Usama bin Laden’s serendipitous demise has brought about calls for wholesale strategy reviews on issues related to the war against al Qaeda (AQ) to include debates on the US presence in Afghanistan and the efficacy of legal pursuit of terrorists. Although AQ leadership deaths are tactical victories, the network is down, but not out. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with heavy counter-terrorism pressure in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, have forced the movement’s brand to decentralize over a vast region spreading from West Africa to South Asia. AQ affiliates have managed to wrest minimal territory from so-called apostate governments but continue attack plotting against the West.
While our strategy has adjusted course (rightfully so) over the past decade since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the enemy’s has remained fairly consistent. Simply, AQ seeks to overturn authoritarian regimes in Muslim lands – the “Near Enemy” – in an effort to regain the prestige and power of former Islamic caliphates while attacking the “Far Enemy” with terrorism and economic warfare. An overlooked component of the strategy, and one that may not have been as clearly articulated by AQ leadership and others, is the role of the oceans in spreading its virulent brand of violent Islam.
AQ has enjoyed mixed success with maritime terror plots, with a notable exception being the October 2000 attack on USS Cole in Aden Harbor which killed seventeen US Navy Sailors. The desire of AQ’s senior leadership to disrupt global oil movement persists though, as revealed in the documents and media recovered from the assault on UBL’s compound. But does AQ have a more coherent maritime strategy? Some historical perspective is helpful in understanding the role of seapower in AQ’s planning and operations.