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Comment & Analysis - May 03, 2011

The Death of Bin Laden: Whither al-Qaida?

The announcement of Osama bin Laden's death on May 1, 2011, marks the culmination of an almost 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. But while bin Laden's combination of finances, organizational skills, personal charisma, and ruthlessness led directly to the commission of terrorist acts, it was the development of an ideology and narrative that is in many ways the most successful product dispensed by al-Qaida.

Along with the celebrations that greeted news of his death came immediate questions about what impact bin Laden’s death might have on al-Qaida and the threat posed by "transnational" or "global" terrorism.

What made al-Qaida both innovative and lethal was its network structure. While bin Laden undoubtedly provided inspiration to his followers, the organization had developed in such a way that cells and "franchises" could undertake operations without direct links to the central leadership. More importantly, the takfiri ideology propagated by al-Qaida imposed an obligation of violent jihad on the individual and removed traditional obligations requiring permission from parents, elders, or religious authorities.

Indeed, al-Qaida’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-Qaida and its acknowledged partners, but also 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-Qaida 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-Qaida leadership but was not acknowledged as an al-Qaida "franchise" by the Quetta Shura. Nor was Faisal Shehzad's attempt to set off a bomb in Times Square or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 branded an act of the central al-Qaida leadership.

The latter case highlights the growing importance of al-Qaida's "franchises" and figures like Anwar Awlaki, the US-born Yemeni cleric whose fluency in English and command over communication technologies like the Internet and YouTube have been credited with inspiring several recent attempted attacks––including the Christmas Day attempt, the Fort Hood massacre, and the attempt on the life of British Parliamentarian Stephen Timms by a young woman exposed to Awlaki's sermons only online.

Interestingly, Awlaki has been cited as merely a negligible influence among Arab audiences. Indeed, he is not even the leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), deemed to be the most successful of al-Qaida's regional franchises. That title belongs to Nasir Al-Wuhaiyshi, credited with reviving the regional incarnation of al-Qaida after a dramatic 2006 break from prison in Sanaa, Yemen, alongside twenty-two 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 apparent 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 al-Qaida's brand of violence imposed on the very communities it purported to protect––in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan––led to a decline in its popularity.

Al-Qaida's message faces a powerful challenge in the uprisings throughout the Middle East during 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 lapse, they will deliver al-Qaida some powerful ammunition, allowing it 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-Qaida 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; the decapitation strategy, or the elimination of an organization's head, has been known to lead to the end of terrorist groups in the past.

However, al-Qaida'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," and "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 February 2010 suicide attack using a plane against an IRS building in Austin, Texas. The coming weeks, months, and, possibly, years, will demonstrate whether al-Qaida 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.

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