Peter Bergen, CNN's national security analyst and the last Westerner to interview Osama Bin Laden, said al-Qaida's 9/11 tactics were an "abject failure," and the terrorist organization was functionally dying long before Bin Laden was killed last year.
Bergen, a leading authority on terrorism, best-selling author, and director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation, made this argument during a visit to campus March 7.
"[9/11] looked like a huge victory for al-Qaida, but in fact it was a disaster," Bergen said.
Al-Qaida's goal for the terrorist attacks was to inflict enough pain on the United States to force it out of the Middle East, thereby eliminating its support of non-fundamentalist, autocratic regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Bergen said. By that measure, the tactic backfired completely, as it led to stronger U.S. engagement and two military interventions in the Middle East.
Furthermore, Bergen said al-Qaida was on a steady path to failure since 9/11 because it was, in essence, too radical for its own good. Most crucially, the terrorist organization alienated itself from much of the Muslim world by repeatedly targeting moderate Muslims in their attacks. "They made a world of enemies, which is never a winning strategy," Bergen said.
Al-Qaida refused to participate in standard political systems and offered no positive vision to the Muslim world beyond supporting Taliban-style theocracies. "Most Muslims don't want to live under the Taliban," Bergen said.
Though some recent developments are worrisome -- the resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq since American troops pulled out and the rise in "lone wolf," Yemeni and Pakistani Taliban terrorist activities -- according to Bergen, the imminent threat of terrorist violence should not be exaggerated.
"You're much more likely to die in your bathtub than in a terrorist attack," he said.
Bergen said the Obama administration has played a large role in reducing terrorist threats by continuing and scaling up many of former President George W. Bush's counter-terrorist methods. "I think [President Obama]'s been quite unexpected," he said. "It doesn't fit with our narrative of 'the weak on national security Democratic Party,' and our narrative of 'Nobel Peace Prize-winning Obama.'"
Bergen opined that "Obama has been given a free pass" by the Democratic left and human rights groups over these tactics. Nonetheless, they have been "effective," Bergen said, and have "decimated" al-Qaida's leadership.
Acknowledging that most people have heard of the difficulties in Afghanistan, Bergen said he wanted "to emphasize some positives." Foremost, he said, Afghans are simply better off on average today than at any time in the last 30 years. Afghan women are now free to leave their homes and receive an education, he continued, and eight times more children are in school than under the Taliban.
Afghans themselves, Bergen said, are much more optimistic about their future than Americans are.
"It is always easier to say 'the sky is falling,' because when the sky doesn't fall nobody remembers that. ... But I think there are elements of [Afghanistan] which are progressive and moving forward.
"The one thing [Afghans] are most concerned about is us turning off the lights and leaving," Bergen said.
Bergen's talk was organized by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and co-sponsored by the University Lectures Committee, the Department of Government and the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.
Paul Bennetch '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.