A second aspect of bin Laden's experience in the Afghan-Soviet war that influenced his strategic understanding of his fight against America was the breadth of the anti-Russian resistance. The Soviet invasion outraged the Muslim world, including heads of state, clerics, the Arab media, and the man on the street. In January 1980, Egypt's prime minister called it "a flagrant aggression against an Islamic state." By the end of the month, the foreign ministers of 35 Islamic countries, as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization, passed a resolution through the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) holding the invasion to be a "flagrant violation of all international covenants and norms, as well as a serious threat to peace and security in the region and throughout the world." The Soviet-installed regime in Afghanistan was expelled from the OIC, the delegates of which urged all Muslim countries "to withhold recognition of the illegal regime in Afghanistan and sever diplomatic relations with that country until the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops." On Jan. 30, 1980, the Christian Science Monitor described this condemnation of Soviet actions as "some of the strongest terms ever used by a third-world parley."
The stream of Arabs who flocked to South Asia to help the Afghan cause -- about 10,000 in total, according to Mohammed Hafez, an associate professor in the Naval Postgraduate School's National Security Affairs Department -- was a testament to the widespread outrage caused by the invasion. Hafez has written, "They included humanitarian aid workers, cooks, drivers, accountants, teachers, doctors, engineers and religious preachers. They built camps, dug and treated water wells, and attended to the sick and wounded." There was of course also a contingent of Arab fighters, of which bin Laden became a part. But the volunteers who went to the theater were not the only Arabs to support the Afghan resistance. The Afghan jihad was also aided by a donor network known as the "golden chain," whose financiers came primarily from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states.
Essentially, bin Laden sat at the top of a major multinational organization during the Afghan-Soviet war. Its members included fighters, aid workers, and other volunteers. It enjoyed a significant media presence, external donors, and widespread support. And when al Qaeda later engaged in a global fight against America, bin Laden and his companions similarly understood the media and the struggle for sympathy and allegiance throughout the Muslim world as crucial battlefields. In a 2005 letter to al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, bin Laden's deputy Ayman al Zawahiri noted that "more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media." Zawahiri said that when it comes to attaining the caliphate, one of al Qaeda's overarching goals, "the strongest weapon which the mujahidin enjoy, after the help and granting of success by God, is popular support from the Muslim masses."
Had American strategists understood from the outset these twin strategic perceptions, they might have been able to avoid some early costly blunders. But it is not apparent that American planners clearly saw the link between al Qaeda's war and the U.S. economy even after bin Laden boasted of it on the world stage. Moreover, had U.S. officials understood al Qaeda's goal of broadening its fight against the United States, they might have raised more objections to the invasion of Iraq, which created a far broader battlefield for America.
These twin pillars of al Qaeda's strategy have not died with Osama bin Laden. Rather, they permeate the organization and its affiliates. To comprehend this, one need look no further than Inspire, the English-language magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP), the group's Yemen affiliate. A special issue of the publication released in November 2010 commemorated a plot that managed to place pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) bombs inside printer cartridges that were flown on FedEx and UPS planes. The issue outlined the great disparity between what the plot cost the terrorists and what it cost their enemies -- a $4,200 price tag for AQAP versus, in the magazine's estimation, a cost of "billions of dollars in new security measures" for America and other Western countries.
In fact, Inspire warned that future attacks would be "smaller, but more frequent," an approach that "some may refer to as the strategy of a thousand cuts." In this strategic vision, the fact that the ink cartridge plot killed nobody did not mean that it had failed: Rather, AQAP's ability to get the disguised explosives aboard planes, and thus significantly drive up the West's security costs, made the plot a success. This illustrates AQAP's embrace of bin Laden's vision of economically undermining America, as he thought he had done to the Soviet Union.