Osama bin Laden and National Bankruptcy, Part 2


When he planned the 9/11 attacks, was Osama bin Laden’s goal to drag the United States into a series of endless wars that would bankrupt us? I said earlier that I was “a little skeptical of attempts to take this argument too far” because bin Laden’s statements to this effect all came well after 9/11. But Daveed Gartenstein-Ross tweets:

Re OBL not having economics in mind on 9/11, see his contemporary comments to Allouni, which I quote here: http://bit.ly/kf1vdx 

So I clicked:

Bin Laden’s strategy’s initial phase linked terrorist attacks directly to economic harm….In a wide-ranging interview conducted by Al Jazeera’s Taysir Allouni in the month following the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden spoke at length about the extent of the economic damage the attacks had inflicted. “According to [the Americans’] own admissions,” he said, “the share of the losses on the Wall Street market reached 16%. They said that this number is a record.”….Factoring in building and construction losses, along with lost productivity, he concluded that the cost to the United States was “no less than $1 trillion.”

But this is an entirely different thing. This is merely bin Laden bragging about the amount of damage caused by the 9/11 attacks themselves. It says nothing about whether his longer term goal was to draw the United States into ruinously expensive military adventures overseas and massive internal security overreactions at home.

Just to be clear: I agree that economic warfare was implicit in bin Laden’s thinking. (Likewise, Gartenstein-Ross agrees that America’s potential future insolvency is mostly the result of domestic politics, not the war against al-Qaeda.) I’d just be careful about inferring more than the evidence will bear here. The first time that bin Laden explicitly said that his strategy was to bleed the United States into bankruptcy was in 2004, after the United States had invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe that really was his intent all along. But it seems more likely that it was something he invented after the fact to make it look as if everything was going according to plan. It may have been one thread in his thinking, but I’m not sure you can say too much more than that about it.

FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: My take on al-Qaeda’s actions and motivations comes largely from Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower. And Wright does say that bin Laden “wanted to lure the United State into Afghanistan, which was already being called the graveyard of empires” (though he doesn’t source this contention). But bin Laden himself seemed to have more prosaic views, namely that the United States was inherently decadent and weak and would retreat from the Middle East if faced by a sufficiently determined jihadist guerrilla movement, and his #2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared to believe that striking the United States (and thus drawing the U.S. into battle) would serve primarily as a way of inspiring young jihadists to join the cause.

But I’m unquestionably no expert on this. Maybe there’s more evidence than I think that bin Laden’s strategy from the start was to bait the United States into spending itself into bankruptcy. I’d just like to hear a little more pre-9/11 evidence for this.

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