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The Death of bin Laden: Whither al-Qaeda?

03/05/2011

The announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death on May 1, 2011, marks the culmination of a more than decade-long effort to bring to justice the mastermind responsible for the death of countless men, women and children, including the very Muslims on whose behalf he claimed to act. Bin Laden’s finances, organizational skills, personal charisma and ruthlessness was contributed directly to the commission of terrorist acts. But it was the development of an ideology and narrative that is in many ways the most successful product dispensed by Al-Qaeda.

On Sunday night many celebrated; on Monday morning the question of what impact bin Laden’s death might have on Al-Qaeda and the threat posed by “transnational” or “global” terrorism gained greater currency. What made Al-Qaeda both innovative and lethal was its networked structure. While bin Laden undoubtedly provided charismatic inspiration to his followers, the organization had developed so that cells and “franchises” could undertake operations without direct linkages to the central leadership. More important, the takfiri ideology propagated by Al-Qaeda imposed an obligation of violent jihad on the individual and removed any of the traditional obligations which require permission from parents, elders or religious authorities. Indeed Al-Qaeda’s ideology even negated the prevalent view that the “greater jihad” lay in an individual’s quest for personal improvement, ethical living and a quest to live by the tenets of the faith. Consequently, the threat of violent action came – or comes – not only from Al-Qaeda and its acknowledged partners but from the individuals or “self-starter” groups it has inspired to act.

It is therefore no longer certain that bin Laden’s continued existence and a link to “Al Qaeda central” made a tangible difference to individuals or groups bent on using their ideology and tactics to address local or regional causes. Al-Shabab, fighting in Somalia, was praised by the central Al-Qaeda leadership but was not acknowledged as an Al-Qaeda “franchise” by the Quetta Shura. Nor was Faisal Shehzad’s attempt to set off a bomb in Times Square or the attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 branded an act of the central Al-Qaeda leadership. However, the latter case highlights the growing importance of Al-Qaeda’s “franchises” and figures like Anwar Awlaki, the US-born Yemeni cleric whose fluency in English and command over communications technologies like the Internet and YouTube who has been credited with inspiring several recent attempted attacks – including the Christmas Day attempt, the Fort Hood massacre and the attempt on British Parliamentarian Stephen Timms by a young woman only exposed to Awlaki’s sermons online.

Ironically, Awlaki has been cited as being rather negligible an influence among Arab audiences. Indeed, he is not even the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), deemed to be the most successful of Al-Qaeda’s regional franchises. That title belongs to Nasir Al-Wuhaiyshi, credited with reviving the regional incarnation of Al-Qaeda after a dramatic 2006 break from prison in Sanaa, Yemen, alongside 22 other detainees including his deputy, Said al-Shihri (rumored to have been killed in February), a graduate of Saudi Arabia’s extensive deradicalization program. Their rise to leadership represented the emergence of a younger, more radical and more confrontational group of jihadist militants capable of advocating and operationalizing international acts of terrorism, which also include the attempted assassination of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, responsible for Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism programs.

This is not to undermine the importance of Osama bin Laden. To his followers and supporters, he was more than a leader; he was a legend. His willingness to give up the material comforts provided by his wealthy family for a Spartan existence among comrades, and his apparent quest for spiritual purification, inspired devotion among those who felt he was challenging a corrupt establishment on their behalf. Though many believed he was fighting a “way of life” he was in fact fighting a highly political battle to effect change in his home country and throughout the Muslim world. Like a successful entrepreneur, he transformed a local concern into a transnational movement. Railing against modernity, bin Laden nonetheless utilized its tools with chilling effectiveness. Fighting the West, he nonetheless exploited its opportunities to further his cause. However, the blood, violence and economic stagnation that AQ’s brand of violence imposed on the very communities it purported to protect – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan – negatively impacted its popularity.

Al-Qaeda’s message faces a powerful challenge in the uprisings throughout the Middle East in the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011. In countries where the movements have been most successful to date, the mode of change has been peaceful protest, not violent jihad. The demands of the people have centered on jobs, education and services and civil liberties, not on the development of more restrictive theocratic regimes, though religion itself is likely to continue playing an important part in cultural, public and national life. Should these movements fail, they will deliver Al-Qaeda some powerful ammunition, allowing them to claim that secular democracy fails to produce the improvements citizens seek, that as long as secular leaders are in power, plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose. Nonetheless, the inability of terrorism and violent jihad to deliver the kinds of changes unfolding in the Arab world has dealt it a powerful blow from which it may not be able to recover.

Bin Laden’s death is therefore likely to compound an already negative trajectory for Al-Qaeda and the narrative it propagated that change can only come about through violence and bloodshed and that the lives of Muslims can only be improved through violent jihad. This is good news for the rest of the world. In fact, bin Laden’s popularity among his supporters is also good news, because it makes him more difficult to replace; decapitation strategies, or the elimination of an organization’s head, has been known to lead to the end of terrorist groups in the past. However, Al-Qaeda’s success is no longer tied to its organizational sustainability but to its ideology, which has gone viral. Would-be terrorists, “homegrown radicals,” “lone wolves,” “self-starter groups” have at their disposal manuals and tools for violence which can be utilized for a myriad of causes – witness Joseph Stack’s suicide attack using a plane against an IRS building in Austin, Texas. The coming weeks, months and possibly, years, will demonstrate whether Al-Qaeda has truly been successful or whether, like so many terrorist groups in history, it too will give way to a new group, with new causes, targets and tools.

This blog also appears on www.ipinst.org