaker but that has a much greater presence,” Mendelsohn told Today’s WorldView.
Counterterrorism capabilities and partnerships developed since 9/11, meanwhile, have greatly reduced the threat to the West. The United States and coalition partners drove the Islamic State from the last of its territory in 2019. Islamist extremists have not managed to launch an attack inside the United States since December of that year.
Experts largely agree that both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State lack the strength to pose a serious threat to the U.S. homeland. Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics, called al-Qaeda in Afghanistan “a skeleton of its former self.”
“Still, it is impossible to look back at the past two decades and not be struck by the degree to which a small band of extremists led by a charismatic outlaw managed to influence global politics,” Nelly Lahoud wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Bin Laden did change the world — just not in the ways that he wanted.”
Now, the world’s attention has turned to the Taliban. Afghanistan’s new rulers continue to maintain ties to al-Qaeda, and swept to victory last month in part with al-Qaeda’s help, the New Yorker’s Robin Wright reported. “With the Taliban takeover, the trillion-dollar investment in a campaign to contain Al Qaeda may have changed little since 9/11,” she wrote.
The United Nations estimates that al-Qaeda boasts a presence in at least 15 Afghan provinces and potentially hundreds of members. Al-Qaeda has cheered the Taliban takeover. And the Islamic State-claimed suicide bombing at Kabul’s airport last month, which killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 170 civilians, underscored the potency of the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate.
The Biden administration insists it will retain “over-the-horizon” capabilities to strike targets in Afghanistan, as it does elsewhere. In a major shift, two decades ago, the U.S. government overthrew the Taliban regime. Officials from the U.S. suggested that they might work with the Taliban in order to defeat the Islamic State. The Taliban regard the U.S. as an enemy.
On the Taliban’s relationship with al-Qaeda, though, there are reasons to be wary. The Taliban has pledged it will not allow terrorists to launch attacks on the United States and its allies from Afghanistan. But it recently denied that al-Qaeda was behind 9/11 and that it currently has a presence in the country.
The Taliban’s victory, meanwhile, has energized Islamist extremists across the world. Analysts predict that some may travel to Afghanistan, while an al-Qaeda affiliate that aims to conquer Mali is already drawing motivation from the Taliban.
Two decades after 9/11, invasions and missile strikes have done little to combat the ideology undergirding groups like al-Qaeda — and, in fact, probably fueled it.
“The central flaw in U.S. strategy is the belief that military force can eradicate extremist groups or radical ideologies,” Wright wrote in the New Yorker.
That reality, coupled with shifting U.S. policy priorities to China, climate change and domestic extremism, has produced a realization among many in Washington that the terrorism threat is unlikely to disappear, but that it can be managed so that it does not loom over life in America.
“Jihadi terrorism will not go away, but its biggest impact is felt mainly in parts of the world where U.S. interests are limited.”