On Bin Laden
5 May, 2011
No blog about the Middle East would be complete without rampant speculation about what Osama Bin Laden’s death means for the region, so here’s my thoughts.
1. In recent years, intelligence figures alleged that OBL had shifted to more of a figurehead role instead of someone who was actively engaged in planning and executing attacks. This is an understatement- Bin Laden’s role in Al-Qaeda had ALWAYS been more of a symbolic figurehead than an actual plotter. So much of Al-Qaeda’s propaganda was built on this myth that Bin Laden was a legendary fighter who mustered an Arab army to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, when in actuality, his “Arab Afghans” (as they came to be known) fought only a series of limited engagements with only one real tactical success. (The bulk of the fighting- and dying- in Afghanistan was carried out by the predominantly Afghan insurgency.) The October 2000 attack on the USS Cole and the 9/11 plot were planned and organized by other Al-Qaeda operatives, notably Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, with Bin Laden signing off on operations and footing the bill for them. His role in Al-Qaeda was ostensibly its emir (commander/leader) but the actual organization itself was run by mostly Egyptian jihadists, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Saif al-Adel, a former officer in Egypt’s Special Forces. Bin Laden never really had the tactical or strategic competency to plan attacks- he just signed off on them as Al-Qaeda’s leader.
Similarly, Bin Laden’s death does absolutely nothing to change the threat posed by extremists. Groups like Al-Qaeda and its franchises will still continue to attack targets in their host countries and aspire to international attacks with varying degrees of success. If anything, Bin Laden’s death gives them a neat propaganda pretext to justify the next attempted underwear bombing, but if it hadn’t been Bin Laden, it would have been Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank/drone strikes in Pakistan/American support for Ali Abdullah Saleh/it rained on Tuesday. Al-Qaeda has already built up its rationale for attacking America, and Bin Laden’s death is a surprisingly less significant event for the operational, day-to-day life of terror organizations.
2. Bin Laden’s death is a nail in the coffin of Al-Qaeda’s main organization, but it pales in comparison to the dozens of nails and mounds of dirt heaped on by the revolutionaries in Tunisia, Egypt, and even Yemen. Islamic extremism has not played a significant role in any of the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring, which is incredibly damaging to Al-Qaeda’s propaganda. Events in Egypt were no doubt especially stinging to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who for years urged the Egyptian people to rise up and overthrow the Mubarak government. When they finally did so, it was under the banner of democracy and political liberalization- not the austere, extremist Islam so coveted by Zawahiri. Even in Yemen, where Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is strongest, Islamic extremism has not motivated the anti-government movement aimed at forcing out President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
3. Ayman al-Zawahiri will likely take total command over Al-Qaeda, which is sure to be a deeply polarizing event within the international jihadist movement. Fawaz Gerges goes into exquisite detail about why Zawahiri has long been a controversial figure in the jihadist movement in his excellent book, but in a nutshell, Zawahiri ran the Egyptian Islamic Jihad into the ground, bankrupted the organization, and only signed on with Bin Laden because he had cash. Taking jihad international was never really a popular move with jihadists, as they had their designs set on Cairo and Riyadh rather than Washington and New York.
Bin Laden’s death, while cathartic for the American people, really doesn’t change much in the present. We will continue to be at war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we will continue to carry on a covert campaign in Yemen. Jihadists will continue their attacks. The problems of today will continue to be the problems of tomorrow, but at least we can finally close the book on Osama Bin Laden after nearly ten years, hundreds of billions of dollars, and thousands of lives invested in his end. However, it is my sincere hope that killing Bin Laden will allow us to start thinking about what comes next, which I’m hoping translates into a more judicious, calculating application of US power abroad. This could be our opportunity to move beyond seeing the Islamic world through anything but the myopic lens of terrorism, and the first step towards moving beyond the past ten years. Here’s to hoping that the mood of national elation moves us towards cooler heads and saner judgements.