Every European who flies frequently knows the airport in Zaventem, has spent time in the ticketing area that was strewn with blood, limbs, broken glass, battered luggage and other wreckage.
It was another attack on aviation that pulled the United States into the conflict sometimes known as the “global war on terror” in the first place. Since then, airports and airplanes have remained a constant target for Islamic militants, with travelers being encumbered by new batches of security measures after each new attack or attempt.
After the ex-con Richard Reid managed to sneak a bomb aboard a transatlantic flight in December 2001, but failed to detonate the explosives, American passengers were forced to start removing their shoes on their way through security. After British authorities foiled a 2006 plot in which terrorists planned to bring liquid explosives hidden in sports drink bottles aboard multiple transatlantic flights, authorities strictly limited the quantity of liquids passengers were allowed to carry. When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab snuck explosives hidden in his underwear onto a flight on Christmas Day 2009, he ushered in full-body scans and intrusive pat-downs.
Those are the misses. There have been hits, too. In August 2004, two female Chechen suicide bombers, so-called “black widows,” destroyed two domestic Russian flights. In January 2011, a suicide bomber struck Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in an attack that looked almost identical to the one that rocked the airport in Brussels: The bomber struck just outside the security cordon, where the airport is transformed from a “soft” target to a “hard” one. Just months ago, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS)—the perpetrator of the Brussels attacks—destroyed a Russian passenger jet flying out of Egypt’s Sinai, killing 224 people.
The targeting of airports and airplanes has been so frequent that in lighter times—back when the terrorists seemed so much worse at what they do—some pundits openly mocked their continuing return to airplanes and airports. In one representative discussion from early 2010, a well-known commentator described jihadists as having a “sort of schoolboy fixation” with aviation.
But the reason for this targeting, of course, is neither mysterious nor quixotic, and it’s one the jihadists have explained for themselves. Following the November Paris attacks, ISIS released an infographic boasting that its slaughter on the streets of Paris would force Belgium “to strengthen its security measures … which will cost them tens of millions of dollars.” Moreover, the group claimed, “the intensified security measures and the general state of unease will cost Europe in general and France in specific tends of billions of dollars due to the resulting decrease in tourism, delayed flights, and restrictions on freedom of movement and travel between European countries.”
And that was before the group successfully attacked the Brussels airport, despite those costly new security measures.
Even before 9/11, jihadists saw bleeding the American economy as the surest path to defeating their “far enemy.” When Osama bin Laden declared war against the “Jews and crusaders” in 1996, he emphasized that jihadist strikes should be coupled with an economic boycott by Saudi women. Otherwise, the Muslims would be sending their enemy money, “which is the foundation of wars and armies.”
Indeed, when bin Laden first had the opportunity to publicly explain what the 9/11 attacks had accomplished, in an October 2001 interview with Al Jazeera journalist Taysir Allouni, he emphasized the costs that the attacks imposed on the United States. “According to their own admissions, the share of the losses on the Wall Street market reached 16 percent,” he said. “The gross amount that is traded in that market reaches $4 trillion. So if we multiply 16 percent with $4 trillion to find out the loss that affected the stocks, it reaches $640 billion of losses.” He told Allouni that the economic effect was even greater due to building and construction losses and missed work, so that the damage inflicted was “no less than $1 trillion by the lowest estimate.”
In his October 2004 address to the American people, dramatically delivered just before that year’s elections, bin Laden noted that the 9/11 attacks cost al Qaeda only a fraction of the damage inflicted upon the United States. “Al Qaeda spent $500,000 on the event,” he said, “while America in the incident and its aftermath lost—according to the lowest estimates—more than $500 billion, meaning that every dollar of al Qaeda defeated a million dollars.”
Al Qaeda fit the wars the United States had become embroiled in after 9/11 into its economic schema. In that same video, bin Laden explained how his movement sought to suck the United States and its allies into draining wars in the Muslim world. The mujahedin “bled Russia for ten years, until it went bankrupt,” bin Laden said, and they would now do the same to the United States.
Just prior to 2011, there was a brief period when jihadism appeared to be in decline. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group that later became ISIS, had all but met with defeat at the hands of the United States and local Sunni uprisings. Successful attacks were few and far between.
Representative of those dark times for jihadists, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula released a special issue of its online magazine Inspire celebrating a terrorist attack that claimed no victims. In October 2010, jihadists were able to sneak bombs hidden in printer cartridges onto two cargo planes. Due to strong intelligence efforts, authorities disabled both bombs before they were set to explode, but the group drew satisfaction from merely getting them aboard the planes.
“Two Nokia phones, $150 each, two HP printers, $300 each, plus shipping, transportation and other miscellaneous expenses add up to a total bill of $4,200. That is all what Operation Hemorrhage cost us,” the lead article in that special issue of Inspire boasted. “On the other hand this supposedly ‘foiled plot’, as some of our enemies would like to call [it], will without a doubt cost America and other Western countries billions of dollars in new security measures.” The magazine warned that future attacks will be “smaller, but more frequent”—an approach that “some may refer to as the strategy of a thousand cuts.”
The radical cleric Anwar Al Awlaki, writing in Inspire, explained the dilemma that he saw gripping al Qaeda’s foes. “You either spend billions of dollars to inspect each and every package in the world,” he wrote, “or you do nothing and we keep trying again.”
Even in those days when the terrorist threat loomed so much smaller, the point was not a bad one. Security is expensive, and driving up costs is one way jihadists aim to wear down Western economies.
Unfortunately, al Qaeda’s envisioned world of smaller but more frequent attacks proved unnecessary for the jihadists. Less than two months after the special issue of Inspire appeared that celebrated an at best half-successful attack, the revolutionary events that we then knew as the Arab Spring sent shockwaves through the Middle East and North Africa.
This instability would help jihadism reach the current heights to which it has ascended, where the attacks are not only more frequent but larger. Unfortunately, the United States—blinded at the time by the misguided belief that revolutions in the Arab world would devastate the jihadist movement—pursued policies that hastened the region’s instability. The damages wrought by these policies are still not fully appreciated.
The silver lining to the jihadist economic strategy is that they, too, are economically vulnerable. The damage inflicted on ISIS’s “state” by coalition bombings and other pressures forced the group to slice its fighters’ salaries at the beginning of this year. But as al Qaeda watches its flashier jihadist rival carry out gruesome attacks on Western targets and get bombarded in return, it discerns further proof of the wisdom of its strategy of attrition.
As it watches these two sets of foes exhaust each other, al Qaeda believes that its comparative patience will pay off. It believes that its own time will come.