"We will bury you," Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev promised Americans fifty years ago. "We will bankrupt you," is what Osama bin Laden threatens us today. Given both the current economic climate and al-Qaeda's powerful communications capabilities it is a threat we ignore at our own peril.
As long ago as 2002, al-Qaeda claimed that its strategy was to reduce America to economic ruin. On its now defunct website, alneda.com the movement's propagandists assured its followers that even though the September 11 attacks had failed to deliver the knockout blow bin Laden had intended, they needn't despair. Just as the mujahideen had triumphed against all odds over the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, defeat of the United States was inevitable. In al-Qaeda's historical narrative, it was the power of jihad that had set in motion the events that precipitated the Red Army's retreat from Afghanistan, the Soviet Union's collapse and communism's demise.
Their promises of that the same fate would befall America seemed absurd then. The United States had crushed al-Qaeda's infrastructure and destroyed its Afghanistan headquarters in "Operation Enduring Freedom." Its training camps and operational bases had been overrun and its fighters killed or captured. And bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and other senior commanders were desperately fleeing for their lives. At home, the U.S. economy was strong and the unprecedented era of worldwide financial growth, capital expansion, construction booms and luxury spending seemed unstoppable-or at least unaffected by the war on terrorism.
But that was before the United States invaded Iraq and established a massive troop presence there that has cost us billions. It was before the housing and credit bubbles burst, triggering today's massive global economic downturn. And, it was before al-Qaeda had regrouped and reorganized in its newly established safehaven along Pakistan's lawless border with Afghanistan-helping to submerge both in a seemingly irreversible tide of insurgency, terror and disorder.
In bin Laden's last broadcast videotape before the 2004 presidential election, he boasted that the 9/11 attacks had cost al-Qaeda only $500,000 while inflicting at the "lowest estimate" $500 billion of economic losses on America. According to bin Laden's calculation, "every dollar of al-Qaeda defeated a million dollars [of America] . . . besides the loss of a huge number of jobs."
Moreover, he related the future impact of "Econo-Jihad" to his own lessons from fighting the Russians in Afghanistan:
People used to ask us: ‘How will you defeat the Soviet empire?' And at that time, the Soviet empire was a mighty power that scared the whole world. . . . Today, there is no more Soviet empire. . . . So the one God, who . . . stabilized us to defeat the Soviet empire, is capable of sustaining us again and of allowing us to defeat America.
This theme has been tirelessly repeated since. And, as the Dow Jones plummeted, the Nasdaq flattened, and blue chips suffered, it came to be prophetic among jihadis. Last November, al-Yaqeen Media Center, a jihadi-media-arm group, posted the third issue of its electronic magazine, "Issues of Jihad," on the Internet. Two articles, respectively titled "Has the Investment of Bin Laden in America Succeeded?" and "The Head of the Snake Without Capital," evaluated America's financial crisis, predicting impending collapse and utter ruin.
In February 2009, on the al-Fallujah jihadi forum, an open discussion concluded that repeated blows to the U.S. economy will ultimately result in its disintegration. This argument was subsequently expanded to include Europe as well. Addressing a German audience, al-Qaeda's perennially active media center, al-Sahab, cited the global financial crisis as punishment from God. "Where are the taxes that the German people persistently need today?" the speaker asked. "They are spent on the troops in Afghanistan . . . [thereby] squandering the German money" and destroying the country's economy.
In sum, repeated jihadi websites postings now reflect growing interest in health of both the American and global economies. The struggle is also increasingly seen as an economic war. And many jihadis have come to the conclusion that financial, rather than military, losses will defeat America. The websites, accordingly, emphasize the importance of targeting U.S. economic interests and directing their military jihad at targets which affect the U.S. economy. The concept of jihad, dating back to the earliest stages of Islam, has always been open to various interpretations: military, spiritual, political, religious and more. As such, "Econo -Jihad" aims to undermine the Western, and especially America's, economy with the goal of engineering total economic collapse.
Econo-Jihad is thus not merely theoretical or nonviolent. It has begun to affect the terrorists' choice of targets: including attacks on oil facilities, infrastructure, transportation, tourism and financial institutions. Future attacks will presumably continue to stress adverse economic and financial impact. These plans have even expanded to include cyberterrorism and "Electronic Jihad" alongside conventional terrorist violence. What remains clear is that the last shot in this war has yet to be fired.
Gabriel Weimann is professor of communication at Haifa University in Israel and American University's School of International Service. Bruce Hoffman, a contributing editor at The National Interest, is professor of security studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center.