Fifteen years after 9/11, confronting terrorism remains a central American priority. U.S. forces are still deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq; others carry out counterterrorism missions throughout the world. In recent years, opinions about al-Qaeda’s fortunes have sharply polarized. Many analysts and politicians were quick to write the organization’s obituary after the killing of Osama bin Laden and the rise of jihadist challengers, such as the Islamic State, while others pointed to the continuing resilience of a long-established and still-potent organization.
As my book illustrates, the 9/11 attacks were a remarkable operational success for al-Qaeda, but also a strategic challenge. In the past 15 years, the group has been forced to change how it organizes and operates by franchising local al-Qaeda branches across borders, from North Africa to the Indian subcontinent.
Bin Laden targeted the American homeland as a means to transform the Middle East. He believed that by provoking the United States, al-Qaeda would trigger a process ending in the elimination of American influence in Muslim countries, liberation of Muslim lands under foreign occupation, toppling of insufficiently Islamic regimes and the implementation of al-Qaeda’s radical version of Islamic law in Muslim countries. The United States may have lost some of its influence over Middle Eastern countries in recent years, and some of the rulers whom al-Qaeda despised have indeed lost power, but the group’s role in these developments was marginal.