Terrorism & Extremism

Al-Qaeda's Looming Threat: Are We Looking Over the Wrong Horizon?

Sara Harmouch
Tuesday, April 4, 2023, 8:31 AM

It is time to move beyond simplistic and worn-out war on terror strategies and create a nimble new response to today’s ever-changing threats.

Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden in November, 2001. (Hamid Mir, https://tinyurl.com/4dkj5d5d; Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

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As the world watches Russia’s war in Ukraine, events in the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia are heating up. A dozen years after the death of Osama bin Laden, his dreams and plans of another attack against the United States—with effects that would far exceed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks—may be close to coming true, and an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism strategy might not be the solution. 

Since 9/11, the U.S. has not suffered any comparable terrorist attacks on its soil. After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, however, many counterterrorism experts and policymakers assessed that al-Qaeda would rebuild. These experts made a strong case that it would be a matter of time until al-Qaeda acquired the capabilities to strike the U.S. Last month, however, in the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s annual hearing on the top threats to the nation, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier said that, based on “what we know right now from the threat of al Qaeda, they’re trying to survive, basically without a real plan to at least or intend to attack the West anytime soon.” (This is a shift from Berrier’s initial assessment the previous year, when he estimated that it would be “one to two years” before al-Qaeda could threaten the U.S.) 

When has there been a time in history when al-Qaeda did not intend to attack the U.S.? The terrorist organization has always been at war with the U.S. The question was always not “if” but “when.” The answer may be “they will tomorrow,” and many scholars and counterterrorism experts have made a strong case for that. Today, the terror landscape has much more to chew on. Innovations have marched on ever since 9/11, technology has advanced immensely, and the barrier to entry is low. Indeed, terrorists have made use of these advancements. So, perhaps the interesting question is, with an evolving and ever-changing threat environment, “why hasn’t al-Qaeda conducted another 9/11 on U.S. soil?” The question has no single answer, but intent and capabilities are not part of the reason. 

From my assessments of al-Qaeda’s recent publication, declassified documents, and congressional hearings, along with my experience as a Middle Eastern national and counterterrorism scholar who has done extensive fieldwork in the Middle East and North Africa, and as someone who has experienced firsthand what these terrorist groups are capable of, it is clear that al-Qaeda’s source of power and decision-making lies in its strategy, patience, principle of surprise, and creative ideas. 

Al-Qaeda is strategic, conducts geopolitical assessments and risk analysis, and, most importantly, reads and listens to what the U.S. says and writes. If the U.S. hopes to nullify the threat that bin Laden has unleashed, it must come to terms with the fact that its national security needs a counterterrorism strategy makeover, and its post-global war on terror policy requires creativity. An over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy is not sustainable and undoubtedly will fail to curb this threat. It is time to move beyond a simplistic and worn-out war on terror and create a nimble new response to today’s ever-changing threats. 

Intent and Capabilities

The pervasive view is that a lack of intent and capabilities is why al-Qaeda hasn’t executed a large-scale attack against the U.S. in recent years. Let’s unpack that claim, starting with intent. Contrary to Gen. Berrier’s assessment, a vast body of literature suggests that the al-Qaeda forces bin Laden created will always seek to attack U.S. interests at home and abroad using the weapons they have at hand or can acquire. Every year since the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaeda has at least issued a lengthy statement remembering its hijackers and inciting its followers to keep fighting America. 

To illustrate with a more recent example, on Sept. 11, 2022, al-Qaeda released a book authored by deceased al-Qaeda senior member Abu Muhammad al-Masri. The 270-page document, entitled “The 9/11 Operations: Between Truth and Uncertainty,” provides an intricate chronology of events, tracing the origin and inception of 9/11 right up to the culmination of the attacks. The book has not been published in English (or referred to in English publications, other than in a few tweets), but as a native Arabic and French speaker, I have translated the quotes that I use throughout this article. With this book, al-Qaeda aimed to dispel any lingering doubts or conspiracy theories surrounding the catastrophic events of 9/11. The work endorses both the idea and the execution of the attacks, serving as a resounding reaffirmation of al-Qaeda’s stance. Al-Masri vowed that al-Qaeda is still committed to attacking the U.S. and its allies. He asserted that the next attack on the U.S. homeland would be on a much larger scale, targeting multiple cities simultaneously, and that “the effect of these large-scale operations would far exceed the 9/11 attacks.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray voiced his concern about al-Qaeda’s continued desire to attack the U.S. through homegrown violent extremists: We are very concerned about al-Qaida and ISIS’s ability to inspire attacks even from over there.” While testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley stated, “al-Qaeda is at war with the United States, still, and never has not [been].”

So, the intent is clearly there. What about capabilities?

Unfortunately, the simple answer is yes, they have the capability and, specifically, the money to attack the U.S. homeland or its allies. Before discussing the present, let’s recall images from the past. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, the plot that toppled the World Trade Center towers cost al-Qaeda between $400,000 and $500,000 and 19 hijackers to plan and execute. In fact, before 9/11, a CIA-FBI task force had estimated al-Qaeda’s size to be around 75 members. In addition, in various instances, bin Laden argued that “any operation against an American or Israeli target would need only a few persons.” In its recent publication, al-Qaeda echoed bin Laden’s statements discussing operations they conducted in Yemen and elsewhere. Al-Masri stated: “For an operation to be successful, all we need is one to two persons from that region and context.” PBS Frontline’s biography of bin Laden made a similar point that his “activities are not very dependent on money. His followers are not mercenaries. Training does not cost a lot of money. Explosives and weapons are very cheap in some parts of the world.” Frontline’s assessment was not wrong. Al-Qaeda pulled off the world’s cheapest global attack that altered the world on Sept. 11. 

Money facilitates and speeds the growth of the jihad bin Laden instigated, but al-Qaeda does not need much to conduct operations against America and its allies. In the years leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaeda’s minuscule expenditures allowed it to grow in capabilities and recruits, expanding to become a regional and transnational threat.

Let’s fast forward to the present day. In a War on the Rocks article, counterterrorism experts Daniel Byman and Asfandyar Mir engaged in a fascinating debate on the al-Qaeda threat today. Mir argues that al-Qaeda remains a critical threat, while Byman is doubtful. Perhaps tellingly, I stand on Mir’s side of the debate. Mir contends that, despite more than two decades of relentless counterterrorism pressure, al-Qaeda remains a formidable adversary, demonstrating resilience and maintaining a consistent and unwavering intent to strike the U.S. Its capabilities continue to grow, and the group remains tightly knit and focused on achieving its ultimate objectives. Byman argues that he is skeptical about al-Qaeda’s threat because of its organizational weakness, failure to conduct a successful attack since the 2010s, the weakness of some of its affiliates, its lack of a safe haven (at the time), and the group’s failure to achieve any of its pronounced goals. 

After the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, however, the group regained its safe haven. In her Lawfare article from October 2021, Elizabeth Grimm detailed the manifold benefits of safe havens, and now that it has regained this asset, al-Qaeda’s scorecard will only improve. Before al-Qaeda moved to Afghanistan, it wanted to set up its initial base of operations in Sudan. However, al-Masri explained that because Sudan was facing international pressure and sanctions, al-Qaeda ultimately decided against setting up its base in the country. Thus, the group decided on Afghanistan. Also, according to a recent U.N. report, the Taliban and al-Qaeda enjoy a close relationship. While the U.S. was rightfully applauded for the drone strike that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, his presence in Kabul was not exactly a win, as it is clear evidence that al-Qaeda is yet again enjoying special treatment from the Taliban. Al-Qaeda even acknowledged the significance of Afghanistan in its operation, planning, and training.

Further, reports suggest that al-Qaeda has already started building training camps in Afghanistan. And it is not just that. Intelligence reports noticed renewed eagerness of foreign fighters to travel to Afghanistan. U.N. monitoring estimates that between 8,000 and 10,000 foreign fighters are in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s newest publication stresses the significance of foreign fighters and their skills. According to the book, foreign fighters do more than combat training and assist in the fighting. Al-Masri described the events leading up to 9/11 and how foreign fighters from diverse backgrounds would meet and discuss plans and ideas. He claimed that the origin of 9/11 was born during one of those meetings. Whether true or not, cultural diversity, indeed, enables creativity. 

Al-Qaeda spans borders and geographic boundaries. It has several hundred core members and far more members in its affiliates, such as al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Shabaab in Somalia, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), among others. These affiliates, over the years, have consolidated political governance, grown funds, recruited more fighters, and established safe havens. One such primary affiliate, al-Shabaab in Somalia, has already gained a reputation for being the wealthiest and deadliest. In addition to its financing efforts, the group has generated $100 million per year through illegal funding streams, notwithstanding the billions of dollars worth of military equipment left behind in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021. In the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last month, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) listed “ammunition, communications equipment, and at least 16,000 pairs of night vision goggles, 167 aircraft, and 2,000 vehicles” as having been left behind. Bin Laden carried out the Sept. 11 attacks with much less. 

Beyond financial capabilities, al-Qaeda has a particular budget and division for developing unconventional capabilities. According to al-Qaeda itself, it designates specific funding for education so that its members can specialize in math, physics, chemistry, and aeronautical engineering degrees. In recent years, al-Qaeda has purportedly called on “scientists, doctors, and engineers to join their cause, which includes the use of specialized skills to inflict harm.” Al-Masri further stated that the terrorist group has also progressed in chemical, biological, and nuclear research and would use these skills to modify and build small drones for attacks or transform what is already available on the market into unmanned combat aerial vehicles. “Even if the group cannot build a nuclear weapon, it can reach far enough to deliver a chemical weapon that would cripple its enemies.” In that way, al-Masri said, “we reverse the tables in the field of air supremacy and defense against the enemy.”

After all of these observations, should we still indulge in the wishful thinking that al-Qaeda lacks the capabilities to carry out a large-scale attack on the U.S.? Does it even need this much to conduct another 9/11 attack? Even if al-Qaeda’s own assessments of its capabilities are overstated, it does not think it needs a large military force, money, or huge numbers to defeat the U.S. For bin Laden, the war against the U.S. was one of intelligence. He argued: “To win, think more and do less, and fight without fighting.”

While the U.S. places its faith in the almighty dollar, seeking to resolve problems through a financial lens, al-Qaeda’s capacity to deliver on its promises stands as a testament to the triumph of its strategic acumen, steely patience, unwavering commitment to surprise, and ingenuity. Though bin Laden is long gone, the ideals and perilous ambitions he embodied continue to thrive, and his legacy outlives him. 

So, why hasn’t al-Qaeda conducted another attack on the U.S.? The answer lies in neither capability nor intent. Instead, the answer rests on the fact that al-Qaeda is strategic, patient, and plays the long game, and Washington does not. 

Al-Qaeda’s Strategy

Through the letters retrieved from his compound, bin Laden stressed the importance of education, but not just any education. He emphasized education centered around the adversary, saying, “It is critically important to study the culture and history of one’s enemy and focus on how the enemy thinks, uncovering its weaknesses and strengths.” For al-Qaeda, gathering intelligence is an indispensable pillar of its success. The group deems it necessary to collect information on the enemy’s military, educational, and human capacities; the distribution of their forces and military divisions; and the nature of their weapons and treaties. Otherwise, al-Qaeda states, “any work that does not have a strong security basis is deemed to fail. If the building does not have a great foundation and structure, then it falls.” Furthermore, any undertaking is destined for failure without a solid security foundation. Al-Qaeda contends that, by understanding the enemy and reading what is going on in their minds at the right time and place, it will always be a step ahead of its foes. 

Al-Qaeda is a master of strategy, adept at sowing confusion and subterfuge for U.S. policymakers and analysts. Al-Qaeda’s shrewd tactics have yielded triumphs in the past, deftly deceiving numerous experts and policymakers into thinking that its power had waned, particularly following bin Laden’s death. Regrettably, many U.S. policymakers miscalculated al-Qaeda’s relative strength and capabilities at this point, prematurely deeming it the group’s end. But this was not the case then and is not the case now. 

Al-Qaeda finds great satisfaction in its geopolitical and threat assessments of the U.S. and its allies. The group’s leadership and members pore over congressional reports, hearings, and Defense Department statements, avidly studying the U.S.’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, in its recent publication, the group cites U.S. government reports to substantiate its argument. For al-Qaeda, it is paramount to scrutinize the enemy with perspicacity, absorbing the methods and theories of war propounded by their military experts, and formulating a holistic operational strategy based on this knowledge. Furthermore, al-Qaeda draws on an impressive array of military minds, including British military analyst J.C. Fuller, Prussian Gen. Carl Von Clausewitz, Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, and North Vietnamese Army commander-in-chief Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, to name a few. 

Beyond focusing on the U.S., al-Qaeda believes it is necessary to follow the changing events of the world. Based on bin Laden’s diary, he watched the Arab Spring events of 2011 with rapt attention. He advocated for general political astuteness and understanding of local, regional, and global issues, mainly how fluctuations in each of these settings would affect the circumstances of Muslims in diverse political, geographical, and operational contexts. The image below is one of al-Qaeda’s assessments of external influence, including the U.S., Israel, and the Gulf countries, and its inner workings, financing, and strategy. 

Diagram, engineering drawing

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Bin Laden regarded the element of surprise as an indispensable weapon in the quest for “relative superiority.” He underscored that, without the meticulous and vigilant planning of surprise, subsequent or postponed assaults risk floundering since the enemy wields the upper hand of time, enabling them to counter or forestall the attacks. Bin Laden promised another 9/11, and al-Qaeda continues to echo this rhetoric in its publications and propaganda. The group has pledged an attack that far eclipses the magnitude of 9/11 and that would simultaneously hit multiple cities in the U.S. using whatever weapon it had. To successfully execute such an assault, al-Qaeda must ensure its preparedness. Al-Qaeda invests considerably in the preliminary stages of attack planning and prioritizes the element of surprise. Preemption and surprise tactics rank among al-Qaeda’s paramount war principles, considering these as half the way to victory. 

In addition, al-Qaeda accentuates the need for unwavering patience, resolute perseverance, and steadfastness. Bin Laden crafted his organization meticulously, attributing the utmost importance to education, security, and patience while regarding speed as the least consequential element. “We forget, of course,” Raymond Close wrote in the Washington Post in 1998, “that if the terrorist has any outstanding quality besides vengefulness and cunning, it is patience. He may strike back next week, next month, or next year.” Arguably, the most crucial trait of bin Laden was patience. According to al-Qaeda’s manuals, part of the criteria for qualifying as a member is patience: “[The member] should have plenty of patience for [enduring] afflictions if he is overcome by the enemies. He should not abandon this great path …. He should be patient in performing the work, even if it lasts a long time.” Bin Laden’s philosophy was firmly grounded in the belief that success is not achieved through haste but rather through diligence, perseverance, and unwavering resolve, even if the path to victory is long and arduous. This enduring principle of steadfastness has been a cornerstone of al-Qaeda’s modus operandi since its inception. It was instilled in its members by bin Laden’s patient, stoic leadership and long-term approach. Bin Laden knew that he might not be the one to reclaim jihadbut that it will be reclaimed by his sons, grandsons, or great-grandsons.” He suspected his goals might not be accomplished in his lifetime. He groomed successors and leaders to follow and ensured he was not alone in possessing patience. 

And while bin Laden is dead, his style of warfare and the patience he ingrained in his followers are here to stay. Though the U.S. has been safer and more secure since 9/11, the threat remains. The absence of evidence does not mean the evidence is absent. 


In this context, the U.S.’s impatience and short attention span are hindering its comprehension of the long-term nature of al-Qaeda. The American tendency to view problems through a financial lens, rooted in its vast resources, has led to the false notion that money is the lifeblood of al-Qaeda’s power and influence. This view has often led policymakers to another flawed belief: that if they remove al-Qaeda’s funding sources, al-Qaeda will cease to exist. Such a view overlooks the complexity of al-Qaeda’s organizational structure and its strategies. In today’s world, falling back on the various counterterrorism nostrums and soundbites that may have worked 20 years ago will not work anymore. 

It is easy to dismiss al-Qaeda’s arguments and writings as crude propaganda, which they are. And inquiring about the enemy’s way of thinking and methods still runs into skepticism among military and security officials. However, much can be inferred from reading al-Qaeda’s documents and listening to what the group has said. After all, bin Laden’s words and statements proved to be far more than empty threats and unexecuted plans. U.S. officials knew he was determined to attack. Between 1996 and 2001, bin Laden conducted interviews and gave speeches and statements telling his followers and the world that he intended to conduct an attack. And on Aug. 6, 2001, the President’s Daily Brief even headlined that “Bin Laden [was] determined to strike in [the] US.” It seems that a similar phenomenon is unfolding today. And listening to what al-Qaeda says and writes is one way to, hopefully, ensure that history does not repeat. 

Despite Berrier’s statement last month about the threat from al-Qaeda, FBI Director Wray acknowledged the truth of the matter after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying that “[o]ur ability to gather valuable intelligence on the ground inside Afghanistan has been reduced. That’s just a reality.” The U.S. needs a counterterrorism strategy that extends beyond the “over the horizon.” While U.S. national security strategies have changed comparatively little since 9/11, terrorist organizations have adapted in various ways to the evolving nature of the threat environment. One of these ways is through organizational restructuring to guarantee flexibility and agility. After 9/11, al-Qaeda transformed its hierarchical structure into a decentralized one. The hierarchal and standardized nature of national security organizations does not operate well in today’s environment of rapid decision cycles. It breeds costly inefficiencies and paralyzes complex interagency endeavors. 

The contemporary security environment requires the collaboration of diplomacy, intelligence, law enforcement, military, and state and local management services. Enhancing public- and private-sector cooperation is a must. For the U.S. to better position its defenses, it is imperative that the government builds and fosters relationships with academia and the private sector. Instead of increased bureaucratization to accomplish this collaboration, Congress should explore ways to achieve it through de-bureaucratized cells. To defend the United States’s democratic values, the complex security arena requires creative multidisciplinary strategies that combine intelligence, military, artificial intelligence, and cyber technology. A multidisciplinary and diverse approach enables ameliorated planning, bridges capability gaps, improves efficiency, and fosters creativity across the national security community. And bipartisan efforts are essential to mitigating the risk of another catastrophic al-Qaeda attack. 

After all, creativity thrives in uncharted waters. As al-Qaeda steadfastly delves into the intricacies of the United States’s historical contexts and geopolitical landscape and patiently observes our actions, policies, and analyses, perhaps we should take a page out of al-Qaeda’s book and do the same. In that sense, we would be closer to countering the forces that bin Laden unleashed. 

Sara Harmouch is a Ph.D. student at the School of Public Affairs at American University. She is a Lebanese national with native Arabic and French. She conducts fieldwork in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf region. Her research interests are threats to democracy, asymmetric warfare, political violence, violent extremism, armed non-state actors, all forms of terrorism, terrorist groups’ behaviors and alliances, counterterrorism policies, and security sector assistance.

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