Although on September 11 Al Qaeda took its war to America and successfully flexed its military muscles by carrying out spectacular and coordinated attacks, success for Al Qaeda remains a distant dream, if not an illusion. It is arguable whether bin Laden possessed a strategic vision or a blueprint for the morning after. Debating the issue won't take us far because we cannot get into bin Laden's head. A more fruitful approach is to measure Al Qaeda's success or failure against its own expectations as stated in public pronouncements and internal messages. Taking stock of Al Qaeda's rhetoric and reality provides a balance sheet of breakthroughs and setbacks and enables us to critically reflect on the longterm viability of the bin Laden network.
Three sets of questions deserve special scrutiny. The first has to do with the impact of Al Qaeda's actions on the jihadi movement as a whole. To what extent have the attacks on the United States reinvigorated the jihadi movement and arrested entropy? Has the globalization of jihad stopped the internal rivalries and struggles that have roiled jihadis since the late 1990s, or has it exacerbated them further? Has gathering and merging together, as Zawahiri advocated, offered “a way out of the bottleneck” and ensured “success”? How did the majority of jihadis outside Afghanistan react to September 11? Did they join Al Qaeda's war against the far enemy, or did they attack bin Laden and Zawahiri for “declaring war on the entire world” without considering the international configuration of forces that would oppose them?