Why Bin Laden Lost

The 9/11 attacks were a spectacular terrorist version of Che Guevara’s “foco” theory — a small band of armed men launches attacks on an enemy loathed by the population on whose behalf it claims to act, assuming that this will rally the masses to armed revolt. And like Che’s Bolivia foco, it was a spectacular failure.

Eight years on, tensions are escalating between the U.S. and its allies on the one hand, a range of Muslim adversaries on the other. But al-Qaeda is irrelevant, its attempt to supplant the likes of Hamas, Hizballah, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood through made-for-TV spectacular mass casualty terror attacks lying in tatters. It should have been obvious from the get-go that this would fail: The surest sign was the fact that from Cairo to Islamabad and Jakarta, Muslims were so repulsed by the wanton killing of innocents that they preferred to see it as the dirty work of the CIA or Mossad, rather than of “glorious mujahedeen” as Bin Laden would have it.

Read my whole piece on this at TIME.com by clicking here

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19 Responses to Why Bin Laden Lost

  1. empty says:

    There are sane people who get published in Time! Thanks Tony.

  2. David J. says:

    “All true. At the same time, 9/11 touched off two wars; a regime of officially sanctioned torture by the United States; a massive increase in our surveillance apparatus; a population grown so fearful that it’s meekly accepted a new routine of intrusive security checks that would have been unthinkable a generation ago; and a multi-trillion dollar debt that’s still growing without end. Osama didn’t get his caliphate, but still: if what he got at the cost of 19 lives and few box cutters was a failure, I’d hate to see what counts as a success.” -Kevin Drum

  3. Ziad says:

    Its too early to tell what the ultimate results of 9/11 will be. Bin Laden might not have foreseen the rapid collapse of the Taliban in 2001, or the destruction of Al Qaida. The exact train of events that followed were unpredictable.

    Nevertheless, as a result of U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which never would have happened without 9/11, The U.S. position is much weaker. The Afghan insurgency that was expected in 2001 is happening now. Ironically, if it has started back then, the U.S. may have forgone its Iraq misadventure, leaving it in a better position today.

    And while I agree that most Muslims reject the Qaida nihilism and wanton murder, They are more conscious now about Western intervention and Israeli intransigence. They have rallied around resistance to these things. Public awareness of the complicity of their own governments (I’m talking to YOU Hosni M!!!) is greater than ever.

    Granted, Bin Laden would never have thought Shiite Hizbullah along with Iran, and the narrowly nationalistic Hamas would be the ones carrying the mantle of resistance. But there is nevertheless a growing sense in the Muslim world that the days of U.S.-and by extension Israeli-domination are numbered.

    None of this should be misinterpreted as any praise for that mass murderer. But I would say that by bringing out the worst in the Muslim world, he has revealed the worst of the Western world.

  4. Murphy says:

    To be honest, Tony, I’m not entirely sure that all ‘Muslims were so repulsed by the wanton killing of innocents’. I do think there was a significant element of schadenfreude among some (obviously not all, or even most) Muslims, particularly in parts of the Gulf and Pakistan.

    I do agree, however, that at the heart of Al Q’s failure is your statement:
    ‘Even among those who share much of bin Laden’s animus toward the U.S. and Israel, al-Qaeda has remained largely irrelevant, its strategy of global jihad rejected in favor of an Islamist radicalism focused on more limited national goals.’

    Very few Muslims are bohtered about re-establishing the Caliphate or ‘retaking’ Al Andalus or whatever. However, many of them care passionately about Palestine, Iraq or Kashmir. And they want to see real victories – whether military or political- not just pointless bloodshed. That’s why the likes of Nasrallah or even Ahemdinejad are so popular, whereas Bin Ladin is almost a forgotten man.

  5. jeff davis says:


    I suppose Tony’s got to pay his bills and feed his family, and Time stepped up to provide the paycheck, thus the article.

    But again, bleech! Eight years out, Osama is the clear winner, but Time won’t be paying anyone for that essay.

    “Mainstream Muslims” — who are they? — were repulsed by the wanton loss of innocent life? Really? No doubt they’ll say that if you point a tape recorder at them, but what do they think privately? Probably something like “The US got what it deserved. Too bad innocent people had to die, but, hey, payback’s a bitch. Now the Americans know how it feels. Pass the hummus, please.” Again, no Time magazine paycheck for that essay.

    So toss Tony’s little Kool-Aid piece, and check out the skinny:

    Osama wanted to attack the US.

    Mission Accomplished. Score: Osama 1, US 0.

    …in order to provoke the US into invading Afghanistan, and bled out like the Soviets (and British) before it.

    Mision Accomplished. Score Osama 2, US 0.

    Bush declared he would get Ossama; he didn’t.

    Mission not Accomplished. Score: Osama 3, US 0.

    Bush back-burner’s Afghanistan and, fueled by a pack of lies, plunges with breath-taking incompetence headlong into his Iraqi cluster-fuck. Osama smiles and praises Allah.

    Bush is a moron. Ten Special “Mission-not-Accomplished” bonus points.

    Score: Osama 13, US 0.

    Bush spends 5 years “doing” Iraq, and five years jerking off in Afghanistan: 5 + 5 = 10 points.

    Score: Osama 23, US 0.

    Under US protection, Shiites come to dominate Iraq, and begin love fest with Shiite Iran.

    Mission-so-not-Accomplished! Minus five points for Iran-o-phobic Sunni Osama, minus five points for Iran-o-phobic US.

    Score: Osama 18, US -5.

    Americans start shooting up Pakistan. Pakistanis start shooting each other at US behest. Incomprehensible shitstorm intensifies. Twenty-eight million Pakistani Pashtuns join their twelve million Afghan brothers in the “AfPak” war against the Americans.
    Osama gets 25 points.

    “Mission?, what mission”-so-not-acomplished. Osama smiles, and gives thanks to Allah.

    Score:Osama 43, US -5.

    US economy implodes. Five bonus points for Osama.

    Score: Osama 48, US -5

    George Bush leaves White house, Minus 25 points for Osama. Obama enters White House, continues Bush “weael” strategy in Iraq, 10 points for Osama, and with the Bushwar team still in place, commits to Afghanistan per Osama’s original plan, 50 points for Osama.

    Over the cliff and waiting for the end.

    Score: Osama 83, US -5.

    Going into the forth quarter, looking back at a record of utter failure on every front and forward to defeat and humiliation, it’s looking bad for the Golden City on the Hill.

    Consequently, this writer feels confident in “calling” the outcome of the contest.

    Osama wins. No paycheck from Time.


  6. This is a good half-article, but the second half is missing: Why the US also Lost. Given people’s general inclination to think in dialectic terms I fear they’ll read “Why Bin Laden” as some kind of victory for the US. As other commenters have noted, the US has fared miserably since 9/11. If al-Qaeda’s goals had been to push the US to gut its Constitution, publicly flout international law, wage aggressive war, destroy the Palestinian people, stir up anti-Muslim xenophobia and divert its economic fortunes to a bloated military-security state, then I’d suggest we run up the white flag, pack up the empire, and acknowledge a remarkable victory…

  7. David Seaton says:

    If Al Qaeda had done nothing else than 9-11, they would go down as the most spectacularly successful terrorist group of all time. The damage they have caused a panicky USA to do to itself has probably shortened the life of America’s empire by decades. As a previous commentator remarked, if that is failure, what would constitute success?

  8. syvanen says:

    I agree with most what you say Seaton, but 911 was the second most successful act of terrorism in the last century. Number 1 goes to Gavrilo Princip and Black September movement. That particular act set off a chain of events that led to destruction of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German empires not to mention the bankruptcy of the French and British empires. Now that was some blowback.

  9. Carroll says:

    30 minutes after I saw the WTC fall I said that Bush and congress would take us to war, make us despised around the world, ruin what little reputation the US had left, and bankrupt the nation.

    That’s exactly what happened.

    For all intents and purposes OBL won.

  10. sglover says:

    A simple cost-benefit calculation shows that the September 11 attacks must rank among the most successful military operations in history. ObL invested, at the very very most, perhaps a million dollars in the project. Its **immediate** economic effects were widely estimated to be around 100 BILLION. And thanks to the astonishing strategic idiocy of Bush and the neo-cons, the ultimate dollar costs will surely be in the TRILLIONS. (Tragically, Mr. Hope’n’Change seems determined to indulge in the same foolishness, though with some minor managerial and PR tweaks.)

    Of course, these are only the easily enumerated dollar costs. It’s not possible to attach a number to the decline in the United States’ strategic position, but that decline is steep. At a minimum, the trillion-dollar “defense” state-within-a-state has been shown up: It wasn’t capable of defending ANYTHING, when it was really necessary. The military has essentially been fought to a stalemate on TWO fronts. Our aura of competence and invincibility has taken a helluva beating, and one increasingly gets the sense that in most of the world the U.S. is something to work around, rather than with.

    Even the purely tactical goal of defeating the Taliban seems unlikely — and for much of the last eight years that was one of the few goals that could plausibly be described as feasible.

    Against all this, Al Qaeda proper isn’t flourishing, and the Caliphate is no closer. But of course Al Qaeda is merely a vehicle, and the Caliphate is never going to happen anyway. But the Kingdom of God hasn’t arrived, and the State hasn’t withered away — does that mean Christ and Lenin were washouts? I don’t think many folks would say so.

  11. Avi says:

    “The surest sign was the fact that from Cairo to Islamabad and Jakarta, Muslims were so repulsed by the wanton killing of innocents that they…”

    Not all of them


  12. gary says:

    osama was shrewd..he gave bush an excuse to be really stupid..not that bush needed too moch prodding in that area..and though obama is in hiding his actions and idiotic reaction by us have made a single attack into a world war that the gave the
    u.s. military an excuse to fight “terror” forever

  13. George Bush leaves White house, Minus 25 points for Osama. Obama enters White House, continues Bush “weael” strategy in Iraq, 10 points for Osama, and with the Bushwar team still in place, commits to Afghanistan per Osama’s original plan, 50 points for Osama.

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  16. Beauty says:

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