Eight years after September 11 attacks / Fighting on the terrorists' turf
September 11 has long since stopped being only the date of the attacks that shook America and the world. It is also not Ground Zero in the war of the People of the Light against the People of the Dark. After all, the U.S. war on Iraq began ten years earlier and the modern war in Afghanistan started in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded that country.
Even Al-Qaida, in its structure created by Osama bin Laden and cohorts, was not always an anti-American organization. Thousands of volunteers recruited by bin Laden acted alongside the Mujahideen to fulfill the American dream and kick the USSR out of the country. Bin Laden saw eye-to-eye with then-U.S. president Bush about the need to topple the heathen Saddam Hussein. Extremist Islamic organizations extracted a heavy price from Muslim countries even before the attack on the U.S.: 150,000 in Algeria, tens of thousands in Egypt and many thousands in other Arab and Muslim countries.
September 11 signified a strategic about-face in the war on terror. No more secretive intelligence war, quiet assassinations and reliance on local governments, but all-out war of a regular army against regimes. Toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam's Iraq regime and recently the non-violent battle against Syria are the new model adopted by the Bush administration.
Under that vision, these regimes were replaced by new, democratic regimes that could quickly replace the conquering army in the fight against terror organizations. But the results were far from the aspirations. The U.S. and international forces found themselves in a new reality, in which they were often forced to fight groups, tribes and ethnic populations, and interfere in complex local politics instead of focusing on destroying the organization. One of the most serious results is that the U.S. is now considered a conquering force and not a legitimate warrior against terror.
The extremist organizations, too, especially those aligned with Al-Qaida, quickly adopted an important strategic lesson: They no longer need to chase their targets overseas - the targets will come to them. But their success is not only measured in the number of foreign soldiers they kill, but also in the deeper they can mire the foreign forces in the mud of their homelands. They understand that as long as Afghanistan, Iraq and now also Yemen are unstable, the foreign forces will have trouble leaving their soil without declaring defeat.
This new strategic understanding was translated into restructuring. No more conglomerates of small organizations pinpointing carefully-chosen global targets, but the establishment of organized, well-equipped branches in each country: in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in North Africa, in the south of the Arabian peninsula and in Egypt. They created a new combat doctrine for urban territory and found willing recruits who either opposed the U.S., or opposed the local government, or identified ethnically or religiously with the cause. That is how Al-Qaida earned political recognition in some such countries, and undermined the local regimes' ability to harm pockets of Al-Qaida support.
Eight years after the terror attacks in the U.S., bin Laden himself is no longer a target. The strategic question facing the U.S. is not how to destroy terror but how to get out whole from the conquered territories, as the continued occupation continues to feed the reason for the extreme organizations' existence.