How Bin Laden outsmarted the U.S. and got what he wanted

American politicians and pundits still roll their eyes at the suggestion that Bin Laden was guided by a coherent long-term strategy to attack America with the aim of provoking U.S. attacks on Muslim countries, where the jihadists could bleed the Americans dry and eventually force them to withdraw, which would leave local pro-American rulers isolated and unprotected by their superpower patron, and which would in turn set off a subsequent chain of revolutionary events that would bend the arc of Arab history in his favor. The logic is too contradictory, and the thinking too long-term, for a polity that measures time in Internet news cycles. Except that’s exactly what Bin Laden foresaw—and exactly what has happened.

Bin Laden was never shy about explaining what he was doing and why. His public statements about his strategic logic and goals in targeting “the far enemy” remained remarkably consistent, from his first fatwa against America until the last letter he wrote before his death. In his 1996 “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” published soon after the Khobar Towers bombings in Saudi Arabia, he explained that “it is essential to hit the main enemy who divided the Ummah”—the Muslim world—“into small and little countries and pushed it, for the last few decades, into a state of confusion.”

America’s response to an attack would be to get sucked into a war, he predicted—and when the going got tough, the United States would cut and run. Responding to then-U.S. Defense Sec. William Perry, who had called the Khobar bombers cowards and had sworn not to give in, Bin Laden asked, “Where was this false courage of yours when the explosion in Beirut took place on 1983 AD (1403 A.H). You were turned into scattered pits and pieces at that time; 241 Marine soldiers were killed.”