As the sixth anniversary of 9/11 passed, the release of three tapes featuring Osama bin Laden reminded Americans of al-Qaida's savagery and persistence. Some may take comfort in the fact that al-Qaida thus far has been unable to repeat such destruction. But they shouldn't get too comfortable. Al-Qaida poses a multifaceted threat to the United States that stands to undermine more than just the physical security of Americans on their own soil.
Bin Laden's messages before and after 9/11 illustrate a calculated strategy within a total war doctrine: a military dimension aimed at killing Americans around the world, a financial dimension targeted at bleeding our country economically, and a political dimension designed to diminish our reputation and support around the world. We should recognize that by provoking the U.S. into costly wars of attrition and by separating us from our allies, al-Qaida can damage America without a single terrorist setting foot in this country.
Bin Laden believes that even if he fails to attack the United States, he can still defeat us. A winning strategy must therefore include not only a political solution in Iraq but also a comprehensive energy policy that cuts our dependence on foreign oil.
As a prominent businessman in Sudan and Saudi Arabia, bin Laden has a keen sense of the role economics plays in the strength of nations. In a videotaped appearance in October 2004, he emphasized the successful "scissor" strategy of asymmetric war and costly Soviet expenditures in Afghanistan that "bled Russia for 10 years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat." Expanding on this line of thought, he indicated that by goading America in Iraq, al-Qaida is "continuing this policy in bleeding America."
The United States is spending about $12 billion each month in Iraq. Total spending on the war over the past few years is about half a trillion dollars. Then there are the direct economic costs of the 9/11 attacks. Bin Laden meticulously enumerated these costs in a message delivered in December 2001. He measured the job losses, the impact on the federal budget deficit and the devastation to the stock market.
Inducing America toward self-inflicted budget deficits isn't bin Laden's only economic attack. He also aims to strike us at another of our weak points: our dependence on foreign oil. In 2006, the Department of Energy had to extend to 2030 - a postponement of 20 years - the projection for America to reduce its dependence on foreign oil by just 30 percent. And as bin Laden is well aware, much of the foreign oil we rely on can be found in countries where his message finds an eager audience.
Bin Laden has seized on this vulnerability and aimed his message directly at our addiction. He implores his comrades to "attack reinforcement lines and oil pipelines" and to "be active and prevent them from reaching the oil, and mount your operations accordingly, particularly in Iraq and the Gulf, for that will be the death of them." His followers have responded directly to such calls, attacking Saudi oil fields and promising further damage to energy infrastructure.
Politically, bin Laden seeks to accomplish what any savvy general would do: inspire and unify his base and divide and confuse his enemy. Recent comments by U.S. homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend that bin Laden is "virtually impotent" and simply spewing "propaganda" are wrong on both counts. We learned the hard way on 9/11 that jihadists can execute devastating plans from a cave. Bin Laden utilizes the Iraq war, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib to unite the Islamic and non-Islamic world against us.
In a recent video, bin Laden awkwardly attempts to turn Americans against each other, emphasizing domestic themes of corporate corruption and subprime mortgage problems. He also has been highly successful in recruiting and radicalizing small portions of the alienated population in Great Britain and, more recently, in Denmark and Germany.
In another of bin Laden's videos, he directly challenges Pakistanis to rise up and rebel against President Pervez Musharraf. While his second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, claims that the United States is losing in Iraq and Afghanistan, bin Laden sees a new window of opportunity opening in Pakistan. A poll of Pakistanis released by Terror Free Tomorrow in early September found that bin Laden had a 46 percent approval rating, while Mr. Musharraf's stood at 38 percent. A destabilized Pakistan is yet another al-Qaida threat to world security. And like the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, this one has profound military, economic and political consequences for the United States.
Six years ago today, we launched the war in Afghanistan in response to al-Qaida's attack on our nation. Regardless of when we see bin Laden again, it is essential for policymakers to effectively respond to his strategy in the world. The first crucial (and long overdue) step is understanding our enemy's complex plan. The Bush administration dismisses the messenger and generally elects to fight al-Qaida only on the military level. Presidential candidates have an obligation to articulate a balanced foreign policy and an opportunity to defeat bin Laden on the economic and political levels as well.
Former Rep. Tim Roemer, an Indiana Democrat, served on the 9/11 commission and is president of the Center for National Policy. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.