When the United States began its war on al Qaeda in September 2001, the objective was to destroy the group by eliminating its leadership, dislodging the group from Afghanistan, and preventing future al Qaeda terrorist operations. Americans also hoped to reduce the appeal of al Qaeda’s message, particularly among the populations the group targeted for recruitment and support. Washington viewed these goals as representing victory in the war on terror, or at least the war on al Qaeda.
This concept of victory against al Qaeda differed, however, from the group’s vision of its own defeat, and according to terrorism experts such as Peter Bergen, this critical disconnect continues to obscure whether the war is over.
The disparity resulted from several inextricable paradoxes, the first of which emerged early when the highly publicized term war unintentionally elevated al Qaeda’s stature to that of a state enemy. But since al Qaeda was not a traditional enemy, conventional concepts of defeating one’s foe through annihilation or attrition may never have fully applied to it.