Essentially, bin Laden sat at the top of a major multinational organization during the Afghan-Soviet war. Its members included fighters, aid workers, and other volunteers. It enjoyed a significant media presence, external donors, and widespread support. And when al Qaeda later engaged in a global fight against America, bin Laden and his companions similarly understood the media and the struggle for sympathy and allegiance throughout the Muslim world as crucial battlefields. In a 2005 letter to al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al Zawahiri noted that “more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.” Zawahiri said that when it comes to attaining the caliphate, one of al Qaeda’s overarching goals, “the strongest weapon which the mujahidin enjoy, after the help and granting of success by God, is popular support from the Muslim masses.”
Had American strategists understood from the outset these twin strategic perceptions, they might have been able to avoid some early costly blunders. But it is not apparent that American planners clearly saw the link between al Qaeda’s war and the U.S. economy even after bin Laden boasted of it on the world stage. Moreover, had U.S. officials understood al Qaeda’s goal of broadening its fight against the United States, they might have raised more objections to the invasion of Iraq, which created a far broader battlefield for America.
These twin pillars of al Qaeda’s strategy have not died with Osama bin Laden. Rather, they permeate the organization and its affiliates.