Bin Laden's Legacy

As the world comes to terms with the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, reflects on his legacy, and wonders what comes next, we are pleased to present this collection of articles from the Foreign Affairs archives, tracing in real time the evolution of bin Laden’s organization and the threat it has posed.

"License to Kill: Usama bin Ladin’s Declaration of Jihad." By Bernard Lewis. Foreign Affairs, November/December. (1998)
"Somebody Else’s Civil War." By Michael Scott Doran. Foreign Affairs, January/February. (2002)
"The Sentry’s Solitude." By Fouad Ajami. Foreign Affairs, November/December. (2001)

Al Qaeda emerged at the end of the 1980s and gathered strength during the 1990s. In 1998, bin Laden released a little-noticed declaration of war on the United States, decrying the U.S. presence in the Middle East and calling on Muslims to wage jihad against Americans. Writing just months after the declaration was released, Bernard Lewis called it a distortion of Islam but noted that some Muslims would agree with bin Laden -- and, he warned, "terrorism requires only a few." Three years later, in a classic article written just after the 9/11 attacks, Michael Doran described what the attackers were thinking, explaining that the United States had become entangled in a "civil war" between extremists and moderates for influence over the world’s Muslims. And Fouad Ajami argued that the United States should not have been surprised that U.S. primacy in the Middle East "begot its own nemesis."

"A Flawed Masterpiece." By Michael E. O’Hanlon. Foreign Affairs, May/June. (2002)
"The Protean Enemy." By Jessica Stern. Foreign Affairs, July/August. (2003)
"Is There Still a Terrorist Threat? The Myth of the Omnipresent Enemy." By John Mueller. Foreign Affairs, September/October (2006)
"Are We Safe Yet?" By Paul R. Pillar, Fawaz A. Gerges, Jessica Stern, James Fallows, and John Mueller. ForeignAffairs.com, (September 7, 2006)

Within weeks of 9/11, the United States was battling al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In his analysis of the Afghan campaign, Michael O’Hanlon noted that much about the war had gone well, but worried about one potentially ominous problem -- the failure to catch or finish off bin Laden and the group's core leadership. Sure enough, a year later Jessica Stern noted that al Qaeda’s apparent flexibility and ever-shifting alliances had made it more dangerous than ever. By 2006, bin Laden had not managed to carry out another successful attack and experts were sharply divided over just how much of a threat his organization continued to pose. John Mueller questioned whether al Qaeda’s ability to strike the United States had been completely degraded, and a roundtable of experts including Paul Pillar, Fawaz Gerges, Jessica Stern, and James Fallows hotly debated his skepticism.

"Al Qaeda Strikes Back." By Bruce Reidel. Foreign Affairs, May/June (2007)
"The Myth of Grass-Roots Terrorism: Why Osama bin Laden Still Matters." By Bruce Hoffman. Foreign Affairs, May/June (2008)
"Does Osama Still Call the Shots? Debating the Containment of al Qaeda’s Leadership." Marc Sageman and Bruce Hoffman. Foreign Affairs, July/August (2008)
"How al Qaeda Works: What the Organization’s Subsidiaries Say About Its Strength." Leah Farrall. Foreign Affairs, March/April (2011)

In the later years of the decade, the jihadist threat seemed to reemerge and mutate. By neglecting the war in Afghanistan to fight in Iraq, argued Bruce Riedel, the George W. Bush administration allowed al Qaeda to regroup, with the organization gaining a "solid base of operations in the badlands of Pakistan and an effective franchise in western Iraq." The precise relationship of the group’s "core" and "franchises," however -- and the relative threat posed by each -- became a subject of much dispute. Reviewing Marc Sageman’s book Leaderless Jihad, Bruce Hoffman took issue with the argument that al Qaeda was now primarily a grass-roots organization and made the case that defeating it would require "continuing to kill or capture senior al Qaeda leaders." Sageman replied that al Qaeda did indeed revolve around "radical 'bunches of guys'." In her article this spring, finally, Leah Farrall traced the evolution of al Qaeda’s structure as it sought to develop subsidiaries across the Arab world, from the Maghreb to Iraq to Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Stay tuned to Foreign Affairs for still further updates.