This brief sentiment underscored the broader religious-ideological theory espoused by bin Laden and his followers: That those who dedicate themselves to the martial defense of Islam will always defeat those (particularly in the spiritually bankrupt West) who, despite their wealth and sophisticated technology, are actually weak horses or “paper tigers.”
Al Qaeda and its affiliates have always relied on “strong horse” propaganda for their success as an organization. You cannot look through Al Qaeda training manuals without constantly coming across several key dates, notably 1989—the year they claim to have defeated the Soviet Empire; and 1993—the year they claim to have defeated the United States in Somalia following the “Black Hawk Down” disaster in Mogadishu.
Indeed, the image of America’s withdrawal from Somalia, “dragging its tails in failure, defeat and ruin,” according to bin Laden , dominated Al Qaeda propaganda and recruitment throughout the 1990s and into the attacks of 9/11.
This directly relates to the ISIS challenge, because ISIS is the descendent of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which formed in the mid-2000s during the darkest days of America’s war in Iraq, only to be decimated by the Bush administration’s troop “surge” in 2008. AQI’s defeat was a devastating blow to the “strong horse” narrative for Al Qaeda, both locally and globally.
Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, though certainly understandable considering his longstanding promise to “end the Iraq war,” clearly illustrates the disconnect between the worldviews of America and the West on the one hand, and the jihadi movements on the other.
While Obama was celebrating America’s withdrawal as evidence that he “ended the Iraq war” with America’s “head held high,” radical Islamist movements were comparing it to the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in 1989; the American defeat in Somalia in 1993; and even to America’s defeat in Vietnam.
And now the former AQI has reconstituted as a vast terrorist army in Iraq and war-torn Syria; is viewed as the “strong horse” in the region; and serves as a model for countless other groups with similar goals.
None of this is to imply that the United States should be on a permanent war footing, fighting every jihadi group, large and small, all over the world. Nor is it to imply that the United States can simply throw up its hands, say the world is too complicated, and take its global leadership ball and go home (even that would not save the United States from being in the “far enemy” category). It is, however, to remind us that the most important maxim in fighting a war is to know one’s enemy.
After years insisting that “Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat,” the Obama administration now recognizes that despite the death of bin Laden, “bin Ladenism” is alive and well, and expanding.
This is because the threat was never from a person or a group—but rather from a global ideology: a militant, radicalized version of Sunni Islam. And in order to successfully combat the new threat posed by ISIS and like-minded groups around the world, the West will need to join forces with the moderate Sunni world to counter, and ultimately defeat, the ideology.
Stuart Gottlieb teaches American foreign policy and counterterrorism at Columbia University , where he is also a Member of the Saltzman Institute of War & Peace Studies . He is author of Debating Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Conflicting Perspectives on Causes, Contexts, and Responses (CQ Press, 2013).